The Earth Heats Up and Coral Reefs Diminish

While scientists and policy makers have grappled for decades over the hot-button issue of global warming, a groundbreaking new study firmly establishes the fact that the earth is heating up as a result of worldwide industrialization.

The study, published in the April 28, 2005 issue of Science, is led by James Hansen, one of NASA’s top climatologists. Hansen and other researchers, using ocean data collected over a 10-year period, conclusively found that the warming trend of the ocean could not be attributed to natural variation. Rather, the oceanic warming they found fit in precisely with the expected effects of modern industrialization.

How does global warming affect the oceanic habitat and the plants and creatures that reside in the ocean? Coral reefs, which are very sensitive to even small temperature changes in the ocean, are nature’s barometer of oceanic warming. As a result of global warming, scientists have observed the massive bleaching of coral reefs around the globe.

The “bleaching” of coral reefs occurs when coral reefs are stressed by environmental factors and expel the tiny algae that live on them. The algae are important because they give the reefs their color and provide food for them. After a severe bleaching, coral reefs often die.

Coral reefs suffer bleaching as a result of many environmental factors, such as pollution and destructive fishing practices; however warming is perhaps the most important cause of the bleaching of coral reefs. As global warming continues, the bleaching and death of coral reefs around the world may become an unavoidable reality.

Another example of how sensitive ocean creatures are to climate change are phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants that live near the surface of the ocean and use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Phytoplankton are important because they are the foundation of the marine food chain. When surface waters are too warm, this prevents the cooler nutrient-rich waters from swelling up to the surface where the phytoplankton live. If phytoplankton are not able to grow properly, it will disrupt the entire oceanic food chain.

While the ocean is able to absorb a great deal of heat without a large temperature change, we can see that the creatures that live in the ocean are greatly affected by even these minute temperature increases. So far, the ocean surface temperatures around the world have risen by an average of .9 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists predict at least another degree of warming over the next 100 years – even without further greenhouse emissions. Warming could also occur much more quickly if protective policies are not implemented.

The best way to help prevent continued global warming is by adopting an earth-conscious lifestyle – the most important step being to move towards a vegetarian diet. Few people realize that one third of the earth’s fossil fuels are used to raise animals for food. Gradually eliminating flesh foods from our diet is the simplest way to help conserve energy and preserve the environment. For more tips on how you can help protect our oceans, check out the Make Everyday Earth Day and Health Tips sections of our website.

Saving the Reefs

by Tracy Rohland

Coral reefs are known as the “Rain forests of the Ocean.” Countless varieties of marine life depend on them for their survival. And as they are dwindling away, it is important that every person respect the reefs and do what they can to help. While one person cannot single-handedly reverse the effect of global warming, there are many small things you can do to reduce your personal impact on the reefs. According to Environmental Defense marine ecologist Rod Fujita, "Corals are sensitive but also very resilient – if conditions are right. If we can reduce some of the other direct stresses from human activities on coral reefs, like pollution from non-point sources, perhaps that may also enable reefs to cope better with indirect threats like climate change." Oceans Alive, a group dedicated to protecting and preserving marine ecosystems, suggests the following tips in regards to beach and ocean care.

  1. Keep the beach clean. Pick up after yourself -- and recycle, reduce and reuse. Help organize or join a beach clean-up day to remove trash and debris that can harm wild life.
  2. Follow marked paths to the beach, rather than walking across sensitive sand dunes and other natural shoreline areas that provide food and shelter for wildlife. The beach is a living ecosystem on which many plants and animals depend. Foot traffic erodes the sand and wears down vegetation that holds sand in place, degrading habitat.
  3. Follow regulations when you dispose of pollutants like automotive oil and antifreeze. Refrain from using pesticides and fertilizers in your yard. These wash into bays and estuaries and contribute to dead zones where there is barely any sea life left. Even if you live in a landlocked state, remember that your everyday actions affect what runs into rivers and streams and eventually ends up in the ocean.
  4. Get involved in local development and land use issues if you live on or near the coast, and make your voice heard. Building roads, hotels and housing developments in coastal areas often destroys coastal habitat and pollutes bays, estuaries and coastal wetlands -- ultimately reducing fish population in these areas.
  5. Educate yourself, your friends and family on how human actions can affect the shoreline environment. Learn about marine sea life and its habitat. Find out how human actions like beach dredging (often called "beach re-nourishment") can harm reefs and other fish habitats.
  6. Eco-tourism is a major industry in Hawaii and other coastal regions. It is important to be extra cautious in activities like diving and boating, especially around coral reefs. Oceans Alive advises the following: Get your diving certification. Two major certifying associations are the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) and the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) -- both reputable organizations that teach eco-friendly diving practices. Learning to dive properly will allow you to enjoy the spectacular underwater scenery without damaging coral reefs and other sea life habitat.

