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Argentine sea experts warn about climate change consequences

The Oceanographic ship Puerto Deseado, of Argentina’s state-run CONICET scientific think tank, leaves the Port of Mar del Plata, on Buenos Aires province’s Atlantic coast, with more than 50 researchers to Patagonia and Antarctica, on January 11.
By Guillermo Háskel
Herald Staff

An Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission ex-chairman says nearly half of Buenos Aires province could eventually be flooded if seas continue to grow

The increasing global warming is melting the planet’s ice and the subsequent rise of sea levels may flood nearly half of the province of Buenos Aires, and even cause some insular states to disappear, a leading international expert from Argentina warns.

“I don’t want to frighten anyone but nearly half of Buenos Aires province may remain under water if some of the scenarios envisaged by the IPCC materialize,” said Javier Valladares a former chairman of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC).

The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international body for the assessment of climate change.

Valladares was making a presentation on Thursday at the Lower House of Congress aimed at raising sea awareness in a nation with an immense ocean coastline and platform but which, according to experts, has developed by turning its back on the sea.

The forum was organized by House Speaker Julián Domínguez and Alberto Asseff, national deputies from Buenos Aires province who, however, did not attend the ‘Broad-lines for an Ocean Policy’ conference.

Domínguez belongs to Peronist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Victory Front (FpV) and Asseff to the dissident Peronist Renewal Front led by deputy Sergio Massa, one of the candidates in next year’s presidential election in which Fernández de Kirchner cannot run after being elected in 2007 and re-elected in 2011.

The President last April launched the Pampa Azul (Blue Pampa) initiative which, according to her administration, is the first inter-ministerial drive aimed at deepening scientific knowledge to draw conservation and management policies for the Argentine Sea natural resources.

Separately, other deputies led by Gastón Harispe, who also belongs to Fernández de Kirchner’s FpV, are striving to give back Argentina’s merchant fleet and ship-building sector the lustre they enjoyed under the first two presidencies of Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955) and afterwards, until they were scrapped by the neo-conservative Peronist President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) (Herald, April 21, 2014). Harispe’s initiative is strongly backed by the private sector and unions. Meanwhile, the Buenos Aires province-run Astillero Río Santiago, the country’s largest shipyard, is diversifying production and building ships for both Argentina and other countries.

Valladares has been the captain of Argentina’s oceanographic ship Puerto Deseado and is also a member of the Academia del Mar (Academy of the Sea) think tank. He said that many more efforts must be made so as to “to move the social tachometer to raise sea awareness.”

Asseff was on an official visit to New York and Renewal Front fellow-deputy Laura Esper represented him at the sea forum. She said: “many times there are obvious issues which need, however, the backing of a legal framework” and that the Lower House would continue to invite experts to learn from their input on sea matters and draw up a broad agenda.

For her part, FpV national deputy Verónica González, from Argentina’s southern-most province of Tierra del Fuego, said that sea and sovereign issues were neglected for years but that now the administration has turned them into state policies, mentioning the Pampa Azul initiative as an example.

The Tierra del Fuego province encompasses a large Antarctic sector claimed by Argentina, as well as the South Atlantic Malvinas archipelago, whose sovereignty is claimed by Argentina. The islands are controlled by Britain, who call them the Falklands.

“We have been raised on the notion that Argentina was once the world’s bread-basket and perhaps because of that, we focused our attention on wheat but we failed to realize that we are surrounded by sea and hence by fish,” González said, adding that this should be taught at schools.

“Today the world is looking to Antarctica.”

Raising awareness

Valladares said that in drawing the oceanographic presentation together with other experts, they agreed to leave aside contentious political matters.

Oceanographer Eduardo Rodríguez, a former navy officer, complained, saying that 50 years ago Argentina had so many land interests that it left the sea “for the future. For the world that future has already come but we, in Argentina, continue to speak about ‘the future’. I f we continue like this we will be left out.”

“With all due respect, 50 years ago Brazil was lagging far behind Argentina regarding maritime interests development.

“Today, Brazil, is clearly ahead of us. Also Uruguay, in comparative terms, is ahead of us. I fear that the legislative field has failed to give sea matters the importance they have.”

Academy of the Sea Chairman, retired Captain Antonio Domínguez, said: “In Argentina we are facing so many troubles on the land itself that we are failing to consider sea issues. It is crucial to address these matters in primary and secondary schools.”

Insular states threatened

Back to the threats arising from global warming, besides disasters such as tsunamis, Valladares also listed the acidification of ocean waters due to their absorption of CO2, acidification which affects biodiversity. Also, he mentioned the increasing frequency of severe storms and hurricanes, the higher frequency of extreme temperatures, increasing river floodings and problems to manage drinking water.

“Many are considering now the possibility — extremely difficult — to stop fresh water from flowing into the seas. Some 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by seas. Only three percent of the total water is fresh and only one percent drinkable. Rising sea levels cause the salinization of fresh water layers.‘

Valladares also mentioned the The Day After movie in which global warming melts Arctic ice, generating a fresh water current in the North Atlantic which “stops” the circulation of the warm Gulf Stream, cooling down the Northern Hemisphere.

“Although it would not happen with the strength and the absurd way shown in the movie, it is technically possible.”

Another disaster, he said, is a “giant plastic whirlpool” drifting systematically in the Pacific.

“As nobody admits the ownership of the waste, nobody is cleaning it up. That waste is slowly dissolving into tiny particles which are swallowed by the fish, who die, hence altering biodiversity.”

“This is an utmost serious issue, who will clean the waste produced by large cities,” Valladares said.

Regarding the potential threats for Argentina,

He added: “The basin of the River Salado is practically at sea level and it may be flooded in case of a sea intrusion.

There are countries already building polders to protect themselves from rising seas. And there are some small insular states whose concern is not just the damage, but their possible disappearance.”

Environmental studies

Andrea Michelson, from the Vida Silvestre (Wildlife) Foundation, said that her organization has conducted some studies on climate change on the Samborombón Bay, in the Atlantic coast of the province of Buenos Aires. She mentions the basin of the River Salado.

“The study doesn’t give much detail on possible flooding on the Salado Basin but it does extrapolate some IPCC results to the Samborombón Bay. We made comparisons with other countries and we will make the results public in July.”

She also said that a bill on protected sea areas was approved by the Senate last November and is currently being considered by the Lower House’s Foreign Relations, Maritime Interests and Budget Committees,

Michelson added that the Environment Secretariat is also pushing ahead initiatives to identify sea areas to be protected while there is another plan to protect Benton areas. Michelson said that the government’s Pampa Azul initiative could bring some solutions in the short term.

Verónica Cirelli, also from the Vida Silvestre NGO, said that the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, CRVMA, in its Spanish acronym) has made a lot of progress regarding protected sea areas and some “perhaps” not so fast progress in the management of krill fisheries and environmental changes which have “fairly affected” sea systems. “There has been giant international progress on this field and it is crucial that Argentina keeps pace.”

Valladares pointed out that Cirelli mentioned “oceans,” in the plural. “That is the stance of Argentina, which continues to consider the existence of conventional oceans with a projection to Antarctica,” he said. “However, the international community has almost adopted the notion that those oceans end at 60 degrees south and that from there on starts a sole Austral Ocean. It is a very thorny issue. That plural is a subtlety with immense implications.”

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