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Do oceans need their own climate policy?

Ecotrope | Sept. 7, 2010 1:45 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:46 p.m.

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As scrutiny of international climate leaders mounts, Oregon State University will host a panel discussion Friday on whether oceans deserve more attention in international climate policy-making.

As scrutiny of international climate leaders mounts, Oregon State University will host a panel discussion Friday on whether oceans deserve more attention in international climate policy-making.

Lots happening on the climate front already this week. I read with interest about an investigation of the International Panel on Climate Change. Apparently, according to the independent auditor InterAcademy Council, even Nobel Peace Prize winners aren’t perfect.

The Council concluded that IPCC needs to change some of its procedures and policies to acknowledge minor errors and accommodate uncertainty and opposing viewpoints. But the auditor did not challenge the notion that climate change is real and very likely being caused by people.

That brings us to a couple other climate news items:

  1. A new report from a federal science council concludes coastal dead zones (low-oxygen patches of water that suffocate marine life) are on the rise in the Northwest and across the U.S. And that climate change may be aggravating them.
  2. Oregon State University is hosting a conference on Friday exploring the question of whether oceans need their own climate policy. Some say international climate policy-making to date is too focused on atmospheric issues to directly address climate-related problems in the ocean such acidification and low dissolved oxygen levels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concluded that algae blooms eating oil from the Deepwater Horizon gusher have not increased dead zones in the Gulf. But the agency also warns of an upward trend in dead zones in all U.S. coastal waters – including those in the Northwest, which is now home to the second-largest seasonal hypoxic (low-oxygen i.e. “dead”) zone in the U.S. and the third largest in the world.

In the past 20 years, the Pacific coast has seen a sixfold increase in the number of hypoxic sites; 37 areas on the West Coast are now having low-oxygen problems.

Fertilizer runoff, sewage discharges and air pollution are major contributors to the dead zones, the report concluded. Urban and suburban landscapes share the blame. Algae feed off the pollution, and the bacteria that eat the algae blooms deplete oxygen levels in the water. Without oxygen, marine creatures that can’t swim away fast enough – crab and other shellfish, for example - suffocate. The report also notes that climate change may be causing or exacerbating the problem.

“The discovery of a new seasonal hypoxic zone off the coast of Oregon and Washington that may be linked to a changing climate emphasizes the complexity of this issue,” said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco.

Are international climate leaders doing enough to address the impacts of climate change on the oceans? Will oceans need their own separate policies - in addition to atmosphere-related rules? Oregon State University oceanographer Jack Barth will moderate a discussion panel on the issue in Eugene on Friday as part of a conference on climate change.

“The ocean scientific community would really like to see more focus on the oceans in international discussions concerning climate change,” Barth said. “Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol were atmospheric-centric when it comes to looking at climate change impacts, mitigation and policy needs.

“The discussion on ocean impacts rarely goes beyond the simplistic, which is to say that as the planet warms, sea level will rise. But there are a number of other issues out there including ocean acidification, decreasing dissolved oxygen levels, increasing wave heights and vulnerable marine ecosystems.

“There also is a growing need for marine spatial planning and siting, which has major implications for the Pacific Northwest, as we wrestle with maintaining fisheries while trying to accommodate wave energy, marine reserves and other needs.”

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