Connecting coronavirus and climate change

“We are the stewards of an amazing ocean planet and it is our privilege to take care of it.”

I am celebrating on a rainy November afternoon: For weeks I have been talking about the importance of participating in the democratic process and casting one’s vote despite the downfalls of the system.

I just read that more than 161 million Americans cast their votes — I am so proud of them. More than half of the young voters participated. I hope this becomes a trend that continues and not just an expression of how divided the country is and how far apart the two sides are.

In any case, there was one thing that all sides agreed on for once: People voted.

In my last column, I promised to get back to writing about ocean science and marine biology. In 2020, there is a lot swirling around in my mind and I wonder how our future will look.

I hope that under the new leadership, the U.S. will return to the table in discussing how to adapt the world to the new normal that has come in the form of erratic weather patterns, more and stronger hurricanes, wildfires and droughts, floods and cold snaps, melting glaciers and permafrost, and displaced fisheries resources.

The list goes on and on, but we have come to summarize (and in some cases deny) it in the simple words “climate change.” No matter what I write about in ocean science, it will have some connection to this overarching topic that is impacting all systems of our planet and upsetting its balance. 

Our balance is right now also upset by the coronavirus pandemic. People are getting tired of hearing it and burned out on living with the restrictions that come from trying to limit its spread.

The website for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has a discussion about the connections between climate change, the current COVID pandemic, and the increase in infectious disease outbreaks in general.

In simple terms, it goes like this: Species A has a virus, but it also has an effective defense against that virus, so a balance is maintained. Climate change causes species A to move to a new location (because of wildfires, warming ocean temperatures, food shortages and other factors).

In the new location, species A meets species B, and the virus jumps over. Species B has no defenses against this virus and the virus spreads. Because viruses replicate so rapidly, even a small mutation rate can change the virus to adapt to the new situation.

In short, two factors merged to make this happen: the disruption of normal patterns by climate change, and an opportunistic organism able to take advantage of it. This does not mean we have coronavirus because of climate change; it means that climate change facilitates situations in which virus outbreaks can happen.

As the ocean is warming, many species are moving poleward. Each organism has a specific temperature range in which it can thrive. Warmer water temperatures speed up development, but also increase growth of bacteria. Colder water can hold more oxygen and, for many species, the development of the embryos in the egg requires a lot of oxygen.

In “Finding Nemo,” the young clownfish’s dad is fanning the remaining eggs with his fins to oxygenize them. If you ever find an egg-bearing female crab, you can observe her regularly venting her ventral flap, under which she stores the eggs, in order to get water flow over the clutch.

Several years ago, I had the privilege to see the octopus at the Seward Sea Life Center tending her brood and saw her blowing water over the eggs at regular intervals. Salmon lay their eggs into fast-flowing streams or on beaches with a lot of water movement where oxygen gets readily replenished.

Temperature and oxygen content of the water are essential for the survival of the eggs, and egg survival is paramount for the species’ own survival. This is why climate change affects every species in some way: Even a small shift in ambient temperature changes the outcome in the big race for survival. Suboptimal conditions to grow up in put stress on the struggling offspring, slow their growth and decrease their chances.

In learning about the natural world, we have adopted an approach of focusing our attention on one effect or correlation at a time. This is a natural approach because the human mind cannot make sense of convoluted and intermingled effects of several issues.

Thus, we concentrate on one cause-and-effect relationship and push everything else into the realm of “other parameters.” Studying more than one effect at a time gets complicated.

In my thesis, I studied the effects of UV radiation on plankton organisms that had previously been exposed to dissolved oil in the water. With just two factors, oil and UV radiation and several doses of each, the experimental setup soon gets complicated and so do the statistics behind the study. 

In nature, there are almost always multiple factors involved in determining the chance of survival or the wellbeing of an organism. Changing temperatures may have direct and indirect effects because all of the organisms in an ecological network are affected in some ways.

In the ocean, temperature affects the chemistry, growth rates, food supply, even the density of the water and how much energy an organism needs to swim. With so many unknowns, it is hard to predict how our planet will react to the stressors of climate change.

In 2020, the Arctic has once again experienced change at a record-breaking pace; scientists are talking about an acceleration of climate change effects. At the same time, much research was halted because of coronavirus safety concerns for those involved in the programs. 

What we need during these times of environmental and political turmoil is a return to level-headedness and listening. One of the biggest fatalities of the last decades is a disregard for scientists.

By politicizing scientific results, we have lost the connection between scientific advice and political action. Let’s hope we can restore some of that in the years to come. Because we are the stewards of an amazing ocean planet and it is our privilege to take care of it.

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