Thursday, August 02, 2007

Deep doo-doo

This morning it was reported that the Russians have planted a flag 4,200m (14,000ft) below the North Pole (see also The Arctic is Russian and my post Winners and losers from climate change). It's another reminder of the scale of what's happening in the deep seas, some of which is well summarised in Cindy Lee Van Dover's review of The Silent Deep by Tony Koslow (in Science 20 July 2007) extracted here:
Our dilemma is squarely before us in Koslow's chapter on climate change and the deep sea. As the climate warms, deepwater circulation patterns change, increased carbon dioxide levels acidify the ocean, patterns of primary productivity at the surface reorganize, and methane-hydrate deposits shift to new equilibrium states. There is little doubt that these and other climate-induced changes will affect deep-ocean life, but the manners in which effects will be expressed are nearly impossible to predict or to document because we have scant understanding of how deep-sea ecosystems operate in the first place. While we have all but abandoned the view that deep-sea organisms are exquisitely adapted to a stable and unvarying environment, we have only a modest understanding of physiological tolerances of organisms and ecological responses of populations and ecosystems to changes in basic parameters like temperature, oxygen content, pH, current regimes, and food supply.

We wonder at the strange animals captured in deep-sea trawls, revel in the unsuspected diversity of life dwelling in the cold muds of the seafloor, and celebrate the beauty of deepsea hot springs and cold-water coral reefs. Dramatic deep-sea discoveries unfold year after year, but Koslow reminds us that this "pristine" ocean wilderness is being trampled by the insidious "human footprint across the deep sea": the seabed suffers a nightmarish legacy of tens of thousands of merchant ships sunk and rotting on the seabed, hundreds of thousands of tons of military ordnance scuttled in deep water, millions of curies of radioactive waste and 17 nuclear reactors dumped at depth with no attempt at containment, and residual DDT and PCBs accumulating in deep-sea food chains...

...We are on the cusp of engaging in commercial activities that have the potential of exerting substantial impacts on the quality of deep-ocean ecosystems; there is only a brief window of opportunity for setting policy in place before habitats are compromised. Such policy, internationally sponsored and international in scope, can be holistic and precautionary, rather than a reaction to environmental catastrophe. A forward-thinking approach has immense advantage over negotiating and implementing policy after financial capital is invested, wilderness resources consumed, and habitats destroyed. Koslow provides us with a report on the current status of the ocean depths. Now is the time to chart a path toward rational conservation strategies and sustainable resource uses that acknowledge and accommodate the many gaps in our understanding of the deep ocean.
[For a little context on the Russian mood, see William Pfaff on Putin.]


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