Change Is In The [Water]

From Patrick Flanagan, Ph.D student in Oceanography, while doing fieldwork in the Philippines last week:

IMG_2060_smThere’s not much to listen to while scuba diving… mostly your own bubbles, and the Rice Krispies pops and crackles of coral-munching fish and disgruntled snapping shrimp. If they made underwater headphones, I’d totally be rocking out like Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, or getting into my Steve Zissou groove, while I spend my hours searching for and tagging anemones and clownfish.

But the quiet found, as you slowly glide over vast expanses of reef, pausing to observe an odd creature or jot down some notes, is definitely good for a little meditation.

Specifically, thinking about change.

I used to worry a lot about change. When I worked on Coho salmon restoration and marine science education in California, I was exasperated with the plight of the dwindling endangered fish, frustrated with the amount of pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing I saw, despondent over the swelling tidal wave of climate change coming to natural systems everywhere. It was paralyzing, and heartbreaking. I cared so much that it made me not want to care any more, which was contrary to my nature.

I decided to take a small step outside of my feelings about change, and instead put on my scientist hat and start thinking about change. I did my best to try to observe how the natural world is changing, instead of placing positive or negative values on those changes.

Change can be scary. Sometimes it’s exciting. Sometimes it is overwhelming, or invigorating, but it can just as easily go unnoticed. Depending on your perspective, change can be historically cataclysmic, or it can be mosquito-fart inconsequential. But change is inevitable, especially in nature. And nature, like a scientist, doesn’t place value on things.

This has turned out to be very important here in the Philippines.

The reefs we’re studying are not what they once were. It’s clear from the intricate and expansive algae-covered structures we see on every dive: these were once vibrant reefs, populated with countless species of thriving corals and fish. Over the last several decades, with overfishing, agricultural runoff, pollution, dynamiting, invasive species, tropical storms and climate change, these reefs have been hit hard. Much of the old reef is now a mossy brownish-green; ancient ruins in an overgrown forest. Even the banded sea snakes have become bandless pea snakes. And don’t worry about sharks: on these reefs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fish bigger than your hand.

But it’s not dead–far from it. Life continues here, in between the rubble of blasted coral, the spiderwebs of discarded fishing net, the plastic bags and diapers. For one, it is a fantastic place to live if you’re a species of encrusting algae, or one of the many invisible jellyfish floating about, stinging unsuspecting marine biologists.

It’s also still a place where anemones can do well, and they and the soft corals are surrounded by a still diverse set of fishes, crabs, nudibranchs, worms, sea stars, and so much more. And the most bizarre creature I’ve ever almost-accidentally-touched: a six foot-long sea cucumber that looked like a swimming pool lane marker mated with a monster from Tremors.

I don’t know what these reefs looked like a hundred years ago, but I can make educated guesses.  A before-and-after photo would probably be a punch to the gut.

Or, it could be historically inconsequential.

Twenty thousand years ago, global sea level was nearly 400 feet lower. Where these troubled reefs stand would instead have been the lush foothills of the stunning mountains that tower over this island. The nearest coral reefs would have been on the other side of Leyte, lining the edge of the Philippine Trench.

Ten thousand years from now, sea level will likely have risen such that these waters would be far too deep for any light-dependent coral polyp to even consider living here. As they have for hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history, coral reefs will move up and down the peripheries of islands, following the shallow waters of the millenial tides.

Yes, it is hard on individuals, and on many generations of corals and the plethora of organisms, including Filipino fishermen, that depend on them. And on the scale of a human lifetime, this change is dramatic.

But ultimately, this is just change, on a larger scale–not good, not bad, just change.

Malin and his colleagues recently published a paper in Science outlining the trend of disappearing ocean species, pointing to a developing ocean counterpart to the Anthropocene Extinction Event well underway on land. This is change on a level seen only a few times in the history of the planet, Through our actions, our inactions, and our unintended consequences, we’re in the running to get a Most Change Caused trophy, like the one given to the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

At this point, it looks like our dependence on fossil fuels (like the leaded gasoline they sell in Coke bottles on the side of the road here) is far from dwindling. And our best models are starting to show that, even if all carbon production stopped tomorrow, global temperatures will continue to rise into the next century.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, then, the question should shift away from “How can we stop (or reverse) it?” to “How are we going to adapt to it?” What do we want our oceans to look like in a hundred years? If change is going to happen, can we influence how it affects us and the other species we depend on, or will we just adapt our livelihoods, like the reefs, to the rising and falling tides?

There’s not a lot of options for food here… it’s mostly fried chicken, bananas, and white rice. I’ve tried the tiny, two-bite filleted-and-fried fish they serve in the cafeteria here. They’re a bit too bony for my taste.

I wonder what fish we’ll have to eat when I’m 100 years old.

I hope, at least, we’ll have waterproof headphones by then.