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Nature Oceans & Seas

Sea Sick

The Global Ocean in Crisis

by (author) Alanna Mitchell

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Mar 2010
Oceans & Seas, General, Ecology
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2010
    List Price

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All life — whether on land or in the sea — depends on the oceans for two things:

• Oxygen. Most of Earth’s oxygen is produced by phytoplankton in the sea. These humble, one-celled organisms, rather than the spectacular rain forests, are the true lungs of the planet.

• Climate control. Our climate is regulated by the ocean’s currents, winds, and water-cycle activity.

Sea Sick is the first book to examine the current state of the world’s oceans — the great unexamined ecological crisis of the planet — and the fact that we are altering everything about them; temperature, salinity, acidity, ice cover, volume, circulation, and, of course, the life within them.

Alanna Mitchell joins the crews of leading scientists in nine of the global ocean’s hotspots to see firsthand what is really happening around the world. Whether it’s the impact of coral reef bleaching, the puzzle of the oxygen-less dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico, or the shocking implications of the changing Ph balance of the sea, Mitchell explains the science behind the story to create an engaging, accessible yet authoritative account.

About the author

JOHN GEIGER is a co-author of the international bestseller Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition and the author of six other works of non-fiction, including The Angel Effect and The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. His work has been translated into fourteen languages. Geiger is chief executive officer of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Canadian Geographic Enterprises, and a fellow of The Royal Geographical Society. He is also a senior fellow at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

ALANNA MITCHELL is an internationally award-winning science journalist and author whose latest bestseller is Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis. She has recently transformed the book into a one-woman play and is performing it across Canada. In 2014, the play was nominated for a Dora Award. She is a contributor to CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks and freelances for Canadian Geographic magazine and The New York Times. She has travelled to each continent and most parts of the ocean doing research and giving talks on marine science.

THE HONORABLE LEONA AGLUKKAQ is the member of Parliament for Nunavut. In 2008, following an extensive career in government, she became the first Inuk to be sworn into the Federal Cabinet, as the Minister of Health. She now serves as Minister of the Environment, Minister responsible for Parks Canada, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, and Minister of the Arctic Council for Canada. Ms. Aglukkaq was raised in Thom Bay, Taloyoak and Gjoa Haven.

Alanna Mitchell's profile page

Excerpt: Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis (by (author) Alanna Mitchell)

From the Prologue
Tim Flannery was barefoot the evening I met him, pants rolled up to below his knees. It was dusk and we had found each other in the unlikely town of Whyalla, South Australia, where, it is said, the outback meets the sea.

Our meeting was sheer serendipity. The two of us had happened to fly into this remote town of 22,000 on the same plane the night before and he had been at meetings all day with the town’s steelmaker, continuing his international tour de force of explaining global climate change to the public, business leaders and politicians.

His book The Weather Makers: How We Are Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Al Gore’s book and movie An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It, and the report by Sir
Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, on the financial consequences of ignoring climate change have been the one-two-three punch that has convinced the public that global climate change is more than, well, hot air.

Their combined effect–in concert with Hurricane Katrina’s devastating tear through New Orleans in August 2005–has been remarkable. As I researched this book across five continents and over two and a half years, everyone I spoke with could pinpoint the moment that the public discourse changed from whether or not global climate change was real to what humanity needed to do about it: the third quarter of 2006, after the cumulative effect of Katrina, Flannery, Stern and Gore.

[. . .]

When we met he was longing to walk on the beach, so out we went to the sandy shore of the Spencer Gulf that runs in front of the Foreshore Motor Inn, Whyalla’s finest accommodation, where the steel company had put him up.

I talked and talked, telling him about this book, the stories of my travels around the world, the scientists I had met, the questions I still had, and, above all, why it matters so much to me that all the things I have found out become part of this new, informed public discourse for which he helped lay the groundwork.

I told him of my worries.

The global ocean makes up 99 per cent of the living space on the planet, thanks to its immense depth. If you add up all the land surface and the narrow band of the atmosphere that supports creatures who breathe air, the total represents just 1 per cent of the areas where life can survive on the planet. The rest is in the ocean, covering more than seven-tenths of the earth’s surface.

Even more significant than the ocean’s breadth and width is its depth, or third dimension. That total volume, with its immense biological importance, is what I came to think of as the deeps, both the source of life and the future of life on the planet.

The issue is that all over the world ocean scientists, in groups of specialists who rarely put their information together, are finding that global climate change and other human actions are beginning to have a measurable effect on the ocean. The vital signs of this critical medium of life are showing clear signs of distress.