It's Big, and Growing: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

by Michele McKay

Out in the ocean, thousands of miles from land, floats the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Here, currents in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre converge and drift slowly in vast circles, concentrating debris into a huge garbage vortex. Trash has been accumulating in this Patch for decades; its size could now exceed that of the continental United States.

Millions of pounds of garbage end up in the ocean every year. Some of it is intentionally dumped from vessels, some accidentally lost at sea, and some washes from land via storm drains and streams. By far the bulk of the rubbish is plastic…parts of the Garbage Patch are now a plastic “soup” where there may even be more plastic, by weight, than plankton.

Here in Hawaii, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program’s outreach coordinator, Carey Morishige, says that our location in the Pacific creates a particular problem, as ocean currents and winds accumulate tons of non-biodegradable litter into our waters and onto our beaches. The plastic debris is more than unsightly: it traps, mutilates, lacerates organs, and starves sea turtles, marine mammals, birds, and fish. It may also be releasing toxins that progress up the aquatic food chain.

Two eco-mariners, Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal, recently sailed through the Pacific garbage patch from California to Hawaii on a ‘junk raft’ made of 15,000 plastic bottles bound together with old fishing net. Their mission: to help call attention to the accumulation of plastic in the seas and to organizations that are addressing the problem or supporting legislation on plastic waste. Eriksen and Paschal report that after 3 months at sea none of the plastic bottles in their raft pontoons showed much wear and tear, demonstrating the durability of plastic trash in the ocean. The very feature that makes plastic useful to people also makes it an ecological disaster: it doesn’t go away. Contrary to common misconceptions, plastic does not biodegrade – it just breaks down into very tiny pieces. Eventually, these micro-bits end up on beaches, inside sea creatures, and on the ocean floor, becoming part of the sedimentary record for millions of years.

What you can do

Prevent the proliferation of plastic:

  • Remember to take reusable shopping bags, food containers, and water bottles when you go out – and to use them! Buy in bulk, and avoid excessive packaging.
  • Know what can be recycled in your area, and buy items in recyclable containers.
  • Don’t litter, ever. Be part of the solution by picking up litter when you see it.

Learn more:

Marine Debris

by Michele McKay

Most people never see it until it washes up on shore… but debris in the ocean damages more than just the beauty of our beaches. Bits of plastic, myriad containers, and derelict fishing gear are a serious threat to ocean and coastal ecosystems, killing marine mammals, fish and seabirds, even as they create a hazard to human health, safety, and navigation.

Marine debris is typically any human-made solid object, discarded or disposed, that enters the coastal or marine environment, originating from both land and ocean-based sources. Waste that is dumped at sea, lost or abandoned fishing equipment, coastal litter, and trash that washes to the sea from streams and storm drains all contribute to the problem. Pieces of plastic, nets, and line can be lethal when sea animals ingest or become entangled in them. Bits of floating debris are often mistaken for food, and cause internal injury, blockage, starvation, and death to marine life. Seabirds, such as the Laysan albatross, often feed plastic debris to their chicks, with deadly results.

Discarded fishing gear continues to trap and kill marine life for decades after being abandoned or lost. Whales, dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles become entangled in “ghost” nets and lines in Hawaiian waters every year. Derelict fishing nets accumulate and roll along the ocean bottom by wave and current action, breaking and destroying the coral reefs that are the heart of many Hawaiian marine ecosystems.

Marine debris degrades slowly. The Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida gives these decomposition times for common items floating in our waters:

  • Plastic bags – 10 to 20 years
  • Foam cups, coolers, and buoys – 50 to 80 years
  • Aluminum cans – 80 to 200 years
  • Disposable diapers – 450 years
  • Plastic beverage bottles – 450 years
  • Monofilament fishing line – 600 years

What you can do:

  • Remember that the sea and the land are connected.
  • Dispose of rubbish properly and pick up litter wherever you see it.
  • Participate in beach and litter cleanup projects.
  • Help educate friends and family about the harm marine debris can cause.
  • Learn more by visiting, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program web site.

