Causes & Effects of Ocean Pollution: What are the Sources?

Inspire Clean Energy

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category: Clean Energy 101

Marine Pollution: Causes & Effects

Our oceans, which account for 70 percent of the surface of our planet, are incredibly polluted. Oceans play a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our world, so we need to understand the causes of ocean pollution and find ways to reduce it.

What are the leading causes of ocean pollution?

In most cases, pollution in the ocean is caused by humans, thus increasing our responsibility to be a part of the solution. Some of the significant causes of ocean or marine pollution include the following:

  • Runoff: Runoff occurs when rain or snow carries pollutants from the ground to the ocean. For example, after a heavy rainstorm, oil left by vehicles washed from the streets unintentionally ‘runoff’ into our storm drains and into the ocean. With runoff coming from various locations and sources, it’s a significant cause of pollution. As a community, we need to reduce the usage of toxic pollutants to lessen the environmental impact of runoff. For example, rather than spraying weeds with harsh chemicals, using a natural mix of household products, like vinegar, could help.
  • Oil spills: Crude oil spills are happening too often. A significant contributor of releasing harmful oil into our oceans are the ships that transport goods from country to country. When crude oil infects the sea, it’s challenging to clean up. It can remain in the ocean for years, affecting wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole.
  • Waste: The effect of litter and unkept trash is a serious growing problem. Litter is considered atmospheric pollution when waste and debris are carried by wind to the ocean. Objects such as plastic bags can end up in the water, and unfortunately, they don’t decompose. You can help reduce this type of pollution by gathering trash you see lying around and disposing of it properly.
  • Fossil fuels: Fossil fuels are burned to create energy, but burning fossil fuels causes the release of carbon dioxide, which is one of the most destructive contributors to climate change. Another downside to burning fossil fuels is the residual ash released into the atmosphere. When the ash particles are released, they mix with vapor in clouds, causing rainwater to be more acidic.
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What are the different types of ocean pollution?

There are several types of ocean pollution that occur in many different ways. At the end of the day, pollution is pollution. It’s harmful, and regardless of how it happens, we need to reduce it. However, we must identify where it’s coming from to reduce pollution. Different types of pollution in the ocean include:

  • Garbage: Plastic debris and waste is suffocating our sea friends. Whether you are near the beach or not, be aware of trash and plastic bottles that are misplaced, as they may end up in the ocean one way or another.
  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen and other topicals cause significant pollution. When you swim in the ocean with sunscreen, chemicals like insect repellants wash off into the water. While this may be unintentional, it ultimately does affect the sea, so it is considered pollution.
  • Sewage: Septic systems occasionally fail, which can drain into the ocean if not dealt with accordingly. Several reasons why a septic system may fail, including aging infrastructure, overloaded methods, and poor maintenance, can cause pollution over time.
  • Runoff: Runoff is one of the major sources of pollution. Oils found on the ground can make their way to the ocean via sewer and drain systems. The impact that runoff has on the ocean is vastly important because the chemical composition of ocean water is significant.
  • Industrial waste: Dangerous toxins are often dumped into the water due to its ease of disposal, but the water and sea life become infected. This can affect the food that humans eat, such as fish.
  • Carbon dioxide: When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide is produced. Carbon dioxide can dissolve in the water, altering the valuable acidity of the ocean.
  • Noise: Ocean species rely on their sense of hearing and vibration, and loud noises from passing ships, drilling and recreational motorsport machinery may affect their communication ability. When ocean life is harmed, the entire ecosystem is in jeopardy.

What pollutes the ocean most?

About 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land. As we mentioned earlier, pollutants are often carried from land to the ocean, and there are several ways that pollution occurs.

Despite their fundamental disconnection, small sources such as cars, trucks, boats and farms contribute to pollution in the ocean. Millions of vehicles drop tiny bits of oil onto the ground every day. Eventually, the oil may make its way into our beloved oceans, causing pollution. Other sources of pollution are air pollution or dirt pollution. Air pollution can settle into waterways and oceans, while dirt or top soils can run off into rivers. These pollutants can be devastating for both humans and marine wildlife habitats.

Pollution coming from land is causing costly and harmful effects. While the United States and similar countries invest millions of dollars annually to restore damaged areas, we need to do more. Agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which works with the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and other state and federal agencies, are constantly working to identify causes and solutions for land-caused pollution.

What are the long-term effects of ocean pollution?

While we may see some effects in the short term, most will be evident in the long term. It may seem fine now, but it’s only getting worse by the day. Some long term effects of ocean pollution include:

  • Marine animals harmed: Pollution such as oil spills and debris can cause irreversible damage to marine life.
  • Depletion of oxygen in seawater: Excess debris is entering the ocean. To degrade trash, oxygen is consumed. As a result, there are lower oxygen levels in the sea. Penguins, dolphins, whales and other sea animals are experiencing death and other harmful effects of oxygen depletion.
  • Human life at risk: As organisms like fish ingest toxins from pollution, they can make their way back to humans when we eat seafood. As a result, we may see an increase in long-term health conditions such as cancer and birth defects.

How does ocean pollution affect marine life?

As billions of pounds of trash and debris enter the ocean each year, more marine life is impacted. Marine life is critical to the entire planet, not just the sea. Marine life creates a majority of the globe’s oxygen. When ecosystems are interrupted, carbon dioxide is released into the environment. As a result, global warming is accelerated.

Marine life is extremely sensitive to changes in its environment as it helps regulate climates and weather systems. While regulations are in place, chemical pollution is causing marine life to suffer. Plastic pollution is causing marine life to die as well. Plastic bags and other plastics dissolve into microplastics which can choke or kill marine life species.

How does ocean pollution affect humans?

Every day, our oceans are polluted with toxic chemicals, contaminating our food chain. If humans are exposed to toxic chemicals, they may experience health problems. Humans may experience hormonal issues or damage to the nervous system, to name a few.

What will happen if ocean pollution continues?

Just as we rely on the ocean for many things, it depends on us. If we continue to pollute the sea, serious problems will arise. Research has surfaced over the last several decades, raising awareness of ocean pollution's potentially irreversible damage at hand. The more research published, the more devastating it all seems. While some may ignore research, you must find ways to make those around you care.

To reduce ocean pollution, it will take a collective effort. If we fail to reduce it, it will impact our environment, economy and health.

How can we reduce ocean pollution?

As a contributing member of society, we should find ways to reduce ocean pollution and protect the environment by changing some of our daily habits.

You can help the ocean by not driving vehicles when unnecessary. If you drive less frequently, there will be less runoff, which means less pollution. In addition, avoid littering and recycle plastic bottles and other recyclable items properly. If you see litter or trash lying on the ground, collect it for safe disposal. You may not have put it there, but you can pick it up. Additional ways to reduce ocean pollution include using reusable bags, refusing plastic products when possible, and reducing vehicle pollution.

Ocean pollution is an immense challenge to face. If we all take steps in the right direction to avoid polluting, we can make a significant difference.

Cutting your carbon emissions is a great place to start. Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels accumulates in the atmosphere causing global warming and affecting ocean temperatures.

Switching your home’s energy supply to Inspire is a great first step in helping the planet and it doesn’t require much planning, money or time.

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What are garbage patches?

Garbage patches are vast areas of trash—including fishing gear and other marine debris—floating in the ocean. Many people assume a garbage patch stems from trash on islands, but there is more to the story. The garbage in these locations ranges in size from microplastics to enormous bundles of abandoned fishing gear. 

Large, rotating ocean currents called gyres draw debris into one spot, commonly the gyre's center, creating these patches. In the ocean, there are five gyres: one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic, and two in the Pacific. Each gyre contains garbage patches of various sizes. Due to winds and currents, garbage patches are continually shifting in size and shape. 

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre is the most well-known of these patches, located between Hawaii and California. The term “patch” is deceptive, though, as the trash is distributed throughout the water's top and down to the ocean floor. In addition, the trash varies in size, ranging from massive abandoned fishing nets to minuscule microplastics. 

Garbage patches have various effects. They can harm ships and pose a navigation hazard, as they can be hard to see. The debris might damage a watercraft in motion, especially nets that can jam propellers and intakes.

What is marine debris?

Any persistent solid substance manufactured or processed and subsequently disposed of or abandoned in the marine environment or the lake, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is referred to as marine debris. Anything man-made and solid can become marine garbage if lost or dispersed in these aquatic environments. From distant shorelines to Arctic ice, and even the deepest reaches of the seafloor, trash may be discovered in every part of our ocean. 

Derelict fishing gear, cigarette butts, plastic bags, and food wrappers are some of the most common and destructive types of marine garbage. Other items commonly found in the garbage patches are: abandoned and derelict vessels, architectural detritus, and domestic appliances. All of this has the potential to disrupt sea life ecosystems. 

While some of these items will wear out over time, others are built to last. Once these items have entered the ocean, they may never totally vanish. The waste matriculates back to land over time, making the beaches filthy, destroying the aesthetics, and harming land creatures. 

Marine debris is a chronic source of pollution that affects both the ocean and larger lakes and streams. Marine debris has damaged or killed hundreds of marine species, threatening their habitats. 

Littering, inefficient waste management methods, stormwater discharge, and severe natural disasters such as tsunamis and hurricanes contribute to the bulk of marine debris entering the ocean and lakes. Additionally, ocean-based sources, such as abandoned fishing gear, can also contribute to waste. Abandoned or lost fishing gear is a severe problem, since it can trap and kill species, impair sensitive habitats, and even compete with and destroy current fishing gear.

What are the costs associated with ocean pollution?

