Cruisin’ for a Climate Change Bruisin’

December 5th, 2009 · 1 Comment · Guest Viewpoint


Stuart Kininmonth is a seafaring scientist – a sailor and researcher based on Magnetic Island, Queensland. Like every sector of society, yachties will be impacted  by climate change. And what hurts them, hurts us. Here is Stu’s take on the ill wind about to blow.

The light breeze fills the sails and quietly pushes me over the rolling seas towards Davies Reef, off Townsville. Cumulus clouds provide some relief from the tropical sun while Masked Boobies dive spectacularly into the fish-filled waters. It’s a perfect day yet on the horizon I can clearly see a storm brewing. It’s more perplexing than Switzerland winning the America’s cup, more devastating than the global financial crash and more controversial than Public Health Care. And unlike all of these, it is going to affect everyone of us. I am pointing to the climate change storm about to hit and strangely very few people seem to care. Most people casually say climate change is about the earth getting a bit warmer over the next century. A few degrees extra, as predicted by the science community, does not seem worth fussing over. Why then should we be concerned and more importantly what impact will this have on the cruising community?

First let’s pull some facts out of the confusion. Climate change is not about local weather patterns. As my father was fighting fires in Victoria, I was sheltering from the torrential rain in Townsville, yet these extremes of conditions should not be directly attributed to climate change (Although drought will become more common and more extreme in southern Australia in a changing climate world). Instead climate change is an evolving alteration to the conditions we live in. In particular the focus is all about the human population rapidly increasing the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the insulating layer around the earth. These gases trap the sun’s radiation and maintain the earth at 14 degrees on average. For the last twelve thousand years this atmospheric layer has been stable and human civilisation has been able to flourish. And we certainly did! In 1900 there were one and half billion people and now, in only a few generations, there are six and half billion. This massive increase combined with unprecedented energy consumption has pushed the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 284 parts per million when Captain Matthew Flinders was charting the Australian coast to 385 ppm today.

There can be no denying that our Developed Nations’ obsession with fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation has been the principal contributor to this increase, yet since this atmospheric change was highlighted in the 1960s, very little has been done. The main reason for this lack of action is that, until recently, there was some debate about what this extra carbon dioxide was doing, and short-sighted denial from a conservative Australian government and from the big end of town.

That time has now passed, the science is unquestionable, and the current government has a more realistic view. It is now a matter of how bad will it be and more importantly, how can the world work best together to turn this potentially catastrophic problem around. This is now even more urgent, as scientific groups, like the IPCC, have recently revealed that measured carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere now actually exceed the worst case scenarios proposed by the IPCC and that all the models predicting extent of global warming were simply too optimistic. Instead of waiting fifty years for the cold Polar Regions to melt, we are seeing millions of tonnes of ice rapidly disappearing in the Arctic each summer while the Antarctic temperatures have risen several degrees in 50 years! Even if just the ice in Arctic and Greenland melts, then the sea level will rise around 2 metres. Sounds like you could cope with this? Think again!

I will skip over the expected increase in droughts, fires, and floods that affect the land dwellers and the mass extinction of hundreds of species that is now starting to occur and focus on the key issues affecting the sailing community, namely sea level rise, storm intensity, disease spread and loss of coral reefs.

A combination of thermal expansion of the ocean and melting of polar ice has been quietly increasing the sea levels at only a few millimetres a decade. However there is growing concern that these processes could accelerate rapidly with a sudden collapse of the northern ice shelf resulting in a two metre surge – all happening in a few decades. On present trends alone the sea level will rise by almost a metre in the next 100 years. This will dramatically place the majority of marinas and ports in urgent need of upgrades. The full impact of the coastal erosion and the community flooding will be expensive to Australians and devastating to the Pacific Island communities.

And if your marina is going under water where will you shelter when the storms rage? For every degree increase in the ocean temperature there is a corresponding increase in cyclone category. Cyclones like Larry in 2006 which devastated Innisfail and surrounding areas was a Category 5. However many other cyclones in the past such as Tessi (Townsville April 2000) and Steve (Cairns February 2000) were only weak and did not cause much damage. In contrast, a Category 1 land-based depression in the Whitsundays caused havoc when its northerly winds damaged over 50 anchored or moored boats in Pioneer Bay, Airlie Beach in February 2008. Imagine if the majority of cyclones were Category 5, regularly throwing yachts onto the nearby beaches as happened with Althea in 1974. With temperatures increasing globally, cyclones will occur over more than the traditional summer months’ cyclone season, and extend further south to impact centres that are presently considered safe.

And if the storms make you nervous to leave the marina then at least keep the hatches closed against mosquitoes. As any cruiser who has ventured north of our borders will tell you, the biggest danger there is malaria. Over a million people every year die from malaria and many more suffer regular bouts of fever and lethargy. Here in Australia we are blessed that our mosquitoes are not carriers and often not the right species. As the temperature increases many of the dangerous mosquitoes will spread south into Queensland and will undoubtable lead to considerable suffering. Already established diseases such as the Ross River and Dengue viruses have increased their infection rates in new areas.

Avoiding these new tropical coastal perils and anchoring on nearby coral reefs will soon be very disappointing. As the level of carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, there is a corresponding increase in ocean acidity. This is disastrous to animals that use calcium carbonate for their shells or skeletons. Corals quickly crumble as the ocean dissolves the skeleton faster than the coral polyp can build them, leaving a crumbling weedy atoll. Fish and other marine life dependant on the reef are left exposed to predation and can quickly disappear. And don’t even start to think about what a loss of the Reef would mean for coastal Queensland as the Pacific swell reaches the now exposed shore.

So is all lost? Is there nothing we can do? Undoubtedly the solution involves many varied initiatives but more importantly, a cultural change is required. This is where the cruising community, more than any other community, can play a leading role. We understand how to live simply without excessive power generation and water use. Anyone who has cruised has had to monitor their battery amps and volts and their water tank levels and adjust their lifestyle accordingly. This is the opposite of life on land where many folks have little idea of what happens behind the switch or the water tap. We have also been living the alternative lifestyle with solar and wind generation combined with an attitude that says it’s OK to go slowly when there is little wind to drive us to our next destination. And more importantly we have found that a simpler lifestyle that feels the rhythm of the environment is a happier, more fulfilling, one. So don’t hold back telling everyone how you exist happily on solar panels and that you don’t need a 90” plasma screen. Continue to walk to the local markets for your supplies, consider eating less meat and continue to think twice before you fire up the engine on a calm day. It will all make a difference.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Anne

    Well said Stuart! Though i am not of the sea I relate to living within limits and heartily agree that it produces a great quality of life; a culture change for the better. Downshifting, observing and being a part of a world that is more than just human creates a satisfying life that asks us to be responsible and responsive. As my dear friend Val Plumwood said in her 2002 book Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason “Not only is it rationally possible to choose a richer and more generous framework, it is in the present context of ecological destruction essential to do so – in the interests of ethics, prudence AND reason”.

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