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The ocean is an incredible natural resource: a habitat for marine life, a pathway for explorers, provider of economies and a source of sustenance for coastal dwellers throughout the world. However, whether exploring the ocean is your life’s passion or your life’s work, all those who cross her seas do so with tremendous privilege – and it’s clear that the world’s oceans are under incredible pressure.
From the bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the island nations of Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu, there are some destinations that are slowly disappearing with the tide, as rising sea levels, increased sea temperatures and extreme weather events take their toll.
In Fiji, the village of Vunidogoloa on Vanua Levu moved two kilometres inland to higher ground to escape coastal flooding; in the coming years, an additional 40 villages are set to relocate as sea levels rise. In the Solomon Islands, satellite imagery revealed five islands present in 1947 had completely disappeared by 2014; on Nuatambu Island, many of the houses continue to be washed away.
But climate change is not just happening amongst the reef-fringed, tropical warm waters of the Pacific. Off the coast of Virginia in Chesapeake Bay, Tangier Island, home to a small crabbing community of 460 residents, has lost two thirds of its landmass in 170 years. US Engineers estimate it has just over two decades left before it is uninhabitable.
Why is this happening?
According to NASA, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the world’s leading climate scientists, the rise in global temperatures since the end of the 19th century has been driven by increased carbon dioxide and human made emissions, which has in turn, impacted the oceans.
As the earth warms, both sea ice and melting glaciers have caused sea levels to rise, with oceans absorbing much of the increased heat. And as seawater warms, it also expands. All up, global sea levels are estimated to have risen eight inches in the last century.
However, it is the rapid acceleration of these forces that is causing the most concern: the rate of sea level rise in the last twenty years is nearly double that which occurred in the last century.
Often, the damage often begins long before the land is gone. Rising sea levels impacts the fresh groundwater from below, and salinisation begins to impact the soil, causing arable land used to keep cattle and grow food to degrade. Ocean acidification and extreme weather conditions also deeply impact marine and coastal ecosystems.
Stemming the Tide
While there is much debate amongst scientists and activists about how to mitigate climate change, and little action from governments, the response to growing environmental concern and hard scientific data has been sluggish.
For the islands themselves, there are no easy answers. Some are considering the option to relocate: Kiribati was the first nation to purchase land elsewhere (in Fiji) as a geographic insurance policy against rising sea levels. For other nations, reclaiming and building higher land, as has been done in Dubai or Monaco, is an option – but one prohibited, in part, by logistics and economic cost.
But globally, how does the greater community curb rapid climate change?
There is no doubt that everyone makes an impact – but for both business and individuals, taking steps to reduce the impact they have does count. From carbon offsetting to recycling, engaging with technology to cut emissions and making better choices with using water, fuel and travel, every individual can begin to take responsibility for their impact, no matter what lifestyle they lead.
For businesses, this means not only using cutting edge technology, but also partnering with environmental organisations to improve the overall health of the ocean.
Currently, Sunseeker is working with MTU and Rolls Royce to design a hybrid boat that will run partly on lithium-ion batteries, curbing emissions. It has also partnered with the Blue Marine Foundation where in Menorca, Sunseeker is installing eco-moorings to preserve seagrass beds and removing abandoned fishing nets as well as developing sustainable fishing practices.
The Role of Tourism
There are plenty of places to explore in the world, but many commentators are arguing now is the time to visit many places under threat from climate change. While tourism arguably contributes to emissions, it also supports economies with much needed income, provides employment,and preserves culture.
It also supports the science that is protecting marine areas. For example, on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is currently recovering from a coral bleach event, each person who visits pays an environmental management fee, which helps contribute $10-$15 million annually to the monitoring, management and protection of the reef.
However for many, the impetus for tourism in low-lying islands and climate-affected coastal areas is not to see these places before they’re gone. Instead, there’s a belief that if visitors see it, they’ll want to save it, and potentially change their mindset, lifestyle and ultimately, the ocean’s future.