Killing the ocean

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There’s just so much of it out there, it’s hard to believe that anything could really be so globally wrong.

First, though, there’s a sign on the road to the Cape St. Francis light that is its own short cautionary tale. The sign warns that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans only maintains the road to four-wheel drive standards, an admission that potholes, sharp hills of loose gravel and other driving considerations await.

It is, in fact, not an impossible road, and if you take it to its very end, it’s worth the workout for your suspension. You can park out near the locked gates to the light and scramble up over the loaf of domed rock to pretty much the most northerly point on the Avalon Peninsula, plunk yourself down among the partridgeberry and the hanging-on, ledged juniper, and look down 80 feet or more to the sea.

And what a sea.

To your left, it sweeps into a deep bay on the back of the cape, heavy swells thrown in against the rough rock, building a spinning cap of foam from its efforts. Straight out in front, the waves make their way around a stone spit and into a deep and active little pool. At one end, the water is still broken and choppy, but as it forces its way deeper and the pool narrows — small from above, but larger than a couple of swimming pools — it calms and flattens, and the water becomes so clear that, even from that far up, you can make out the clusters of mussels, the white and purplish thin skein of rock coral where the water doesn’t recede, and you can imagine the huge numbers of barnacles and whelks and periwinkles that must dot that wet and kelp-laden ocean forest, everything there both feeding and food, all parts of an incredibly complex web of interconnected life.


We’re used to hearing the necessity of carbon to Earth’s life, that important little atom that builds our animal world.

But the sea has a great dependence on another element as well, and that’s calcium: mussels and whelks and periwinkles and coral all need it, either for their exoskeletons or for their internal structures. And that’s just the beginning.

It runs right down to the plankton, too. Scores of the microscopic life forms that feed fish and anemones and everything else depend on calcium for their casings and spines and structures. It’s a tight balance. Calcium has to both be available and be able to stand up to the ocean’s rigours. Storms and tides and predators are bad enough; a bigger problem is how easily calcium breaks down as water becomes more acidic.

The International Program on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) published its State of the Oceans report on Thursday, and if you want big numbers, these are huge.

The acid age

The IPSO’s global monitoring data shows that the world’s oceans are now — right now — more acidic than they have been in 300 million years. And that acidity is increasing regularly as a result of uncontrolled carbon dioxide emissions being absorbed into the ocean.

Oceans are so big that they are great climate control system. In this province, they keep our summers cooler and our winters warmer than they would be otherwise, but that huge sink of water also can absorb a lot. Not just heat, but waste, CO2, salt, silt — and the list goes on.

But — based on the geological record — the most acidic ocean water in 300 million years? That is both astounding and alarming.

Here’s what IPSO says about the situation; “This (acidification) is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun.”

Not only that, but if we decided to change course now, we’re fighting against a considerable lag time: it takes decades to effect a change on oceans. If we managed to reduce CO2 emissions now, the oceans would still get more acidic for something like the next 20 years.

Remember that old saying “Daddy, what’s a train?”

How about “Daddy, what’s a mussel?”

Right now, the waves roll in at Cape St. Francis just like they always have. Your eyes run quickly over a fecund ocean world practically stuffed to bursting with life, despite the hardships imposed by the North Atlantic.

But change is coming.

You certainly couldn’t see it from so far up. On the pillowed rock at the end of the Avalon, the sea looks exactly the same as it did 20 or even 30 years ago.

The signs aren’t wrong, even if we want to pretend they are. Acidity is a simple measure, a one-step lab test that is absolutely definitive and that could be done by any interested high school chemistry student. We just choose to ignore the facts.

It’s a rocky road ahead, all right. And a four-wheel drive isn’t going to help.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

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Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    October 05, 2013 - 08:37

    Russell, I read your piece on my laptop, and just a few lines down, I say to myself, this is Russell's writing. It is good and familiar, and you write on subject every few months. When I get to the bottom, I see your name, as no surprise. Yet , if we chose to ignore the facts, as we do, we also promote the destruction you describe. The Telegram Cheers and Jeers recently suggested we should toast the discovey of new oil reserves on our offshore. What is a reserve will soon be extracted and burned and lead to more acid in the ocean, isn't this so? And we burn 100 million dollars worth of oil at Holyrood per year that, over a decade could be reduced to also zero at a cost of 50 million per year in efficiency improvements to our household heating systems. To highlight the problem , as you do is good, but to promote a solution is gooder, lets say. Russell, why not be gooder? Have some backbone and promote a solution.