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Lahore

June 12, 2017

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Oceans in distress: the rising sea level

Oceans in distress: the rising sea level

World Oceans Day

Every year, the United Nations celebrates World Oceans Day on 8th June with a unique theme; and for this year it is: Our Oceans, Our Future. The UN believes it is important to have a day solely for creating awareness about the oceans among people, who may or may not directly depend, for their livelihood, on the oceans. It is, nonetheless, argued that each one of us, in one way or the other, is tied with the oceans, i.e., anything that happens to the oceans, whether positive or negative, eventually impacts each one of us. Therefore, the UN highlights the reasons/objectives for having a day reserved for the oceans, which essentially are to: “1) remind everyone of the major role the oceans have in everyday life. They are the lungs of our planet, providing most of the oxygen we breathe; 2) inform the public of the impact of human actions on the ocean; 3) develop a worldwide movement of citizens for the ocean; 4) mobilise and unite the world’s population on a project for the sustainable management of the world’s oceans; 5)assure ourselves that they are a major source of food and medicines and a critical part of the biosphere; and 6) celebrate together the beauty, the wealth and the promise of the ocean”. This day also brings to our notice the problems that our oceans face and the impacts those problems will have on our future.

Today we live in a very precarious world with a spectrum of crisis ranging from conventional conflicts to the ominous challenges of the climate change. Like Barack Obama, once said that the future threat might not come from the religious extremists or terrorists, it would come from the climate change. His statement reflects the future replete with threats to life that we all must be prepared to face. Climate change, as it is impacting the global environment, is gravely affecting the oceans. Among the many stresses that the oceans of our times are facing, ‘rising sea level’ is one of those

Rising sea level, is a phenomenon, which I call a ‘distress for the oceans’. Sea level rise basically is an increase in the volume of world’s oceans’ water, which subsequently increases the global mean sea level. Orin Pilky and Rob Young, in their book titled ‘the Rising Sea’, posit that “the sea level rise has been a constant part of earth’s history”, and suggests that sea level changes have been occurring since 2.5 million years ago. They ask a very pertinent question: since the sea level rise (or fall in some cases) has been occurring so why the ‘fuss’ about it now? The answer is: humans; because of densely populated shorelines, the sea level rise now matters more than what it had thousands of years ago! Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that sea level has been steadily rising in the 20th century and it would continue to do so in 21st century – with an increased rate of rise. IPCC claims that the seas remain stable, i.e., without their level being raised or lowered, since the last 3000 years until late 19th century. Sea level rose at an approximate rate of 1.7mm per year, in the 20th century; however, since 1993, the rate has been higher, i.e., 3.0mm per year.

There are two causes for the sea level rise: 1) increase in the oceans’ heat content; and 2) melting of land ice sheets. These two causes, in modern times, are the result of global warming, which in the words of Pilky and Young, “ … is changing many things: the extent of ice on the surface of the Arctic Ocean, the extent of mountain glaciers, patterns of rainfall and drought around the world, and routes of ocean currents.” While arguing on alarming consequences of the sea level rise, the authors of ‘the Rising Sea’ believes, “of all the ongoing and expected changes from global warming, however, the increase in the volume of the oceans and accompanying rise in the level of the sea will be the most immediate, the most certain, the most widespread, and the most economically visible in its effects.”

Sea level rise has been phenomenally portentous for countries like Maldives, Seychelles and low lying Islands. Even on our coast, if the ingress of Arabian Sea is not checked, we shall lose nearly half of Karachi by 2060. The key question, one may ask, is: why is this happening? The answer is palatably simple: the global warming. And, by any measure, the global warming is the work of man and not of nature, which has caused and would continue to do so the climate change. We, the humans, have been gradually consuming the resources of the world, generating power at the cost of environment and expanding land at the cost deforestation – which cumulatively led to excessive gases trapping the sun’s heat within the earth’s atmosphere. Consequentially, the global temperature started to rise, glaciers started to melt and many of the species started to become extinct! The rising sea level causes the coast to erode fast and make way for other eco-systems to be consumed by the sea ingression deep into the land. This necessitates those measures, which act as a shield against coastal erosion – and one of which is the increased plantation of the mangroves.

Mangroves, on our shores, especially the Indus Delta have been vanishing for the past few years, due mainly because the pollutants that Indus brings with it as it washes into Arabian Sea. Consequently, all of these problems are foundationally human-induced and can, somehow, be tackled with. Awareness is needed to make people convinced that whatever pollution they create eventually becomes part of the ocean; and would not only threaten the oceanic eco-system but also help in enhancing the ocean thermal expansion. The pollutants falling into the sea gradually reduce the mangroves, which is a bulwark against coast erosion.

Various government institutions in Pakistan, especially Pakistan Navy, have been attempting to create a greater awareness about pollution, its impact on natural habitat and asking people to help recover the lost/mutilated mangroves along the coast. In this regard, Pakistan Navy has started an initiative of planting more than a million mangrove trees all along the coast, in a bid to defend our coasts against sea water ingress and to raise awareness of the importance of mangrove protection amongst the public. This target has been achieved and future planting programmes are on the agenda.

Pakistan Navy initiatives to celebrate World Ocean Day include campaign through lectures to focus on the importance and ensuring clean oceans. The awareness campaigns have added much to the understanding of why mangroves are important, that protecting them and the coastal environment is critical to protection of marine life. Two vital components of the celebrations are cleanup campaigns of harbours/ports and beach walk to clean up the litter on the beaches. However, in these initiatives, each one of us should participate in enhancing awareness about mangroves, taking practical part in planting mangroves and promising not to be part of any action, which results in pollution.

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