Rising Sea Levels and Ocean Pollution

By Laurana Smith

When we think of rising sea levels linked to Climate Change we generally think of the threat to coastal real estate and to agricultural land due to flooding, but there is another threat: pollution. Along the world’s densely populated coastlines, associated with all the activities of our industrial society, there are many areas that have chemical and organic pollutants and contaminants, such as, industrial areas, old contaminated sites, landfills, even the soil under petrol stations.  The thing is, water is a medium that can spread pollutants from their source. If, with rising sea levels, these areas get flooded or become part of the sea floor, their hazardous contents, which were previously sealed due to the fact of being located above water, could spread, polluting the ocean. Even areas that aren’t at immediately danger of flooding could be at risk. Increased frequency and intensity of storm activity associated with Climate Change and the fact, that, due to rising sea levels, natural phenomena such as king tides, storm surges even Tsunami could travel further inland because of the higher sea baseline, all these could spread contaminants from relatively secure containment areas and storage facilities. 

We often tend to think that the spread of pollutants is an accidental consequence of storms or cyclones. But we must realise that rising sea levels and the stronger storm activity associated with Climate Change will spread pollutants. This is another dimension of the Climate Change picture that needs to be taken seriously. Chemical and petroleum based products stored in port facilities, industrial areas, rail depots and farming areas, as well as rubbish and organic waste, in low lying areas all around the world need to be stored safely to prevent them being spread by flooding or storm events. But above all we need to address Climate Change, to stop rising sea levels and safeguard our oceans from pollution. Ocean pollution threatens marine ecosystems including delicate coral reefs and mangroves which are nurseries for many marine species, and we all depend on the humble Phyto-Plankton (the plant component of Plankton) and marine algae for our very life as they produce 50 to 70% of the oxygen we breathe.  If we compromise the health of marine ecosystems, we shoot ourselves in the foot!

This column is based on a presentation given by Laurana at Bathurst Panthers on 22 August 2016.