Carbon Dioxide in The Ocean

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Carbon Ocean Implications

By Shayna Berglas

Amid a pandemic, and a resulting decrease in demand for energy, the United States reported a higher consumption of renewables than coal for the year 2019. Increasingly popular and efficient power sources like wind and solar have given renewables first place in the energy consumption race for the first time in 134 years.

The movement away from coal is widely expected to continue. Already competing with natural gas, coal-fired power plants have seen a 15% drop in demand from 2018 to 2019 compared to a 1% increase in demand for renewables during the same time period. Promises of net zero carbon by 2040 and 100% renewable energy by 2025 by major conglomerates like Amazon are putting pressure on public utilities to do the same. Southern Co., the Atlanta based company responsible for the electricity and natural gas provisions for much of the South and Midwest, seeks to achieve net-zero themselves by 2050.

The push from the general public for cleaner sources of energy likely stems from the increasing visible evidence of global climate change. It echoes years of published scientific research that states the obvious: too much of any one thing can kill you, and the atmosphere has too much carbon. 

The carbon cycle is a complicated web of natural processes working with one another. Through a combination of sources, carbon releases, and sinks, carbon absorptions, the flow of carbon finds a sort of inconsistent yet harmonious rhythm if left undisturbed. A leaf may hold carbon for a time as short as a day until it is exposed by an animal grazing or it can be stored for millions of years in the rocks and sediment of the geosphere.

The fossil fuels which humans use for energy and production are releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere that would naturally be locked away by rocks underground. This carbon output is the primary culprit of global climate change – an environmental threat with an impact so widespread that by the year 2100 NASA estimates a resulting modification of plant communities covering half of the Earth’s land surface. It’s the types of pledges made by Amazon and Southern Co. that have some scientists hopeful for a much-needed decrease in carbon emissions and plastic productions endangering our oceans’ mightiest and most vital microorganisms – phytoplankton.

Though difficult to measure the exact amount of carbon stored by the world’s oceans, these bodies of water which occupy 71% of the planet are estimated to hold fifty times the amount of carbon as the atmosphere. Some scientists estimate the deep sea and its water column to be the largest carbon sink in the world. It is here where the process of carbon sequestration is performed, in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere through distinct chemical and biological processes. National Geographic explains  how “one-celled plants [phytoplankton] use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and nutrients into complex organic compounds, which form new plant material.

This process, known as photosynthesis, is how phytoplankton grow.” Eventually, the sea creatures that rely on the phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals) as food sources die and sink to the bottom of the unknown depths of the ocean, taking the absorbed carbon with them to be turned to sediment and where it can remain for millions of years. The process of photosynthesis is used by marine plankton and mainland plants alike, crediting each with the responsibility of producing half of the world’s oxygen. Though impressive in their carbon-combatting performance, plankton cannot mitigate the increasing tons of carbon released into the atmosphere by industrial practices.

Microplastic Ingestion by Zooplankton

The crucial role which they play in the oceanic ecosystem faces an even more immediate threat. Zooplankton, like other larger fish and sea animals who mistake macro and micro plastics for foods, make the fatal error of confusing plastic for pabulum. Research done by Marina Garland from the College of Atlanta highlights how consistent plastic pollution is choking the ocean.

Her research explains how these aquatic microorganisms, which are the basis for the food chain of the entire ocean, can mistake photodegraded plastics for food and “subsequently be killed by the adverse effects on the organism’s digestive tract”. 

As with all ecosystems, every organism plays its part. Warming and microplastics have the potential to overwhelm and wipe out phytoplankton, without which the oceans will die – and when the oceans die, we die, because we will have lost one of the world’s greatest carbon sinks along with the half the global production of oxygen. Not since the 19th century have renewable sources beat out coal as a source of national energy in the Unites States, according to the EIA, which has records of energy consumption measures dating back to 1635.

So, what does the potential for major companies “going green” and using renewable resources mean for our oceans? Forest fires decimate entire ecological communities, until they regrow. Nature usually finds a way to rebuild if given the proper tools. It is up to the consumer to demand those tools, governments to uphold them, and corporations to utilize them.

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