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SFIFF52 review: “A Sea Change” a riveting new documentary on ocean acidification by Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby

Sven Huseby and grandson Elias at the Monterey Aquarium

Sven Huseby and grandson Elias at the Monterey Aquarium

We could all be so lucky to have Norwegian Sven Huseby as our grandfather.  After he read Elizabeth Kolbert’s riveting article “The Darkening Sea” in the New Yorker, ( PDF) Huseby, a retired schoolteacher, and his wife, director Barbara Ettinger, were so impacted that they spent two years traveling the world and documenting the scientific impact of ocean acidification on sea life.  Sven becomes enamored with pteropods, or sea butterflies, which evolved during the Cenozoic Era as the dinosaurs were becoming extinct.  These beautiful creatures have fragile shells made from calcium carbonate, as are many sea species’ shells and skeleton. As the ocean water becomes more and more acidic, it is this calcium carbonate which is dissolving and inhibiting the calcification process which forms new shells and skeletons.  This is driving species, from tiny pteropods and phytoplankton to massive corals, to extinction and undermining the food chain and ecosystem of the ocean. Ultimately as sea life dies, its impact will cascade beyond the oceans to land animals and eventually man. The film makes us uncomfortably aware that all of life is at risk along with Huseby’s beloved tiny pteropods.

 Ocean acidification is one of the many little known and dire side effects of our anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases and is due primarily to our burning fossil fuels for energy.  While the most popularized consequence is global warming (the gradual increase in the average worldwide temperature), the ever increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are also being rapidly dissolved into our oceans, driving its pH down and increasing acidity. Ocean acidification is the dark cousin of Global Warming. While the oceans have always been part of the overall balance in absorbing CO2 as part of the natural Carbon cycle, the massive emissions of man have overwhelmed the ocean’s natural balanced capacity to absorb CO2.

The message of “A Sea Change” is that we have reached one of many tipping points due to our CO2 emissions.  A tipping point is a point of no return. The damage done becomes irreversible or actually begins positively feeding itself and accelerating.  With near universal agreement, scientists say that we are burning fossil fuels at a rate that is fundamentally altering the ocean chemistry.  CO2 emissions have dramatically increased our atmospheric CO2 which is driving excessive carbonic acid H2CO3 formation.  This is the acid in the acidification.  After absorbing the equivalent of 118 billion metric tons of CO2 in the past 200 years and 42% of that in the past 20 years, the ocean’s capacity for absorbing CO2 without any change in pH has been stressed too far.  Acidification has increased and is currently increasing at an unprecedented rate.  Steady increases in CO2 emissions and the steady rise in ocean acidification will result in a complete bottom-up collapse of the world’s fish and this could last millions of years.  This is a mere blip in geologic time but it is longer than man as a species has existed on Earth. We risk not just damaging the ocean’s eco-system; we are threatening life on Earth’s very foundation.  The Earth does not care: it will recover as it did after the dinosaur’s age. We should care because our survival is at stake.

The film strongly makes the point that ocean acidification is a FACT and while it may be too late to reverse the situation, we need to buy as much time as possible to prepare alternative forms of energy and to learn to live on this planet without depleting it.  This is just one of many CO2 emission-based crises we face due to our generation’s hunger for energy.  We need to both inform and change direction NOW.    If you have children, grandchildren or any investment in life on this planet, “A Sea Change”  is a must see film that tells this story through the voice of a grandfather who is concerned that his American grandson, Elias, will never know the seas as he did.  Huseby invites us along on his own learning journey and we gather information with him and share in his letters, postcards and phone calls to his grandson, Elias.

Huseby begins his journey by meeting Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of “The Darkening Sea,” the article that so grabbed his attention.  Kolbert admits she was saddened by her own teenager’s remark that the world is a now degraded place and this is the problem of having been born so late.  We accompany Huseby to Alaskan fishing villages to witness the devastation of the Exxon Valdez spill, to the barren glacial beaches of arctic Ny Alesund, Norway, to conferences and laboratories, capturing breathtaking oceanic cinematography.  Sven’s travels are interwoven with warm conversations with his grandson, teenagers and leading experts on ocean acidification who themselves have children and grandchildren.  In asking his grandson what gift he would like brought back from Seattle, Elias asks for a dinosaur.  Might this be another veiled reference to the last great age of dominance by the dinosaurs on our planet Earth and their fate of extinction?