That’s because roughly a third of the carbon dioxide that humans are putting into the atmosphere has entered the ocean. In addition, about 80 per cent of the extra heat being created by climate change has been absorbed by the ocean.

These two phenomena–carbon dioxide and heat–are changing the ocean’s acidity, patterns of saltiness, temperature, volume, ice cover, function within the planet’s carbon and oxygen cycles, and possibly the physical structure of the currents as well. And these are just the ones we happen to know a bit about.

This change is happening all over the world. And this is having a profound effect on many of the creatures that live in the ocean. At the same time, our search for food from the sea has resulted in the removal of massive quantities of creatures from the global ocean. In itself, that’s a problem. And it’s exacerbated by the changes we’re also causing through carbon dioxide and heat, because life in the sea helps regulate the sea’s physical and chemical properties. When we remove so much life, we’re also removing one of the ways in which the ocean can keep its systems stable.

This is so important–and so different from the way that most of us see the issue–that some scientists I have met argue that instead of calling this the age of ‘global climate change’, we should call it the era of ‘global ocean change’ or ‘marine climate change’. These terms are both much more accurate and more worrisome.

The ocean is built to withstand change. It has layers of safeguards that the atmosphere and the land systems do not, and yet even these are being breached. It is a larger and more serious problem than atmospheric change.

However, we are not hearing much about it, or about the implications for life on the planet–not just human life and civilisation, but life in general. We hear from time to time about overfishing, or about the cities that would flood if the sea level rose, or about coral bleaching, but rarely everything put together.

[. . .]

One of my greatest shocks as I researched this book was that as I travelled from country to country, topic to topic, research boat to research boat, and told each new group of scientists what I had been finding, each group was surprised. In other words–and with some notable exceptions–even some of the planet’s top research scientists didn’t have the full picture of what’s going on. Each has a specialty, isolated from the larger context for the most part, without a systemic understanding of how the pieces fit together. [. . .]

About 250 million years ago, during the time known as the Great Dying at the end of the Permian period–the biggest mass extinction the world has yet known–the ocean’s oxygen ran out. There are a couple of theories about why this happened, but a leading candidate is that the surface layer warmed up enough and became salty enough to disturb the currents. Currents feed oxygen from the atmosphere into the ocean and move nutrients around. When the oxygen vanished, most life on land and in the sea–more than 90 per cent of the species then alive–died.

The point of the story, [Flannery] said, is that it is clear that the ocean contains the switch of life. Not land, nor the atmosphere. The ocean. And that switch can be flipped off.

We know it’s happened in the past, he told me. We just don’t know the trigger.

Editorial Reviews

“A riveting book of revelations about Earth’s largest and most important habitat.”
— Tim Flannery, author of The Weathermakers

Sea Sick is the most comprehensive book to date on the state of our oceans. With a writer’s eye for detail and a reporter’s expertise in pulling in disparate information, Mitchell has woven a powerful and deeply unsettling story about our collective abuse of the cradle of all life. Fortunately, she also gives us hope and a path forward if we have the wisdom to act.”
— Maude Barlow
“Alanna Mitchell has brilliantly woven together the threads of science taking place all over the world pointing to an accelerating crisis in the world’s oceans. She makes the case compellingly that the declining health of the planet's oceans — the place where life began, larger than our atmosphere and where 99% of life exists — is an imminent threat to survival on land. I thought I was sufficiently well-informed and alert to the risks of planetary collapse before reading this book. Turns out I was wrong. The climate crisis is more an ocean crisis. That she still finds reasons to hope is one reason you must read this book.”
— Elizabeth May
“Humanity is visiting a desolation upon the world. We already bear primary responsibility for the extermination of more than 100,000 fellow species/fellow travelers. During the next few decades, that colossal massacre may well be doubled or trebled. Death is running amok on the earth, but especially in the sea. If you would know how and why, read Sea Sick . . . although it may make you heartsick.”
— Farley Mowat

“…she writes intelligently and passionately. You need to read it too.”
Globe & Mail

“Keeping the ocean's life switch turned on will require all of us to, like Mitchell, choose hope and to do something about it. Reading this book is a good first step.”
— Montreal Gazette

“A strong examination of degraded global ocean health based on years of research with top world scientists.”
The Vancouver Province

“An engaging overview on the state of our oceans.”

“Each chapter in the book blends lucid, factual explanation of complex subjects with engaging chronicles of the author’s travels to far-flung parts of the globe.”
Quill & Quire

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