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A Grueling Sporting Event Is Doing Science

April 02, 2023

UN Votes to Send Climate Change Issues to World Court

People have tried before and failed, which makes the recent effort by a group of students all the more remarkable. About four years ago, law students from eight Pacific islands—all threatened by climate change—urged nations including Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji to go to the World Court with their complaint that countries weren't doing enough to fight global warming.  

Because of climate change, Vanuatu—a chain of islands in the South Pacific—could be uninhabitable by the middle of this century. | Credit: eGuide Travel

Last week, the United Nations General Assembly agreed and passed a resolution asking the International Court of Justice—also known as the World Court—to define the obligations of countries to address global warming, a move that could clarify international law. It was adopted with more than 130 nations co-sponsoring and without any votes opposed.

The tiny country of the Republic of Vanuatu then took the lead and was joined by Germany, Costa Rica, and 15 nations. Vanuatu is a chain of islands in the South Pacific that has been ranked with the highest disaster risk worldwide from volcanoes, storms, and earthquakes. And because of climate change, the islands could be uninhabitable by the middle of this century. Efforts by the Marshall Islands and Palau to get the World Court to determine what countries must do failed more than a decade ago.

Now, the World Court, which was established in 1945 to settle legal disputes between states and to give advisory opinions, will start the legal proceedings. Any opinion it issues on what countries must do to fight the climate crisis would not be legally enforceable, but it could persuade nations to limit emissions and could also clarify the financial obligations countries have to assist others.

One expert, Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Reuters that a decision by the World Court could be very influential with other courts around the world that are hearing a growing number of climate change cases. Secretary General of the UN António Guterres said before the vote that the court could provide much-need clarification on international obligations and it could assist states to take bolder and stronger climate action.

While the U.S. and China did not vote against the resolution, neither of the two largest greenhouse gas-emitting nations supported it. The World Court could issue an opinion in 18 months.

Seabed Mining Now More Likely Despite Studies Showing Potential Dangers

It was just weeks ago that the member states of the United Nations agreed upon an international treaty that will, when ratified, protect the biodiversity of the high seas, but it was learned last week that the world's oceans are still not safe. The UN International Seabed Authority will soon begin accepting applications from companies and countries to mine the seabed floor, which according to the Associated Press, is opposed by many because of the potential harm to marine environments.

The nodules strewn across the seafloor are phosphorites with ferromanganese crusts and were deposited millions of years ago. They grow about two millimeters every million years. | Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, 2019 Southeastern U.S. Deep-Sea Exploration

Deep in many oceans are potato-sized nodules that contain cobalt, zinc, and other minerals that are used in batteries. They are abundant in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawai’i and Mexico.

While the UN Seabed Authority was meeting last week, an updated report was released showing the risks of deep-sea mining. According to the wildlife conservation organization Fauna & Flora International, there’s no proven technique to harvest the nodules that avoids the loss of biodiversity, and they also say the harm could be irreversible. Chile, France, Palau, and Fiji have called for a global moratorium on seabed mining, citing a lack of scientific data.

Fauna & Flora International, in which Sir David Attenborough, the well-known naturalist, has been involved for over six decades, raised its concerns about seabed mining three years ago, and says that the disturbance of carbon stored in sediment could contribute to the climate crisis.

Even if companies apply to mine the depths starting this July, whether they will be granted a permit is uncertain because the UN Authority has not approved any rules and regulations about the controversial practice.

A Canadian mining startup, the Metals Company, reportedly intends to ask for approval to start operating in 2024. Advocates of mining argue that seabed mining is safer and less destructive than mining on land.  However, many critics say there just isn’t enough research to judge the impacts on marine ecosystems.

Antarctic Water “Lung Function” Could Soon Collapse

“If the oceans had lungs, this would be one of them.” That’s a description by Matthew England at the University of Sydney, Australia, about the cold, salty, oxygen-rich water near Antarctica that drives how currents move around the planet.

Credit: Christopher Michel/Creative Commons

For thousands of years, cold water off Antarctica sinks toward the seabed, and in a process known as the “overturning circulation,” lifts nutrient- and oxygen-rich seawater from the ocean floor and sends it toward the surface around the globe to support marine life. But, England says, that lung function could soon collapse, threatening ocean health for centuries to come.

In a new study, England and his team say global warming is melting Antarctic ice and causing freshwater to flow into the ocean that’s less salty and less dense and therefore doesn’t sink. Writing in The Conversation, he says that’s all that’s needed to slow the entire conveyor belt of ocean circulation, leaving nutrients stuck on the seafloor and unable to support ecosystems. The researchers calculated that if global carbon emissions continue at the current rate, the Antarctic overturning circulation will slow by more than 40 percent in the next 30 years.

An overturning slowdown would also have the effect of reducing the ocean’s ability to take up carbon dioxide, leaving more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which would then cause more warming that melts sea ice, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

The Toughest and Longest Sailing Race Is Also Doing Science

The Ocean Race is described as the longest and perhaps most dangerous sporting event in the world. It’s a marathon where sailors compete for months and travel 32,000 nautical miles around the globe in some of the planet’s toughest waters, including the Southern Ocean that encircles Antarctica.

Credit: The Ocean Race

Because the Southern Ocean is vast and remote—the closest humans are ones on the International Space Station as it passes overhead—it’s been difficult for scientists to study but also crucial because much of what happens in this southern sea affects global climate. Luckily, four teams are in that region now sailing the third leg of The Ocean Race from Cape Town, South Africa toward Brazil. And as they navigate to avoid icebergs and brace against gale force winds, they’ll be doing vital science to assess ocean health.

Some boats will take water samples to measure carbon dioxide, oxygen, salinity, and temperature to provide insights about climate change and also measure trace elements like zinc, iron, and manganese, which are vital for plankton—the base of the ocean food chain and the biggest producers of ocean oxygen. Other boats will collect samples to test for microplastics and the entire fleet will have onboard sensors to measure air temperature, wind speed, and barometric pressure to improve weather forecasts and predict extreme weather events, as well as reveal insights on longer-term climate trends.

Each team will drop buoys to collect data on sea surface temperatures as the planet warms, and while the buoys drift, they will transmit information about currents to understand where that heat is moving. All the data will be sent in real time to several partner science organizations, which will then share their findings with governments to urge them to take action on climate and plastic pollution.

The race will finish in June, but the race to save our oceans is on now—and is, the organizers say, a contest we definitely must win.