Global challenges are the coast’s challenges

A lucky puffin has secured a solid mouthful. Puffins are one of several seabird species that are very vulnerable to oil spills and non-sustainable harvesting of fish resources. Photo: Scanpix.
A lucky puffin has secured a solid mouthful. Puffins are one of several seabird species that are very vulnerable to oil spills and non-sustainable harvesting of fish resources. Photo: Scanpix.

Growing international trade in commodities has been fundamental for Norway’s prosperity. While fish is one of Norway’s oldest export items, the export of oil and gas is today the key for the continuing growth in affluence and private consumption. The reverse side is that Norway thereby contributes to one of today’s greatest challenges: climate change. If not taken seriously, this is a threat that can hit back as a powerful breaker wave in the form of higher sea levels and extreme weather conditions.

Increasing global warming as a result of uncontrolled release of carbon dioxide (CO2) will have unexpected consequences for ecosystems generally and perhaps especially for maritime life. After all, here we are dealing with a complex ecosystem where science still does not completely understand the interrelated mechanisms governing it. A warmer climate will not only result in higher water temperatures, but will also affect sea currents, and thereby salinity as well, all of which are factors that influence spawning.

Changes in the weather, for example more cloud cover, can moreover have significant consequences for photosynthesis in phytoplankton, the very cornerstone of the marine ecosystem. The ecological balance is also threatened in other ways, independent of any possible climate change. The discharge of raw crude and chemicals from oil installations has been a major challenge right from the start of the oil boom, and has created a long history of conflicts of interest between the fisheries industry and the petroleum sector. With increasing shipments of oil and gas from the Barents Sea and the remainder of northwest Russia, there is an increased danger of running aground or being wrecked off the Norwegian coast, with the attendant risk of huge oil spillages.

When the cargo ship Server sank off the island of Fedje in Hordaland in 2007, 370 tons of fuel oil spread from Fedje to Flora in Sogn og Fjordane county (c. 130 km). But this was nothing compared with what could happen if one of the medium-sized or large oil tankers should go aground. Here it is particularly the coastal and maritime environment in the north that is vulnerable. Controlling the more than 200 oil tankers passing through Norwegian and Russian waters every year and protecting against oil pollution are considerable challenges.

The economic and environmental fallout of a tanker wreck can be very extensive. When the tanker Prestige was wrecked off Spanish Galicia in 2002 with a cargo of 77,000 tons of oil, the result was that possibly as many as 200,000 seabirds perished, and a clean-up operation costing more than a billion euros. The growing ship traffic generated by a greater exchange of goods also brings new species into the ecosystem via ballast water. New species have also arrived as a result of deliberate introduction, or by natural diffusion because of a warmer climate.

Just in the last two decades species have arrived whose names reveal that they originated far from the Norwegian coast, such as Japanese seaweed (Sargassum muticum), American lobster (Homarus americanus), and not least the red king crab (Paralithodes camchaticus). All of these are species that can upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem and harm biological diversity.

As time goes by the coast has assumed a central position in Norwegians’ vacation and leisure time; coastal adventures represent a growing business. Such activity often comes into conflict with other coastal economic activities, especially perhaps with windmills, quarries, and fish farms. At the same time recreational use claims more and more of Norway’s varied coastline.

In order that the coast and the sea continue to be associated with positive experiences, mankind is dependent on functioning international cooperation on resources, climate emissions, security of sea lanes, a balanced development of industrial activity, recreational uses, and conservation.

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