Ocean-friendly Gardens

by Michele McKay

Gardening in Hawaii can be a joy and a challenge. Our perpetual growing season allows us to cultivate plants year-round, but it also puts our green thumbs to the test by allowing pests to thrive and soil to become compacted. In its Ocean Friendly Gardens program, the Surfrider Foundation points out that even if you don’t live near the ocean, your garden – and how you manage it – impacts the health of Hawaii’s marine environment.

Your property and its soil affect the ocean through the quality and the quantity of water that runs off the yard and into storm drains. In times of heavy rain or over-irrigation fertilizers, pesticides, oils, cleaning solutions, and debris wash into the street, into the drains, and ultimately, into the sea. Harmful run-off can be prevented by watering appropriately, landscaping with drought-tolerant plants, and using natural products to fertilize and augment soil.

Chemical fertilizers that find their way to the sea cause rapid growth of destructive algae. Alternative, natural fertilizers such as compost will help to build the soil and increase its permeability. As permeability improves, so does the soil’s ability to hold water and prevent run-off. How you choose to manage weeds, bugs, and animal pests will determine whether harmful pesticides are swept off your property by rain or over-irrigation. To help prevent damage to aquatic life, avoid all toxic pesticides. Be lenient with certain pests and use eco-friendly alternatives against others. Landscaping with bug- and disease-resistant plants is an excellent way to deter pests.

What you can do

  • Avoid over-watering in order to reduce run-off and pest infestations such as mold and mealy bugs. Watering properly, using correctly adjusted sprinklers, and using drip irrigation will help the soil soak up and retain water.
  • Use compost and natural fertilizers to build the soil, rather than degrade it.
  • Avoid using harmful pesticides and chemicals around your home.
  • Introduce landscaping that is drought- and pest-resistant.
  • Replace lawns with an attractive alternative. Most lawns require a lot of water and produce run-off that is loaded with fertilizers and herbicides.
  • Increase soil permeability by reducing pavement in driveways, paths, and patios.
  • Learn more from Surfrider Foundation’s web page on Ocean Friendly Gardens: or contact Rick Wilson, Coastal Management Coordinator at or (949) 492-8170 Visit, and for additional issues and news from the Oahu, Maui and Kauai chapters of the Surfrider Foundation.

Our Living Reefs

by Michele McKay

Coral reefs, and the waters they shelter, are closely tied to our lifestyle and cultural traditions in Hawaii – and they are home to roughly 7,000 varieties of marine life, many that exist nowhere else on Earth. Coral reefs are huge, hard, and sharp… but, amazingly, they are created by delicate life forms: tiny algae and polyps working in partnership.

Dan Polhemus, Administrator for the State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources, says that coral reefs provide countless benefits, including the surf we ride and the beaches we enjoy. “They also serve as nature’s breakwaters, protecting us from the destructive power of the sea. In more ways than we might realize, our island lifestyle depends on our coral reefs.”

The Living Reef, a 24-page booklet recently published on the internet, illustrates the biological, economic, and cultural significance of Hawaii’s “rainforests of the sea” with beautiful color photos. A project of The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii and the DLNR, in cooperation with Malama Hawai'i and NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program, The Living Reef can be viewed and downloaded from

The booklet explains how our coral reefs are endangered by r un-off, sedimentation, debris, invasive species, destructive fishing practices, recreational overuse, and climate change. B ut it also describes constructive solutions to these threats:

  • Funding community-based marine management for near-shore areas
  • Funding and staffing marine resource enforcement
  • Investing in systems for sewage treatment and land-based pollution prevention
  • Adopting the recommendations of the 2003 State Aquatic Invasive Species Management Plan to protect against invasive aquatic plants and animals
  • Reforming fishing policies and practices
  • Creating nursery areas for fish to grow and reproduce without being harvested

What you can do:

Remember that our land and ocean are connected – in Hawaii everything eventually flows into the sea. Practice good environmental stewardship in your everyday life:

  • Dispose of all car fluids (motor oil, gasoline, everything!), detergents, chemicals, grass clippings, and dirt sweepings properly. If left on the ground, these contaminants will go down our storm drains with the next big rain.
  • Throw your trash where it belongs.
  • Control sediment flow from construction and agricultural areas.

