One Man’s 1,000-Mile Atlantic Swim Calls Out CO2’s Impact on Oceans

Christopher Swain

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How far would you go to ensure that your generation leaves behind a healthier planet for your kids?

One Massachusetts dad swam through factory sludge, shipping pollution and sewage to draw attention to the damage human activity is doing to the nation’s waterways.

Now, he’s braving the Atlantic on a 1,000-mile coastal swim and water testing tour to call out the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans. At 40, Christopher Swain’s inspiration is this simple:

“I want my daughters to grow up in a healthy world.”

If Swain’s name sounds familiar it’s because he’s been on a mission for the past decade to make some of the nation’s best known waterways swimmable and drinkable again.

In 2003, he swam the entire 1,243-mile length of the Columbia River, from the chilly headwaters, where elementary school children toasted his adventure with pure water from the river’s origin, past more than a dozen dams and through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, he swam Lake Champlain, the Charles River, and the Hudson River, where he had to contend with sewage and factory pollution. Swain was the only one ingesting the water there, and not intentionally.

This summer, Swain’s taking on the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, he’s conducting scientific experiments on ocean acidity – and blogging the results and details of his swimming adventures – to help more than 2,000 teachers and their students learn about climate change, ocean health and what can be done to improve it.

As he made his way across Boston Harbor last week, 35 schoolchildren met him at the shore of Spectacle Island (a landfill-turned-park) and helped him test the acidity of the water there. Swain logs the results on a Google map to help students track climate change through the lens of the ocean.

He has found, since first pulling on his wetsuit at Marblehead, Mass., in April, bound for Washington, D.C., that in the Atlantic Ocean,

“The pH is too low and the amount of plastics bags and jellyfish is too high." ("Imagine living 200 years as a sea turtle and then chocking on a plastic Target bag!" he says.)

“In a small way, every single break, I’m getting reminded that the ocean is absorbing man-made carbon dioxide."

Ocean Acidity

The ocean absorbs about one-third of the carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. As increasing amounts of CO2 dissolves, the water’s acidity rises.

Around the start of the industrial revolution, ocean surface water pH averaged about 8.2 (pure water has a pH of 7, battery acid is 0). Since then, the oceans’ acidity has increased by about 30 percent. The pH has dropped by about 0.1, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates that if human-caused CO2 continues to accelerate at its current pace, that pH will fall an additional 0.3 to 0.4 by the end of this century.

The change in chemistry is already making it increasingly difficult for sea creatures such as corals, oysters and some phytoplankton to build strong shells and skeletons. By century’s end, the IPCC expects to see the concentration of calcium carbonate that those marine organisms rely on to decrease by about 60 percent.

“It’s likely that these changes will seriously disrupt ocean ecosystems and be a very significant threat to many of our fisheries,” NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said in a recent interview on NPR.

She offers the tiny pterapod, a marine snail whose shell is affected by changing pH, as an example. Humans might not care about pterapods, but young salmon, mackerel, herring and cod depend on them for food.

Coral reefs are already showing the damage and will likely be devastated, she said.

Scientists from the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology calculated in a 2007 report that if CO2 emissions continued on the present path, 98% of the world’s current coral reefs – including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – would be in water too acidic for reef growth.

"If atmospheric CO2 stabilizes at 550 ppm – and even that would take concerted international effort to achieve – no existing coral reef will remain in such an environment," said Carnegie oceanographer Long Cao.

Warming Temperatures

Rising CO2 levels also raise temperatures, posing a second danger to corals and other sea creatures.

For corals, the warming water "causes corals to expel the symbiotic algae that live within them, nourish them, and give them their color. This is called coral bleaching, and eventually kills the corals if water temperatures remain elevated," a report on global warming’s U.S. impact released last week by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program says. Warming also changes ocean patterns and stresses marine life.

In addition, the report warns that greater spring runoff from increasingly severe storms and warmer coastal water will increase the level of nitrogen swept into the water from agriculture, blamed for the coastal “dead zones” found in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Swain’s experiments and the pH maps from his Atlantic Ocean journey are helping students clearly see how the pH is higher near storm drains and coastal areas with agriculture run-off.

“It’s easy to see the human effect,” he said. “This is a simple marker that kids can understand.”

Swain’s counting on the lessons getting through.

“One day, these kids will grow up, and they’re going to vote and run companies and staff government agencies. I hope at that point that they’ve found pieces of the natural world that moved them. We tend to protect the people and the places that we care about and that we’re invested in."

Lubchenco cited a lack of public awareness and the power of vested interests in continuing the status quo for the poor progress so far in limiting CO2 emissions, but she said she’s encouraged by an increasing interest in Congress to take action.

As the damage continues, and fish stocks and clams and oysters are depleted, she expects more people to begin to grasp the vital importance of finding a solution. After all, over 1 billion people depend on seafood as a primary source of protein, and some 200 million jobs depending on fishing.

Swain wants to see action from Congress sooner rather than later, for the sake of his two young daughters and the rest of the population. It’s no mistake that he’s ending his swim at Washington, D.C.

“I’m willing to put myself on the line and not just raise awareness but model the kind of behavior I wish more grownups engaged in: Put aside their fears and be willing to engage in some sacrifice to create a better world.”


(Photos: Basil Childers, Leighton O’Connor)


See also:

Government Report Brings Climate Change to America’s Backyard

Getting Kids and Parents Fired Up About Earth Science

Art from Trash: Transforming How We See Waste and the Disappearing Reefs

Honest Accounting of Pollution’s True Costs