Marine Science students | Sustainability and conservation

Post by Ivan Hernandez MSc in Marine Science and Climate Change student

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The environment is at the top of many people’s concerns these days and with good reason. Society seems to have woken up to the fact that we need to take care of our environment; mainly our land and the air, but the sea many times gets overlooked.

Learning about what goes on in our oceans, from marine biology, oceanography, to learning about sustainability and conservation, and tying this to a world that has human-induced climate change is what the master’s course in Marine Science and Climate Change is all about.

Part of the learning process is how to effectively communicate in different formats. Infographics can be very effective in communicating specific topics in a factual and simple manner; they work because they visually tell a story. As part of our course we had to produce infographics on different threats to the marine environment. It really is not as easy as it may seem to convey the essence of a subject in graphic form of what could be told in a long-written article. Infographics work very well in social media, an inescapable tool of communication these days, as it tells a story at a glance.

Another method of communication is that of the scientific poster, which has a more targeted and specific audience, mainly peers. It is another type of visual representation of what a scientific paper or article could be. This must be able to convey findings in A0 format from about 2 metres away. We had to do a poster for the Oceanography module which was a real challenge and I did mine on how the Antarctic Oscillation affects changes in primary production in the Southern Ocean. This was a much wider ranging and complex topic than I had anticipated, but the research piqued my interest in a related area, that of ocean acidification. This was the topic I chose for another assignment and another form of scientific communication – a stakeholder video explaining the process and consequences of ocean acidification.

Our planet is covered by water in 71% of its surface. The oceans have absorbed 40% of all our CO2 emissions since the industrial revolution but despite this, temperatures are set to hit 1.5C over pre-industrial levels by 2030.

Aside from warmer temperatures, increasing CO2 levels make the sea more acidic, but in turn becomes more resistant to absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere in a positive feedback loop. More acidic seas also hinder the growth of phytoplankton, molluscs, echinoderms (sea stars and sea urchins), corals and other organisms that use calcium carbonate (what shells are made of) to grow. Calcium carbonate dissolves more readily in more acidic environments.

Phytoplankton, tiny microscopic unicellular organisms that photosynthesise and produce much of the oxygen we breathe, are at base of all marine food chains. It is also food for other plankton which in turn are food for fish and may other larger organisms. If phytoplankton cannot grow, food chains risk collapsing.

Additionally, when phytoplankton dies it forms a continuous rain of calcium carbonate that sinks to the ocean floor and over millions of years forms limestone and other carbonaceous rocks, where carbon is locked away for hundreds of millions of years. Weathering of these rocks starts the whole process again of getting calcium carbonate back into the ocean to be used by organisms.
The sea has a retarding effect but also responds to change in a much slower way than we would hope. The answer lies in drastically reducing our CO2 emissions, and allowing the sea to do its job and remove it from the atmosphere. Even then, the damage to the ocean will continue to worsen before it gets better. Ocean acidification means life as we know it will continue changing for the worse, with not only a reduction in biomass but also a drastic reduction in biodiversity.

What happens in the sea has a direct effect on all our lives. Unfortunately, it will only become painfully apparent when it is too late.

Video by Ivan Hernandez