Get involved with The Nature Conservancy by contacting Janice Staab at (808) 587-6232 or by email at or

Say No to Factory Farms: A Triple-Win Solution

Photo: Pigs on a Factory Farm

by Michele McKay

Huge factory farms, known in the industry as “Confined Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs), raise thousands of animals under severely crowded conditions for the purpose of slaughter. CAFOs have long been recognized by scientists as potential sources of new and dangerous influenza viruses that could infect humans. "These mixing bowls of intensive operations of chickens and pigs are contributing to speeding up viral evolution,” says Ellen Silbergeld, a leading researcher of pathogen evolution in CAFOs and professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Recent outbreaks of swine and avian flu affirm that CAFOs are a threat to public health. However meat production also threatens our planet’s health – it’s the number one cause of global environmental damage. In choosing a vegetarian diet you can help the world to:

Reduce global warming

In its 2006 report, the United Nations said raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gases than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Most of it comes from methane gas generated by manure. Reducing demand for meat could rapidly lower atmospheric gases that are key contributors to global warming.

Save vast amounts of water

Producing a pound of soy requires approximately 250 gallons of water, and a pound of wheat only 25 gallons. However, it takes a whopping 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of beef, a tremendous waste in our water-short world.

Avoid pollution of waterways

Farmed animals produce about 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population of the US, yet CAFOs and factory farms don't have sewage treatment systems. Manure, antibiotics, growth hormones, fertilizers, pesticides, and other livestock-related effluents pollute rivers and streams, and they enter the human food chain through water supplies.

Reduce the loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity

Clearing land to create pasture or grow animal feed results in deforestation, ecosystem destruction, and the incalculable loss of plant and animal species (and also releases vast CO2 stores). Today, 30% of the earth’s entire land surface – or 70% of all agricultural land – goes to supporting livestock.

Ensure environmental sustainability

The production of animal flesh requires up to three times as many resources as the production of plant foods, while causing pollution, global warming, habitat destruction, species loss, water conflicts, and strains on land use. A vegetarian diet is our best step toward environmental sustainability.

What you can do

Say “NO” to meat production and CAFOs by adopting a plant-based diet. You will be protecting public health, preventing the extreme suffering of animals, and caring for the planet every time you eat. It’s a triple win-win solution to serious global challenges.

Healthy Living = Healthy Planet

Photo Illustration: Green Earth

by Michele McKay

If we really want our world to have a cleaner, safer environment the most effective action we can take involves a simple thing we do every day: choosing what products to eat and to use. A healthy vegetarian diet based on organic, natural foods and the use of non-toxic household products work together to promote sustainability and a clean environment in a host of ways. When we make eco-friendly choices we foster clean air, water, and land, which benefit us in return by supporting our good health as individuals and communities. Healthy living and a healthy planet go hand-in-hand.

What you can do

Go veggie

Choosing a vegetarian diet is the single most important thing you can do for the environment. Consider the ecological havoc caused by raising animals for meat:

  • Global warming – Raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. Reducing meat production could rapidly lower the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
  • Pollution – In the US, 130 times more sewage waste comes from livestock than from people. The livestock industry causes more water pollution than any other activity and is responsible for the contamination of soils, rivers, and streams with pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones, manure, and heavy metals.
  • Water use – Producing one pound of meat requires 100 times more water than growing a pound of soy, and 1,000 times more water than a pound of wheat.
  • Deforestation and loss of biodiversity – 70% of all agricultural land is used for livestock (this represents 30% of the earth’s entire land surface). Forests are burned to create pastures, destroying habitat and causing incalculable loss of plant and animal species. In addition, slash-and-burning releases vast quantities of CO2.
  • Soil erosion – Animal farming is responsible for 85% of the soil erosion in the United States, and contributes heavily to the loss of irreplaceable topsoil.

Buy organic

The Organic Label means organic produce is grown without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; ionizing radiation, or GMOs. Organic dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic products are good for our bodies, they are sustainable, and they promote ecological harmony. Organic farming methods keep toxic agricultural chemicals off the land and out of our water and air, serving to build long-term soil fertility, benefit wildlife, and support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems.

Use natural, non-toxic personal care and household products

Make earth-friendly choices to keep hazardous chemicals out of your home environment. You’ll also be keeping them from contaminating our planet’s environment via their production, their use, and their disposal. What you do for your own good health will ultimately benefit the Earth’s good health!

