Monday, March 9, 2009

Shipping pollution more than a drop in the ocean

Monday March 9, 2009, 8:09 pm

A US scientific study is pointing the finger at the global shipping industry as a major contributor to climate change.
The study has found that the one hundred thousand commercial ships which travel the world's oceans emit almost half as much particle pollution as the world's 600 million cars.
The findings have been published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
And the lead author is calling for an improvement in the quality of shipping fuels.
In the past, ships running under flags of convenience have been exposed in reports like the Ships of Shame inquiry as being unsafe for crews and polluting the ocean.
Now scientists have put a figure on exactly how much air pollution is emitted by the world's shipping fleet.
US-based scientist Daniel Lack, who works for a US government agency called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has found every year commercial ships emit 1 million kilograms of particle pollution into the air.
"These particles that are coming out are about equivalent to half the particles that are produced from all road traffic in the world," he said.
"What's interesting with ships is that they're in international waters most of the time so the pollution doesn't really get noticed by people.
"But these ships are actually burning really low-quality fuels. They're literally burning the bottom of the barrel. After oil refining, there's a black sludge left and that's what ships are burning, so they're burning a really dirty fuel."
Professor Lack worked on his report with another scientist, James Corbett from the University of Delaware.
It was Professor Corbett's job to find out what effect the pollution from the ships has on human health.
"We're talking about organic carbon materials and we're talking about these very small black carbon particles," he said.
"These particles are small enough to be breathed in to human lungs and they have been shown by epidemiological studies to be associated with increased incidences of breathing illnesses, heart illnesses and even premature death."
The harmful particles released into the air, including sulphur, carbon dioxide and soot, are also damaging the environment.
"If dark particles land on snow, they can accelerate the melting of snow in the north, perhaps the Arctic," he said.
"They interact with water vapour in the atmosphere to help produce brighter or longer lived clouds and the dark particles can absorb energy and retain heat and contribute to global climate change."
It is the first time a large scale study has found exactly how much and what kind of air pollution is released by ships.
Professor Lack says his study exposes shipping as a major polluter and more regulation is needed to ensure the industry cleans up its act.
But he acknowledges, as with the car industry, some shipping companies are seeing an upside in green innovation.
"There's a company in Seattle which has just built the first hybrid tugboat," he said.
"The port of Los Angeles, they're starting to make ships hook up to shore power, which is much cleaner than the power from burning fuel.

Rumblings of doom, some more to edify and uplift..

CO2 levels thinning out ocean life: study

There is alarming evidence that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are harming ocean-based animal life.
When CO2 enters the atmosphere it is absorbed by the ocean, causing increased acidity in the water.
A new study has found a link between this process and a decrease in the shell-making ability of microscopic marine organisms.
Dr Will Howard of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre and colleagues report their findings today in the journal Nature Geoscience.
"The ocean is currently taking up somewhere in the neighbourhood of a third of our fossil fuel emissions," the palaeo-climatologist said.
Scientists have predicted this absorption of carbon dioxide would boost the acidity of oceans and interfere with the ability of some marine species to build their shells.
"It was predicted and now we're seeing it," Dr Howard said.
"This is not an issue for the future any more. This is an issue for now."

Changing chemistry

The researchers studied the shells of a protozoa called foraminifera (Globigerina bulloides), in the Southern Ocean south of Tasmania .
They collected current-day foraminifera as they fell to the bottom of the ocean and compared them to foraminifera dating back in time, taken from cores taken from the sea bed.
"[The method] gives us access to times when the carbon dioxide chemistry in the atmosphere and the ocean has changed measurably and noticeably, and we can see how the organisms responded," Dr Howard said.
He and colleagues linked changes in shell formation with the amount of carbon dioxide around at the time.
"[The foraminifera] have more heavily calcified shells during intervals when carbon dioxide content was lower and thus the pH of the ocean was higher," Dr Howard said.
By contrast, the researchers found modern shells were 30 to 35 per cent lighter than those formed prior to the industrial period.
"When you're looking at the modern counterparts, they're making thinner shells than anything in the cores," he said.
He says the team has evidence that modern shells are thinner than at any time in the past 200,000 years.

Fossil fuel signature

Dr Howard says previous research has confirmed the carbon dioxide affecting the shells has a unique isotopic signature which confirms it is from fossil fuels.
"We know independently that the carbon dioxide that they're picking up is at least partly anthropogenic," he said.
He says calcium carbonate shells of foraminifera, which fall to the bottom of the deep sea when they die, are a major vehicle for removing carbon from atmospheric circulation.
"One of the things we're concerned about is that if their shell-making ability is compromised that we might be reducing the efficiency of the ocean carbon pump," he said.
Dr Howard says that over time, the ocean may be able to counteract acidity by dissolving accumulated shells of dead marine organisms on the ocean floor, thus raising ocean pH and its ability to take up CO2.
But he says this will take a long time and come at the cost of living marine organisms.
"The buffering mechanisms in the ocean are quite slow compared to the rate at which we are putting fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere and into the ocean.," he said.
The research was funded by the Australian Government's Department of Climate Change.