IT’S NOT TO BE. By the time we get back to the ship and out of our polar gear, we are already headed back to Argentina. Fast. Terrible storms are brewing in the Drake Passage, the savage body of water between us and South America. We can’t wait out this one because more are on the way. If we don’t leave right now, we’ll be stuck. It’s cut our time in Antarctica in half.
Even the crew is looking thoughtful, discreetly putting out seasickness bags — lots of them — in every corridor. It’s going to take us a couple of days to get back across the Drake, and word is the waves are expected to hit 18 metres high.
By the second night, it feels like we’re in a blender. At midnight, I open the drape covering my cabin window. I’m on the fourth deck, and the waves are a lot higher than me. It’s terrifying to be face to face with the fury of the ocean, whipped up, I suppose, by the winds Russell is studying. Carbon plus ozone hole equals temperature difference and more ferocious westerlies. Rarely in my life have I felt this vulnerable.
I can’t sleep, or even stay in my bed, so I start to think.
Over these past 10 years, all the trends I wrote about have intensified. The picture has become both sharper and bleaker. We always knew the stakes were high, but that, too, has come into clearer focus. In June 2019, biologists told us that a million species are in danger of extinction from our actions. Now, the geologists are weighing in, comparing today’s warm, breathless and sour ocean with oceans of the past. Life as we know it is in danger.
“Every time there was a mass extinction … you have this cocktail of higher acidification and higher temperature and lower oxygen,” says Gattuso, adding: “This cocktail was very deadly in the geological past. And it is this cocktail we are preparing ourselves for the ocean today.”
There’s no quick fix. For all our power, Homo sapiens cannot heal the ocean. We can only stop harming it. John Fyfe, senior scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada in Victoria, calculates that it could take millennia for the ocean to go back to normal once we stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. “The ocean,” he says, “has a very long memory.”
But stopping carbon emissions is not a technological problem any more. During the last decade, renewable energy has become cheaper than many fossil fuels. We have the knowledge we need to stop putting carbon into the atmosphere — and therefore the ocean — and we have roadmaps that will get us there without disrupting the economy.
“It’s not like disaster is coming and you are at a loss, you don’t know what to do,” says Gattuso. “We know what to do. We just need to implement it.”
Again and again, I throw open the drape, peer into the black waves. I feel as though the demons of the deeps are swallowing me up. Suddenly, I think of Joanie Kleypas, a marine ecologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. I met her in Puerto Rico when I was writing Sea Sick, and she explained ocean acidification to me for the first time.
She’s turned her attention to corals. They are even more endangered now than they were 10 years ago, the result of acidification, hot water, overfishing, disease, bleaching. Along with a team of young ecologists, she’s raising baby corals on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, the first major reef restoration project in Central America. They’re cinnamon brown and tough as nails. She calls them “corals of the hood.”
It’s become clear to her that corals, long known to be symbiotic with the phytoplankton that live inside them and feed them, have now become symbiotic with humans.
“We have to be part of their survival,” she says.
I wonder if it’s even bigger than that. Have we become symbiotic with life as we know it, no matter where it is on the planet? We certainly need some creatures for our own survival, for oxygen, climate control, pollination, food, to name a few.
But how many species can be lost before we die off, too? What if we are dependent on whales and penguins and krill and phytoplankton and the thousands of other creatures we evolved with in ways we are only beginning to glimpse? Mass extinction, I fear, fails to discriminate.
At the end of Sea Sick, I asked a question: What story do you tell yourself about why you are here? Looking out the window of my cabin into the frenzied Drake, I ask it again. We have run out of time. Now we have to choose whether we will hurtle further into destruction or pull back and restore what we’ve lost. It’s life or death.
Firmly, I close the drape. I shut out the demons. I will not give in. I am here to press on. I am here to find hope, wherever it is.