Swine Flu: Protect Your Health, Protect the Planet

Photo: Pigs in a Holding Pen

by Michele McKay

Reminders about swine flu re-emerge with flu season: Be sure to wash hands, cover sneezes, avoid contact with others, and eat a healthy diet. These measures are important and effective in preventing the spread of flu viruses. But let’s step back and take a look at what’s behind swine flu… its source, its affect on the health of our planet, and what we can do in the “big picture” to prevent its social, environmental, and ethical consequences. Huge factory farms, known in the industry as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), raise thousands of animals under severely crowded conditions for the purpose of slaughter. Researchers recognize that intensive and filthy pig CAFOs are the source of swine flu, as well as being potential sources of new and dangerous viruses that could infect humans. Moreover, intensive meat production threatens our planet’s health – it is the number one cause of global environmental damage, contributing to:

Global warming

Raising animals for food generates more CO2 and other greenhouse gas than all the cars and trucks on earth combined. Reducing demand for meat could rapidly lower atmospheric gases that are key contributors to global warming.

Pollution of rivers, streams, and oceans

Farmed animals produce about 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population of the US, yet CAFOs and factory farms do not use sewage treatment systems. Manure, antibiotics, growth hormones, fertilizers, pesticides, and other effluents pollute waterways and enter the human food chain.

Squandering of water

It takes 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of beef. In contrast, producing a pound of soy requires only 250 gallons of water, and a pound of wheat just 25 gallons.

Loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity

Today, 30% of the earth’s entire land surface – 70% of all agricultural land – goes to supporting livestock. Clearing land to create pasture or grow animal feed results in deforestation, ecosystem destruction, and the incalculable loss of plant and animal species (and also releases vast CO2 stores).

Unsustainable resource use

Producing animal flesh requires up to three times as many resources as producing plant foods, and it leads to conflicts over water and land use. A vegetarian diet is our best step toward sustainable resource use.

What you can do:

Adopting a vegetarian diet not only helps avoid the basic sources of swine flu but also responds to serious global environmental challenges. Through a healthy, plant-based diet, you can help to protect public health, prevent the extreme suffering of animals, and care for the planet every time you eat.

The Truth About Sunscreen

Photo: Person on a Beach with Sunscreen in the Shape of an Exclamation Point

by Manjari Fergusson

While you might think slathering on sunscreen before a day at the beach is a good idea, it turns out it might actually be harmful – not only to your health, but to the health of coral and marine life.

That’s according to a study last year in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technologyi that found the chemicals used in sunscreen accumulate in the ocean, becoming toxic. Under the heat of the sun’s rays, the chemicals react to produce high amounts of hydrogen peroxide. This compound, commonly used in household cleaning products, causes stress and affects the growth of phytoplankton – plants that are a vital part of the underwater world. Researchers found high amounts of hydrogen peroxide in the Mediterranean after the height of tourist season, when thousands of people descended onto the beaches covered in sunscreen.

Another studyii from last year found that nanoparticles from sunscreen amass in the reefs, endangering coral.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Scienceiii have found that the chemical benzophenone-2 (BP-2) kills young coral; this chemical has been used frequently since the1960’s in many body care products and makeup, in addition to sunscreen.

Not only do these chemicals have the potential to wreak havoc on the environment, they aren’t so great for your skin either. Studiesiv have shown that several commonly used sunscreen chemicals can disrupt the hormone system. The most problematic of these chemicals is oxybenzone, which permeates the skin, affecting hormones and potentially causing allergic reactions.

Common sunscreen chemicals to avoid include: oxybenzone, octylmethyl cinnamate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and butylparaben. Other active chemical ingredients to watch out for and avoid are: avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. These similarly penetrate the skin.

So what can you do? Going without sunscreen is not the answer; melanoma skin cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, and one of the most common in young adults.v Instead, use sunscreens that don’t contain harmful chemicals.

To help you determine what sunscreen to use, the Environmental Working Groupvi puts out a sunscreen guide every year that can help identify the best sunscreen for you. Here at Down to Earth, we only carry sunscreens that aren’t bad for you or the environment, including from Alba, Badger, Elemental Herbs, Goddess Garden, The Honest Company, Climb On, Accure Organics, and Mychelle.

  1. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2014, 48 (16), pp 9037–9042, DOI: 10.1021/es5020696 Publication Date (Web): July 28, 2014
  2. Environmental Toxicology, “Effects of titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles on caribbean reef-building coral (Montastraea faveolata)”, Boris Jovanović1,* and Héctor M. Guzmán2, 22 APR 2014 DOI: 10.1002/etc.2560
  3. NOAA National Ocean Service, “Sunscreen Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs”
  4. The Environmental Working Group, “The Trouble With Sunscreen Chemicals”, 2015.
  5. American Melanoma Foundation, “Facts About Melanoma” 2009.
  6. The Environmental Working Group, “EWG’s 2015 Guide to Sunscreens”