Christopher Skroupa is a Forbes contributor who focuses on the intersection of government, Wall Street, and main street. He held a Q&A with the Consortium for Ocean Leadership’s President and CEO RADM Jonathan White centering around Jon’s experience and insight on the nexus of national security and climate change.
(Forbes) — Christopher P. Skroupa: In honor of today being World Oceans Day, can you start by talking about how the ocean benefits humans? Is it all about beach vacations and shrimp dinners?
Jonathan White: To put it simply, our very survival is linked to that of the ocean. Every second breath you take comes from marine phytoplankton, tiny organisms that create half the world’s oxygen through photosynthesis. So to say that it helps us fulfill the very basic functions necessary for life is an understatement. We also have the ocean to thank for many important processes, like the water cycle and weather patterns. Without ocean currents transporting and mixing warm and cool water around the globe, our planet wouldn’t be able to support life as we know it.
The ocean also provides incredible resources to our nation, like seafood, security, economic growth, and so much more. The ocean provides about 20 percent of the animal protein we depend upon for food and it’s indirectly a source of a lot more — marine products can be found in everything from livestock feed to insecticides and fertilizers. Additionally, the ocean economy, which weathered the recession of 2007-2009 better than the U.S. economy as a whole, contributes $359 billion to our gross domestic product. Finally, the ocean plays a key role in our national security. Our 95,000 mile coastline is our nation’s longest border. Our national security isn’t about fortifying that ocean border but about understanding our ocean to best utilize it. Oceanography was a key determinant in the U.S. Cold War victory due to the knowledge advantage provided to our forward deployed maritime forces, especially our submarines.
Skroupa: Sounds like there are a lot of societal benefits from the ocean and that maintaining the integrity of the ocean system is critical. What is the ocean’s role in weather and climate? What do people most often not know or misunderstand about that relationship? How do changes to the broader ocean-atmosphere system threaten the resources and services we depend on from the sea?
White: I’d say that most people don’t understand the complexities of the ocean-weather-climate relationship, so I’ll start with some definitions. There is a difference between weather and climate, and that difference is time — weather is atmospheric conditions in the short-term (minutes to months), while climate is a description of long-term weather patterns in a particular area. To understand weather, you must understand what the ocean does. To understand climate, you must understand what the ocean is.
As anyone who has been to the beach and felt the tug of a current can tell you, what the ocean does is move water, through both surface and deep-water currents. In moving water, the ocean is moving heat — it absorbs half of the sun’s heat that reaches our planet. Currents move warm water from the equator to the poles and cold water from the poles to the equator. This drives weather patterns, keeping regional temperatures from being as extreme as they would be if all the hot water stayed at the equator and all the cold water stayed at the poles. Additionally, as water molecules evaporate, they ultimately lead to precipitation that provides the “water of life” over land. So that’s what the ocean does — it moves water, through currents and evaporation, and that defines our weather.
Now for what the ocean is — it is a heat sink and a moisture source. The ocean stores more heat in the top three meters than the entire atmosphere does. It acts as the flywheel of our climate, absorbing and releasing heat to stabilize Earth’s temperature as a flywheel absorbs and releases energy to stabilize the speed of an engine. Changes in year-to-year climate, such as El Niño, and longer-term natural climate variability, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, are both driven by the ocean. Climate is actually more closely linked to ocean conditions than weather. So as to what the ocean is — it is a heat absorber and climate stabilizer.
Changes to the ocean-atmosphere system absolutely threaten the resources we depend upon from the sea. Warming sea surface temperatures have already caused marine species to shift north to cooler waters, which can wreak havoc on the lives of the fishers and communities dependent upon them. Another major problem is the addition of more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as about a quarter of all carbon dioxide released is absorbed by the ocean. As the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere has grown, so too has the total uptake by the ocean. This has fundamentally changed the chemistry of seawater, making it more acidic, in what is known as “ocean acidification.” If you happen to have a shell made of calcium carbonate (such as oysters, clams, and sea urchins) or weakly-protected bones (like larval fish), this is bad news — a more acidic ocean makes it harder for these species to build their shells or grow into adult fish, which puts the entire food web at risk and threatens coastal economies dependent upon shellfish and finfish fisheries.
Skroupa: So the ocean is a driver of climate, but it is also impacted by the increasing carbon dioxide levels. As someone who has worked at the nexus of national security and climate change for decades, can you explain how these changes impact our national security? And is this a future threat or something that’s already happening?