August 13, 2008
Scripps Researcher Sees Mass Ocean Extinctions On Horizon

Jeremy Jackson sees a downward spiral in the health of the world's oceans.

Human activities are cumulatively driving the health of the world's oceans down a rapid spiral, and only prompt and wholesale changes will slow or perhaps ultimately reverse the catastrophic problems they are facing.

Such is the prognosis of Jeremy Jackson, a professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, in a bold new assessment of the oceans and their ecological health. Publishing his study in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Jackson believes that human impacts are laying the groundwork for mass extinctions in the oceans on par with vast ecological upheavals of the past.

Many forms of environmental damage are acting synergistically to cause a greater impact.

He cites the synergistic effects of habitat destruction, overfishing, ocean warming, increased acidification and massive nutrient runoff as culprits in a grand transformation of once complex ocean ecosystems. Areas that had featured intricate marine food webs with large animals are being converted into simplistic ecosystems dominated by microbes, toxic algal blooms, jellyfish and disease.

Jackson, director of the Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, has tagged the ongoing transformation as "the rise of slime." The new paper, "Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean," is a result of Jackson's presentation last December at a biodiversity and extinction colloquium convened by the National Academy of Sciences.

The nutrient run-off from farms will get worse as more farms automate in response to high world food prices and growing demand from industrializing countries. The same will happen with overfishing. More countries need to impose more severe restrictions on fishing.

Jackson sees 3 main drivers of this coming ecological disaster.

To stop the degradation of the oceans, Jackson identifies overexploitation, pollution and climate change as the three main "drivers" that must be addressed.

"The challenges of bringing these threats under control are enormously complex and will require fundamental changes in fisheries, agricultural practices and the ways we obtain energy for everything we do," he writes.

If we slowed, stopped, and reversed human population growth that would greatly reduce the strain on the oceans. But even a shrinking population that is rapidly industrializing (e.g. China) will put a growing strain on the environment. We also need for developing countries to put a greater priority on controlling pollution. But they are far more interested in raising their living standards.

The world faces a big problem with China's industrialization in particular. The US industrialized with a much smaller population than it has now. So it went through its dirtiest stage with perhaps an eighth or tenth of China's current population. To have a country as big as China industrialize and go through its most polluting stage with so many people means a massive scale of pollution. Add in India, south east Asia, and other industrializing areas and the quantities of pollutants going into the atmosphere and oceans exceeds the pollution from European and American industrialization and comes up top of the remaining quantities of pollutants still emitted in the West.

I expect world pollution to get much worse before it gets better.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 13 08:50 PM  Trends Extinction

James Bowery said at August 13, 2008 10:09 PM:

I expect world pollution to get much worse before it gets better.

So, how would you rate the accuracy of the World3-2003 model by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows and Jrgen Randers?

Mama73 said at August 14, 2008 6:10 AM:

O.K., I get a little worried when people start spouting off "Climate change did this!" Its the defacto explanation for everything and I think potentially hides the real causes.

Here is another interesting article on the study:

If you read closely you'll notice that the jury is still out on whether destruction of coral reefs is largely due to global changes or to local human populations. And even when local human populations are the most likely culprit they don't know whether it is due to overfishing or increased nutrient levels in the area (could it be BOTH?)

I wonder what the people at Scripps would say to GM modified crops that would require less fertilizer...

marguerite manteau-rao said at August 14, 2008 9:10 AM:

A fourth driver is the lack of environmental education, to help the public become more aware. Case in point: I have been blogging intensively for the past year about all green matters, and only recently started paying attention to this issue. Biodiversity is getting lost in all the noise around climate change and energy dependence:

Brett Bellmore said at August 14, 2008 1:26 PM:

"The nutrient run-off from farms will get worse as more farms automate"

I doubt this: Nutrient run-off is, above all else, inefficient; You're paying for nutrients for your plants that leave your farm rather than being taken up by them. The trend in farming today is towards localized soil analysis and fertilizing only as needed.

It's to be expected that, as farming becomes even more high tech, run-offs will decline, because farmers won't want to pay for fertilizer that ends up washed away.

Mookie said at August 14, 2008 1:45 PM:

It may be that the pollution is in the mindset. You see it because you expect to see it. It's a variant of selection bias. In the professor's case, it helps him get grants.

CJ said at August 14, 2008 3:18 PM:

If we slowed, stopped, and reversed human population growth ...

What do you mean if? That's happening right now. All serious demographers expect world population to peak by the middle of this century and then begin to fall. You didn't know this? Maybe your local newspaper didn't have space left after all the global warming panic stories, so here's a link:

The Global Baby Bust

Randall Parker said at August 14, 2008 6:29 PM:

marguerite manteau-rao,

I've been complaining that the focus on global warming is so single-minded that real clear obvious environmental disasters with much shorter timelines are getting ignored. When rain forest destruction gets reported it often gets reported in terms of CO2 released. Well, what about the actual loss of the forest and the animals and plants that lived in it.

Human population growth also gets ignored.


Oh, so population peaks in 50 years and so the problem is getting handled? We need population to peak now.

Also, in some countries that baby bust is not happening and total fertility rates have risen. I've written about this on a couple of occasions.

Also, in any population with a low fertility rate there is not a single low rate for all women. Some are having more babies even in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea. Those women still having 3 or 4 babies are getting their beliefs and genes selected for. Their kids are more likely to have more babies. Natural selection will eventually raise fertility even in countries with very low fertility now.

Brett Bellmore,

When I say automation I include the use of fertilizer. More farms will use fertilizer. So there'll be more fertilizer to run off. The only thing I can see preventing that is a rapid decline in oil and natural gas production.

Larry said at August 15, 2008 4:58 PM:

Population isn't going to peak right away.

Pollution is going to increase until the rest have risen and starts to care about it. You can see a few signs - e.g., Beijing is outlawing coal for home heating this winter.

We aren't going to change quickly enough to stop climate change.

These are givens.

The only interesting question is how to speed up the new technology that can ameliorate the impacts of these changes. The key is energy. We need nuclear, solar, and smart bio energy with better storage techniques. With cheap energy, we can fix the other problems - if we hurry.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright