- We are off the scale
On Okinawa, Statsraaad Lehmkuhl changed the crew. One of those walking up the gangway was Øyvind Paasche, working at the research institute NORCE. - Adapting to climate change will be more demanding than most people can imagine, he says.
In the 13 months Statsraad Lehmkuhl has been on the One Ocean Expedition, the crew has changed several times. Adventurous tall ship enthusiasts manned the ship around Cape Horn, climate and ocean researchers sailed through the Caribbean, cadets from the Naval Academy took on the tough task of crossing the Atlantic in midwinter, and this summer the ship was full of students combining a course and sailing across the Pacific Ocean.
On Okinawa, Øyvind Paasche, who heads the climate department of the research institute NORCE, walked up the gangway together with other leaders from business, organisations, and public administration.
The main reason for meeting on board and not in a hotel is the ship and the mission it is on. Many of them have met each other before, wearing business suits. Now they were going to spend time together in shorts and a t-shirt. Being in the same boat, sleeping shoulder to shoulder in hammocks, and pulling ropes together to get the sails up and Statsrad Lehmkuhl moving.
- It's nice to get away from everyday life, leave the mobile in the cupboard, and team up with the others. Close. Take care of your duties, feel that your effort means something. It gets you closer to the ocean, closer to the important things being discussed, says Paasche.
- I can hardly think of a better setting for the discussions and gatherings we have here on the boat. You just have to accept having your normal sleep pattern ruined, in return you get good food served three times a day.
The fellow sailors are divided into watch teams, and do all the practical tasks that need to be done on board. The time not spent adjusting sails, keeping lookout and scrubbing decks, is used for group work and discussions.
- We talk constantly. Everyone participates, everyone contributes, says Paasche.
- The topic of many of these discussions is how to come up with solutions to the problems that are present in the political arena. We have been very good at sharing some of the experience we all have I believe, the good will to do the right thing. I feel that the commitment and the insight that is shared in the groups here on the ship, will be very valuable in the time to come, he says.
- And I also believe we will see new constellations, new ways of cooperation, between some of the parties who are on the boat, and who have decided that they want to try something new, find solutions to common problems in new ways.
In the last 30 years, the sea has taken up as much as 90 percent of the extra heat that the emissions of greenhouse gases have resulted in. Paasche is a trained geophysicist, and has done research in climate and climate dynamics for many years. He is worried.
- We see that the sea is getting warmer, not only at the surface, but also further down in the depths. And we see that the ocean is becoming more acidic, that the ocean contains less oxygen, and then a large-scale change that affects coasts around the world, namely sea level rise, he says.
What are the consequences of this?
- The fact that the ocean is becoming more acidic is because we are increasing the content of CO2 in the atmosphere through emissions. Some of this is taken up in the sea, and changes the pH value. This gives some of the organisms building shells problems. The shells are very important, it is inside them that the organisms live.
When the environment changes, organisms are able to adapt. The individuals that cope best with the new environment survive, and pass their genes on to their offspring. But this takes time.
- The question now is whether ocean acidification is happening so quickly that the organisms are unable to adapt, says Paasche.
- The ocean has been changing for quite some time, but some of the changes have only become visible to us now. Part of the reason for that is that we have been through a major data revolution. The international research community has launched unmanned vessels in the oceans, making measurements of the density of the water, salt and temperature. Now we have enough measurements to show us trends.
The heat that the sea has absorbed will at some point escape again, when the water masses that circulate down in the depths surface again.
- Even if we reach the 1.5 degree target, many of the changes in the ocean will continue. Perhaps at a slightly lower speed if we manage to reduce the emissions, but they will still continue for several hundred years, says Paasche.
In Norway, the goal is a 55% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases in 2030, and 85-90% reduction in 2050
- Even if we manage this, the sea level will still rise. It is something we have to accept, and build into the way we adapt, says Paasche.
- A human generation is 30 years, so several generations will experience sea level rise. In some areas the sea rises more than in others for various reasons. Like for the temperature, which increases most over the polar regions, the effect of sea level rise will be different in different regions. So these are the changes that we have to deal with, regardless of whether we manage to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement or not.
Paasche believes we must look further ahead than we have done so far.
- We relate too little to what the world will be like in 2100 or 2150 for that matter. We have to have a much longer perspective and we have to make big changes that we will not see the effect of immediately. This is difficult for us, you know, to put a lot of costs into something that we don't automatically see the effect of, but which in the long term will help to undo the injustice we have done to the natural system.
You said earlier today that we live in a permanent crisis, what do you mean by that?
- We have these goals that we strive for, that we should keep the changes down to 1.5 degrees, and let's hope that we succeed. But it is also important to understand that since we call it a goal, it sounds like we have finished the race when we reach the goal. But what we have actually done is to change how the entire climate system works. So the adaptations are going to be demanding even in a world that is only one and a half or two degrees warmer. More demanding than most of us can imagine. That is why I also tend to say that we are heading into a situation that can best be described as a permanent crisis. At least with a human perspective. So we have to sort of scale up and develop ways to adapt to challenges that we haven't seen so far.
So even if we manage to reduce emissions, will we never get the same ocean back?
- This is an interesting and fun research question. In model studies, scientists have tried to first increase CO2, and then reverse again, to see if we end up in the same place where we left off. And those studies indicate that we end up with a different ocean than the one we started with. What the ocean can handle when it comes to climate change, and still let us harvest from it, we cannot say, but we are sure that we will end up with a different ocean.
Scary, because the sea is also extremely important for life on land. And time is getting very short.
- We are in an incredibly critical decade. It is now that we have the opportunity to reduce the rapidly rising trend that we are in. We have a higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere than we have had in millions of years. So we have, in a sense, completely off the scale, this is why it is so critical for us to get back to a lower level, says Paasche.
Are people willing to make the choices that need to be made and change their lives?
- For my own part, I notice that I find it difficult, so I understand that others think so too. What we do on an individual level is one thing, it is important, but what is perhaps even more important is what we do on a large scale, national and international scale, and what we decide as the international direction. There are 196 countries that have signed the Paris Agreement. I would like to see many more progressive initiatives, which do not necessarily encompass 196 countries, but which perhaps consisted of the Nordic countries, says Paasche.
- Most people realize that the situation is serious, but we have probably not fully understood the seriousness of the scale, how far behind we are. Sometimes I say that the ocean buys us time. Many of the big changes have been so generously absorbed by the ocean, and it is a wonderful climate system service, if we can call it so. And the best way to return this service is to scale up our efforts internationally.
Grandmother and grandfather
You spend a lot of time leading scientists trying to find answers, but do you also have a personal relationship with the ocean?
- I have a fairly close relationship with the ocean, because I grew up with a grandmother and grandfather living on the edge of it, at Fosen. Since I was a little boy, I got to go fishing and set nets. There were no motorboats at the time, you had to row. And this probably gave me a much closer relationship with the sea than I would otherwise have, answers Paasche.
- And then I feel that the species we once fished for 30-40 years ago..., it seems to me that the ecosystem is undergoing a fundamental change. So I have a personal feeling of losing things.