At a University of Washington Conference on Climate change in Seattle, Huseby meets Dr. Edward Miles, University of Washington, who admits “We the scientific community had underestimated both the magnitude and rate of global climate change.”  Dr. Miles is seemingly referring to the heavily politically motivated conservatative predictions made by the scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Huseby meets with conference participant oceanographer Dr. Richard Feely, of NOAA, (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and learns that we now have equipment to precisely measure CO2 output, ocean acidification, and the changes in temperature, chemistry, ecosystems and biology that are happening simultaneously.  Scientists have learned that our oceans are absorbing 22 million pounds of CO2 daily and they initially thought the solution was to enhance that absorption. When they went out to sea and collected data, they learned instead that the ocean’s absorptive capacity has been taxed and the consequences are dire.

There are now 387 parts per million of CO2 in the air, the highest figure in 650,000 years.  Experts agree that we are facing a potential mass extinction event for coral in a world that reaches 500 parts per million and there’s no telling how mankind will fare as the chain reaction kicks in.

In Alaska, Husbey meets Jeff Short, NOAA, Ocean Chemist who tells him “This is a tremendously high stakes crap shoot, and the more acid we put in the ocean, the more likely it is that fundamentally bad things will happen…no more coral reefs, shell fish… forever.. for our human race.   You can’t talk nature out of this. We’ve been in this very stable environment, climatologically, for 20,000 years and now we are committed to leaving that stable environment and we don’t really know where we going to go but we do know it’s get a lot more variable and a lot of things are going to die.  There will be a lot of extinctions.”

Running about an hour and half, the film covers the topic in a thoroughly understandable way.  The science is clear and the delivery visually dynamic.  Want to drive home the point to kids or kids at heart?  Learn to speak their language— scientist Deborah Williams, President, Alaska Conservation Solutions, collected spare baby teeth from children and soaked these teeth in acidified water (water with added CO2  with pH = 4), (normal water is pH =7).  Within three weeks, the acid had cracked the teeth.  Imagine what is happening to our coral reefs or to delicate pteropod shells.  It gets very scary when later in the film Huseby gets in a row boat with a long time friend in Norway and they row themselves out to the melting glaciers where they (and we) can see and hear the impact of the melt.  Might Huseby be eluding to yet other catastrophic consequence of our energy addiction and CO2 emissions of dramatic sea level rise and the potential thermohaline circulation shutdown by melting ice’s fresh water?  These are two other ocean-related consequences threatening our survival along with ocean acidification that emerge in this one shot in the film.

We have only enough fossil fuel to last two centuries, which seems significant to individuals now living, but to use this fuel, we are changing the ocean for millions of years.  Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institute, Stanford University puts it bluntly “We are running an irreversible experiment in the one ocean we have.  We are saying we’re going to acidify the ocean and see what happens.  We have no idea what it will do to higher life forms but we will know in a few decades, so just hang on.”

Huseby takes us to the cutting edge Solstrand Hotel in Bergen, Norway, which is heated entirely with wind turbines and no CO2 generation.  He takes us to Sostra Island, West of Bergen, to see these giant wind turbines and talks with two men who dream of developing a large wind park that will completely power all of Norway. This is a glimpse of hope at what so far has been a dire journey through just this one acidification consequence of our anthropogenic emissions of CO2.

Back in the US, Huseby meets with Miyoko Sakashita, an environmental lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity, who believes it is not too late to solve the problem.  In the absence of much-needed national CO2 emissions regulations, the center is focused on legal and policy strategies that various states can enact.  It has initiated a lawsuit that has convinced the EPA to look into the possible application of the Clean Water Act to tighten its water criteria for ocean acidity.  The center is asking several coastal states to use the Clean Water Act to regulate CO2 emissions and to place segments of the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans under the states’ jurisdictions as “impaired” for pH on their Clean Water Act 303(d) lists.  Once these water bodies are listed, states are required to take action to limit the pollutants causing the problem.  The Endangered Species Act is another very strong law that the center is working with to protect endangered ocean species.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s approach via the CWA and EPA is to be applauded but Huseby fails to mention the important need for strong international policy in this area and that only an all out effort will turn this crisis around.  The efforts of coastal states are minuscule…coastal bodies are but a drop in the bucket…the larger seas they connect to and the lack of US support for the Kyoto Protocol which attempts to limit greenhouse gases.

