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The Indian Ocean: global hotspot

As the climate changes and the Earth’s surface warms, the oceans are absorbing the heat. However, scientists had wondered why the temperature in the Pacific Ocean was not rising when logic said it should. Where did the heat go? Over the last ten years, the rate of ocean warming slowed and even reversed a little. Climate change sceptics pointed to this, combined with the frigid polar vortex winters in the Northern Hemisphere to claim global warming was a myth. But the temperature anomaly represents a hiatus and not a permanent state. Why? What’s happening? New data suggests the heat has fallen below the surface of the Pacific and even moved into the Indian Ocean via the Indonesian Archipelago. The surface of the Pacific is cooler but NASA has discovered that a layer between 100 and 300 metres below the surface of the ocean is warming. The Indian Ocean, the planet's third largest, is definitely getting hotter and the buried warmer waters won’t stay buried forever.

Over the last year, a powerful El Nino has raised temperatures over the Pacific and Indian oceans. The summer of 2015 set records for the area north of Australia, with related effects on the climate of the country. The “Indian Ocean Dipole” regulates the temperatures and rainfall in the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria, where there is heavy agriculture. When the eastern Indian Ocean off Western Australia is warmer than the water off Africa, evaporation lifts water into the winds, it blows across the country and falls as rain in the southeastern states. Cooler waters mean the reverse, with a dry winter farming season.

As well as its sheep farms and deserts, Australia is also known for its coral reef, The Great Barrier Reef, and warmer oceans are threatening coral all over the world. The algae that feed the coral organisms and lend their brilliant colours die off and the coral is bleached white and dead. Mark Eakin of the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch fears 4,600 square miles could die in this latest bleaching event.

At the other end of the Indian Ocean from Australia lie India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Down the western edge, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and the huge island of Madagascar; to the east, Burma and Indonesia. In the 1960s, as the Cold War escalated, the Soviets tried to secure Indian cooperation in the area. India was one of the major non-aligned nations. The then Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi, asked all the superpowers to withdraw from the Indian Ocean in order to assert the sub-continent’s economic and defence independence. This century, however, as China has begun to try to exert naval influence in the Indian Ocean and as the area faces environmental and terrorist challenges, India has to make a move. Up to 80% of the world's oil passes through the shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, as well as commercial shipping to India and the Far East. Recently, the Indian prime minister has held talks with countries like Mauritius and the Seychelles to offer economic and military aid in return for cooperation. Incidentally, environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio recently gave US $1 million to the Seychelles for environmental protection programs. Besides climate disasters, the region is plagued by pirates who harass commercial and tourist shipping. The European Union is making treaties with countries like Madagascar and Tanzania in order to secure prosecution of pirates, but as long as the region faces such economic trouble, piracy will continue to be a tempting choice for desperate people.

As well as tankers and modern day pirate ships, the waters of the Indian Ocean are home to an amazing variety of fish, and provide food and a livelihood for millions. Fishing in the region is regulated, however, even in remote areas but not everyone is willing to obey the rules. In 1992, the United Nations banned driftnets, which kill everything in their path, in order to protect endangered species and ensure the survival of fish stocks. Recently, the flagship of the project Sea Shepherd, the Steve Irwin, has confronted boats fishing illegally in the Indian Ocean using driftnets, sabotaging their equipment and documenting the activity to assist with prosecution. The crew of the Steve Irwin have seen dolphins, seals, and endangered bluefin tuna dead in the nets.

Overfishing, dying coral, piracy, typhoons and tsunamis are all challenges faced by the Indian Ocean and the people on its shores. There is a lot of controversial pseudo-science claiming to address to the plight of our oceans. One scientist claims that the Indian Ocean is becoming a phytoplankton desert and that is why tuna stocks have declined by 90%. In fact, the plankton is still pretty healthy and the tuna’s problems have to do with overfishing, but the solution to the “problem” was an infusion of dust into the ocean. Others have suggested dumping iron filings and fertilizers into the water to try to rebalance the ocean’s PH levels. These drastic activities could have unintended consequences, and most experts say that conservation is really our only hope.

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