According to studies, plastic pollution in the world's oceans costs society billions of dollars each year in damages and lost resources. Plastic pollution has a negative impact on fisheries, aquaculture, recreational activities, and global welfare. The Marine Pollution Bulletin estimates the annual cost of up to $2.5 trillion. 

An estimated 8 million tons of plastic garbage enter the world's oceans every year. These numbers do not include direct and indirect effects on tourism, transportation, fishing businesses, or human health. With pollution all over the globe, we see the harmful influence on zooplankton, invertebrates, fish, turtles, birds, and mammals. 

However, researchers observed that plastics, which can float for decades or longer and travel over 1,800 miles from their source, create new habitats for bacteria and algae. The formed habitats expand the biogeographical range of bacteria and algae, increasing the spread of invasive species and diseases.

How does climate change affect ocean pollution?

Climate change and ocean pollution affect global health. Both problems are caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, many problems arise, affecting the earth, oceans, weather patterns, wildlife, and much more.

A warming temperature, for example, melts glaciers and permafrost, releasing contaminants trapped in the ice. Rising water temperatures increase the amount and diversity of disease-causing marine microorganisms. As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise, so does the quantity absorbed by oceans. 

Next, more acidic waters result, damaging coral reefs and calcium-containing creatures like plankton, which are at the bottom of the marine food chain. Ocean acidification can also make certain heavy metals and compounds more dangerous. 

What are the health effects of ocean pollution?

According to a new study, ocean pollution threatens human health and well-being. The report warns that the worldwide problem demands a quick response as research increases. Ocean pollution is pervasive, worsening, and poorly controlled, creating a complicated cocktail of toxins that has not gotten enough attention. 

The oceans provide food, financial stability, and cultural and recreational value to billions worldwide. Human-caused ocean pollution threatens these benefits and threatens wildlife with extinction. Over 80 percent of ocean contamination comes from land-based sources, including runoff, rivers, and direct discharges. It is concentrated near low- and middle-income country coasts where populations depend on the ocean for survival.

Plastic debris, oil spills, mercury, toxins, pesticides, and fertilizers pollute the ocean. In addition, synthetic chemicals, petroleum wastes, agricultural runoff, and hazardous algae blooms cause ocean pollution. These lead to contaminated seafood consumed by animals and humans. 

Consumer items, food packaging, cleaning products, and pesticides all release toxins into the seas. Humans are most likely to be exposed to harmful chemicals and pesticides via contaminated seafood consumption. These substances cause cardiovascular illness, developmental and neurobehavioral abnormalities, metabolic disease, immunological dysfunction, endocrine disruption, and malignancies. 

Warmer temperatures melt glaciers and permafrost, releasing pollutants. Rising water temperatures broaden the range of disease-causing marine microorganisms, causing oceans to absorb more CO2 as atmospheric levels rise. This causes more acidic seas, destroying coral reefs and calcium-containing creatures like plankton. In addition, ocean acidification can enhance heavy metal and chemical toxicity for humans and wildlife.

What are the next steps for solving ocean pollution?

The world needs laws, policies, research, and case studies if we hope to save the oceans from pollution. Step one should start with transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy to prevent ocean pollution. Next, banning straws and plastic bags can minimize ocean plastic waste, as it can reduce plastic usage. 

Controlling coastal pollution and increasing protected ocean areas helps protect ecosystems, fish stocks, and human health. Many countries have successfully cleaned polluted harbors, revitalized estuaries, and rebuilt coral reefs. The results have been increased tourism, restored fisheries, enhanced human health, and economic prosperity. These advantages will last centuries.

On the scientific side, scientists and people need a deeper understanding of ocean pollution's health implications that might inform protective legislation. Improved ocean pollution monitoring, studies of human exposure to ocean contaminants, and health consequence biomarkers are among the research goals. Finally, educating the public about the consequences of ocean pollution will hopefully encourage awareness and cooperation as a whole community to save our planet. 

Facts about ocean pollution:

  • China and Indonesia produce more plastic in the ocean than any other country, accounting for one-third of all plastic pollution. In fact, only 20 countries, including the United States, account for 80 percent of all plastic pollution.
  • Because there is so much trash at sea, enormous garbage patches have formed. There are five of them in the world, with the largest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covering an area twice the size of Texas and containing an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash.
  • The ocean has more plastic than fish. Every year, the world allows almost nine million tons of plastic to enter the ocean, around 17.6 billion pounds – the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales. Ocean trash will outweigh all of the fish by 2050.
  • Oil leaks are not the most serious issue in terms of ocean pollution. Only 12 percent of the oil in our waters comes from headline-grabbing oil disasters. Runoff from our roads, rivers, and drainpipes carry three times as much oil out to sea.
  • Plastic is dangerous in two ways. First, by sun exposure, and second by wave activity, which can break down ocean waste into microplastic, which can then enter the food chain. When it dissolves in hundreds of years, it releases toxins that pollute the sea even more.

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