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Prof. Peter Ward (book link) joined Ian Punnett for a discussion on how the BP oil spill in the Gulf will impact the delicate ecosystems of the world's oceans, and potentially trigger a series of events, including global sea level rise, that could devastate our planet. According to a recent Associated Press article, an estimated 2 billion gallons of oil could end up pouring into the Gulf over the next few years if the leak can't be stopped. That much oil would destroy plankton (the base of the ocean's food chain) and completely wipe out nearshore ecosystems, Ward explained, noting that it is the equivalent of a two-mile diameter asteroid slamming into the region.
Prevailing currents could spread the leak to other areas, such as the Atlantic Ocean. There the heat-absorbing oil-water mix would likely interfere with thermohaline circulation, the vital cycle that carries oxygenated water to the deep ocean, causing the death of marine life at the bottom of the sea, Ward continued. The increased temperatures would speed the melting of Greenland's ice sheet as well. "If all the ice on Greenland melts, we go up 24 feet of sea level," he noted. In addition, Ward said one of the scariest prospects of the spill will be the massive quantity of poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas that will be produced as the oil breaks down. And there's even more to worry about.
Burning of the surface oil in the Gulf is contributing to higher carbon dioxide emissions, something Ward believes will exacerbate global warming and hasten the melting of arctic ice. A sea level rise of just three feet would be enough to destroy up to 20% of human agriculture, as well as cost $15-$30 trillion to retrofit shipping docks for the new sea level, he said. Ward expects such an increase in sea level to occur within the next several decades (based on current warming trends), and thinks it will lead to conflict between nations as populations increase and usable land is lost to the rising oceans. Ward suggested safe places to live in the future will be located in the Pacific Northwest mountains and Appalachian regions of the country.