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Ocean Law & Policy in the News

Islanders refuse relocation as land sinks in sea

Filipinos prefer to adapt their homes to rising water rather than move off a group of sinking islands, according to a new study that questions how much mass migration climate change might cause.

The United Nations expects thawing ice to raise sea levels by between 28 and 98 centimeters (11 and 38.6 inches) by the end of the century. A scenario mirroring the middle of that range emerged after a 2013 earthquake in central Philippines caused 43 centimeters (16.9 inches) of subsidence among a chain of small islands.

None of the hundreds of islanders moved away, even as high tide began flooding the newly lowered ground. The impoverished locals instead raised their houses on stilts or mined local reefs to raise floors in homes, schools and other buildings.

That contradicts the theory that worsening floods driven by climate change will lead to mass migration, according to the study, published in Nature Climate Change. Estimates of climate migration’s scale vary widely, but many experts think 200 million migrants is a reasonable expectation.

Officials in the Philippines had offered the islanders the option of relocating to the mainland, but a lack of funding meant the relocation site had no homes.

Still, the researchers wrote, the islanders’ opposition to leaving their homes played a larger role in their decisions to stay put (Alister Doyle, Reuters, July 24). — AAA

Panel takes aim at sea trash

You never know what you might find when you go digging for trash in the oceans. Among the “weird finds” in 2016: a piano, two typewriters, eight microwaves, 56 toilets and 1,863,838 cigarette butts.That’s according to a report from the Ocean Conservancy on last year’s International Coastal Cleanup, a project that included more than a half-million volunteers from 112 countries collecting more than 18 million pounds of trash, most of it plastics.A Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel plans to take up the problem at a hearing tomorrow, exploring what more can be done to clean up oceans and the nation’s waterways.Two witnesses are expected to testify before the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard: David Balton, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the State Department, and Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program with NOAA.Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska, the subcommittee’s chairman, wants Congress to extend the Marine Debris Act through 2022, spending up to $12 million per year.The law, signed in 2006 and amended six years later, requires NOAA to remove debris and to address its impacts on the U.S. economy, the marine environment and navigation safety.Sullivan’s bill, S. 756, dubbed the “Save Our Seas Act,” also calls on the White House to work with countries that contribute most to the trash problem. It passed the full committee in April.”The global marine debris problem threatens treasured natural areas, endangers iconic wildlife species and litters shorelines in Alaska and around the world,” Sullivan said when he introduced the bill in March. “It is time for our government to hold accountable the countries responsible for the majority of the debris in our oceans.”The issue has long been a top priority for the Ocean Conservancy. At a hearing before a different Senate subcommittee last year, Nicholas Mallos, director of the group’s Trash Free Seas Program, said plastics make up roughly 84 percent of all items collected during the annual cleanups, which began in 1986.Overall, he said, more than 12 million metric tons of plastics enter the oceans each year: plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic lids and other everyday items.”This sheer volume of plastic debris is almost incomprehensible,” he said (Greenwire, April 20).

Experts say sea turtles are particularly at risk because they often mistake plastic bags and other plastic items as food. In 2015, a study estimated that more than half the world’s sea turtles had ingested plastics.

Sullivan’s bill has 18 co-sponsors: 10 Democrats, seven Republicans and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine.

Schedule: The hearing is Tuesday, July 25, at 10 a.m. in 253 Russell.

Witnesses: David Balton, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the State Department, and Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Submerged ‘fairy world’ forest offers glimpse into future

An undersea forest — preserved remarkably well after about 50,000 years at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico — could offer researchers new insights into the ways coastal ecosystems react to climate change.

The bald cypress grove off the Alabama coast was likely entombed under several feet of sediment until Hurricane Ivan churned the seafloor in 2004. Uncovered, the ancient trees attracted fish, which caught the attention of local fishermen; the press and researchers soon followed.

“It was like entering a fairy world,” said Ben Raines, an environmental reporter for the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register. “You get down there, and there are these cypress trees, and there are logs lying on the bottom, and you can touch them and peel the bark off.

“Experts said there’s nothing else in the world like these cypress samples, which offer a glimpse into a 1,000-year period that featured much lower sea levels and glaciers covering much of North America.

Based on pollen analysis and cypress’ intolerance for salt water, researchers believe the forest was once a swamp or valley several miles inland from the ancient shoreline. As sea levels began rising as quickly as 8 feet per century, the sediment samples show tree pollens giving way to grass pollens — painting a picture of rapid ecological change that could soon repeat itself.

“We’re looking at 60 feet of seawater where a forest used to be,” said Martin Becker, a paleontologist from New Jersey’s William Paterson University who has visited the site. “I’m looking at a lot of development, of people’s shore homes and condominiums, etc., you know. The forest is predicting the future, and maybe a pretty unpleasant one” (Peter Holley, Washington Post, June 29). — AAA

Seas threatened like never before — U.N. chief

Published: Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The seas are “under threat as never before,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told a conference on oceans yesterday.

Oceans are being severely damaged by pollution, garbage, overfishing and the effects of climate change, he said. He cited a study that found that garbage in the ocean could outweigh fish by 2050.

The five-day conference is the first major event to focus on climate change since President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Guterres said fights over territory and natural resources have blocked cleaning efforts for too long.

“We must put aside short-term national gain to prevent long-term global catastrophe,” Guterres said. “Conserving our oceans and using them sustainably is preserving life itself” (Edith Lederer, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, June 5). — CS