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Millie LaFontaine: The entanglements of climate change

For the Monitor
Published: 9/19/2021 9:00:06 AM

During the pandemic, we have come to recognize more clearly that the world outside our doors is not something to guard against, but a safe haven against a lethal viral enemy. We are starting to recognize one more way our own health and well-being are inextricably intertwined with, and dependent upon, the continued health of the outdoor world. It’s high time we do because climate change is upon us!

I recently spent time camping on Hurricane Island at the Center for Science and Leadership off the Maine coast. It was a firsthand opportunity to learn about the very real threat climate change poses to the waters that surround us, and, importantly, the fellow creatures with whom we share this planet.

My experience with a wonderful group of like-minded citizens from across the country, known as the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, was eye-opening.

Most of us tend to think of the ocean in human terms, either as an unlimited resource or as a backdrop for recreation and adventure. The waters off the New England coast are, for most of us, beautiful but forbidding, great for lobster traps and fishing boats, but a little too chilly to get too close and personal with.

In fact, I learned on my trip that the waters of the Gulf of Maine are among the fastest-warming waters in the world. Furthermore, they are rapidly acidifying, and their chemical composition is changing. Sea levels are rising and coastal wetlands are becoming inundated with salt water, releasing the carbon they have stored for millennia into the atmosphere and the rest into the water, further contributing to global warming. The wildlife which has flourished there in such abundance, and which we have so long taken for granted, is in jeopardy.

Nothing occurs in isolation. Each little change, seemingly insignificant in itself, impacts virtually everything around it. Scallops and oysters have thrived in these waters for eons, but we discovered, walking alongside marine biologists and oystermen, that chemical and temperature changes and pollutants have had profound effects.

The intensity of light and the concentration of oxygen and nutrients on the seafloor have been altered. The shellfish beds have thus been depleted, and in turn, their ability to filter their environment for other sea life has been greatly compromised. This is a positive feedback loop with very negative consequences.

Warming waters in the Gulf of Maine have proven less habitable for cold-dwelling crustaceans like lobsters, so lobstermen have had to set their traps further out on the continental shelf to find them. And plankton, a vast floating community of microscopic plants and animals that serves as the very foundation of the aquatic food web, likewise have migrated farther out. This, in turn, has forced all the creatures that depend on plankton for food to follow.

One of the most majestic and endangered creatures in the world, the North Atlantic right whale, feeds on plankton. When Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick in 1851 about Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the Great White Whale there were as many as 10,000 right whales around the world. Today there are fewer than 350. The whaling industry started the decimation of the population, but it has taken climate change to bring the whale to the brink of extinction.

During the week of our trip, we were joined by the filmmaker and Boston Globe columnist David Abel and his family. He shared with us his extensive knowledge of the effects of climate change on the natural environment. This culminated in a viewing and discussion of his new film, Entangled.

The fate of the right whale is bound up with its need to follow its food source to the same regions where lobstermen are now setting their traps. The resulting entanglement of whales in lobster lines now exceeds ship collisions and other diseases as the chief cause of mortality among right whales.

Here is a dilemma we simply cannot turn our backs on. Our own fate is entwined with the fate of countless species on earth whether we recognize it or not. If we think the pandemic has radically altered life as we know it, we’ve got a whole lot more coming.

(Millie LaFontaine lives in Concord.)

My Turns are opinion-based essays submitted by Monitor readers and members of the community. The views expressed in My Turns are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Concord Monitor and its staff.

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