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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for Health of Oceans, Islands

The oceans have seen better days. Until there are more automated floating trash collectors and The Ocean Cleanup’s giant conveyor belt is up and running, over 5 trillion pieces of plastic will continue to hang out in the sea. What’s more, sea level rise could leave 130 million people homeless even if global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, a tiny recent ray of hope in the Indian Ocean may not only be canceled out by a discovery further north, beaches in Cornwall UK have found themselves "in the pink," and not in a good way.

First, the good news: Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 islands in the Western Indian Ocean about 1,000 miles off the coast of East Africa and north of Madagascar, is already feeling the effects of sea level rise. So last month the small nation took bold measures to ensure its safety: The Government of Seychelles is swapping nearly $30 million of its debt in exchange for the protection of 30 percent of its ocean territory. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) brokered the deal — what it is calling the first-ever debt restructuring for climate adaptation.

Negotiated through the Paris Club, a forum for countries to negotiate and manage sovereign debt, the deal will alleviate some of the Seychelles’ debt burden and enable the country to invest in much-needed conservation and climate adaptation activities. The commitment will protect 154,000 square miles of ocean, with a large area designated as a no-fishing zone. It will be the second-largest marine reserve in the Indian Ocean.

“This landmark debt-for-adaptation deal with our Paris Club creditors is a major step forward for our nation,” said Seychelles President James Michel. “This deal simultaneously contributes to our climate adaptation and marine conservation activities as well as improving the economic health of Seychelles.”

The structure of the deal is complicated, but essentially TNC will combine $23 million of impact capital loans and $5 million of grant funding to buy back $29.6 million of Seychelles debt at a 5.4 percent discount from several sovereign creditors: South Africa, France, Belgium, Italy, and the UK. The cash flow from the restructured debt is payable to and managed by a newly established, independent, public-private trust fund called the Seychelles Conservation and Climate Adaptation Trust (SeyCCAT). Debt service payments will fund improved on-the-ground management of coasts, coral reefs, and mangroves, as well as the repayment to impact investors and capitalization of SeyCCAT’s endowment.

“This debt swap will have a big impact on climate adaptation and marine conservation in Seychelles," said TNC President and CEO Mark R. Tercek. "This innovative financing strategy, which could be replicated in island nations across the globe, provides an opportunity to protect island economies and help these nations become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.”


Meanwhile in a potentially dire development further north, a new study on meltwater storage published in the journal Nature Climate Change revealed that less meltwater is being absorbed in Greenland than previously expected, which could create a cycle leading to a precipitous rise in sea level.

The area of West Greenland, the subject of the research, has an ice sheet covered in a porous layer of snow called a firn, which mitigates the area’s contribution to sea level rise by collecting water flowing along its surface.

“As this layer is porous and the pores are connected, theoretically all the pore space in this firn layer can be used to store meltwater percolating into the firn whenever melt occurs at the surface,” the paper’s lead author, Horst Machguth of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, told The Washington Post.

Over time, the meltwater trickles down through the firn and refreezes. Unfortunately, the warm temperatures between 2009 and 2012 caused such heavy melting along the sheet it formed more dense ice layers, which are making it more difficult for liquid water to percolate into the firn. The result is more meltwater runoff.

“I think the most notable result of our study is showing that the firn reacts faster to an atmospheric warming than expected,” Machguth said.

The increased runoff could lead to greater sea level rise, and worse, feedback processes that will cause even more melt in the future and perpetuate a dangerous cycle. The changes to the firn may be reversible, but the process of rebuilding firns with snowfall will take decades, especially as global warming continues.


And not to let nature have all the fun, our ongoing contribution to the health of the seas was highlighted again this week: National Trust, a UK charity committed to protecting historic sites and natural areas, has had its wheelbarrows full of bright pink bottles (suspected of washing up from a lost shipment of Vanish brand detergent) this week as cleanup continues on beaches in Cornwall. Volunteers have collected over 2,000 bottles from the coastline thus far.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency told the BBC: “While it is fact that the MV Blue Ocean lost a container containing bottles of 'Vanish,' there is no currently available evidence that the bottles washed up on the Cornish coast are from this container; all evidence is currently circumstantial.”

“The main worry is all that detergent going into our beautiful marine environment, but thankfully most [bottles] are full,” the National Trust’s Justin Whitehouse said. “We were frantically trying to collect them all up and then the Maritime Coastguard Agency sent a helicopter out and discovered that actually there’s whole rafts of them that are likely to be coming our way.”

Maybe Method can collect them and turn them into a fun new color of ocean plastic packaging?

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