Huseby takes us to Google’s innovative and energy-efficient headquarters in Mountain View, CA, where Suntech Energy Solutions of San Rafael designed and installed 7 acres of solar panels which supply 1.6 megawatts or 30% of all power used by Google.   Accolades to Google, but it is one of the most profitable companies of all times; what can smaller companies who currently cannot afford to implement solar solutions do to move towards energy independence?   What additional incentives should be offered them?  

Thomas W. Van Dyck, a Sr. VP and financial consultant at CIMA (Greenwich, CT), tells Huseby that clean technology will eclipse information technology as the new industry of the 21st Century.  Products focused around reducing carbon output as means of adding value that can be exported should be the focus of entrepreneurs and our nation.  The point, not expressed strongly enough, is that we as a nation need to make this our urgent priority.  And it goes without saying–if we don’t move forward and capture the market in this area, the Chinese will.

Currently, Germany, Japan and Spain have larger markets for solar energy than the US but we have a huge solar opportunity.  While the movie did not mention this, a January 8, 2008 article in Scientific AmericanA Solar Grand Plan” stated that $420 billion in government subsidies from 2011 to 2050 would fund the infrastructure to switch our country from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar power plants.  By 2050, these plants could supply 69 percent of the U.S. electricity and 35 percent of its total energy.  That investment is substantial, but the payoff is even greater.

Solar plants consume little or no fuel, saving billions of dollars year after year. The infrastructure would displace 300 large coal-fired power plants and 300 more large natural gas plants and all the fuels they consume.  For roughly one half our current military budget, this plan would effectively eliminate all imported oil, dramatically reducing U.S. trade deficits and easing political tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere.  By the way, this cost is slighlty more than the already spent $350B of the $700B total authorized for the recent bank bailout.   Are banks more important than our oceans and potentially life on Earth?   A plan similar to the “Solar Grand Plan” would not only help protect our ocean’s from acidification but free us from our oil addiction and lead us to true energy independence with far reaching ecological, economic and social benefits.   It’s too bad that the film was completed after this poorly-executed fiasco.

“Because Solar technologies are almost pollution free, the plan would also reduce greenhouse gas emission from power plants by 1.7 billion tons per year, and another 1.9 billion tons from gasoline vehicles would be displaced by plug-in hybrids refueled by the solar power grid.  In 2050 U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be 62 percent below 2005, putting a major brake on global warming.”  The Solar Photovoltaic technology that is the basis of that plan dramatically benefits in cost and size from technological advances over time as in Moore’s Law that drove the semiconductor and PC revolution. That same miracle that took us from 1970s transitor radios to today’s cell phones, PDAs and PC’s could be applied NOW to the oil addiction, energy, CO2, Global Warming and ocean acidification problem in a manner similar to the “Solar Grand Plan”.  If we don’t, the Chinese will as the Japanese did with electronics and automobiles. If we can spend trillions of dollars on wars in part to protect our oil supplies, bail out banks and save our automobile industry, why wouldn’t we apply some of that money to the Moore’s Law leveraged photovoltaic solution that is so obvious? Over 50,000 times the total energy usage of the entire world is simply wasted every day as sunlight falls warmly on the Earth while our oceans slowly die.

 “A Sea Change” presents compelling facts and it should be shown and discussed in every school and home in America.   The screening of this film could go hand in hand with a discussion of some of the things the film did not have time to develop such as  the geo-engineering that might safely absorb some of the COthat could buy us time–massive reforestation, ocean iron fertilization and neutralization and CO2 scrubbing, capture and storage techiques.   For those of us from the generation who rocked to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 “Bad Moon Rising” we need to take heed…there is a bad moon rising and we need to sound the alarm for the generation that will inherit this mess.  

A special forum “Ocean Acidification: Imagining a World Without Fish” will take place Saturday April 25, 5:45 pm, following the screening with several of the experts featured in the film present to discuss the latest findings.

Screens: San Francisco International Film Festival: Sat April 25, 3:45 pm, Mon April 27, 6:15 pm, Thurs April 30, 1:30 pm, all at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.  Tickets: , or by phone (925) 866-9559 or in person at the main ticket outlet, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.  Price $12.50 general public.

April 24, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment