Climate change on the horizon

June 1, 2023

8 June is World Oceans Day! To learn about how climate change is affecting our oceans, we sat down with ocean sailor Oliver Heer and mangrove expert Nirmal Beura.

Mona-Kira Prestel discussed with Oliver his research at sea, with Nirmal his work in mangrove preservation, and what unites them: the future of our waterways. 

Mona-Kira Prestel: Hello Oliver, hello Nirmal. Today we would like to speak about how climate change is affecting our oceans. Would you please quickly introduce yourselves.  

Oliver Heer: Yes, I’m a professional sailor. I’m originally from Switzerland, and I’ve been sailing professionally for ten years. Last year, I set up my own sailing campaign with the aim of taking part in the Vendée Globe race next year. It's a race that goes once around the planet, just me on the boat, nonstop. The whole trip takes about 90 days. The fight against climate change is very close to my heart. In the last eight years, I’ve spent more time at sea than on land. I can see first-hand the impact that humans have on the climate in general.  

Nirmal Beura: I am the team lead for nature-based solutions project development at ClimatePartner. As my role is to develop and deliver climate projects, I work with communities and landscapes that are not only in terrestrial conditions but also in coastal ecosystems. This is where our team's work on mangroves has become very important. Mangrove ecosystems are critical as they thrive in areas where fresh water from rivers meets the saline water of the ocean. We currently have a mangrove planting project in Kenya, in the Mombasa area, and we have mangrove projects in the design stage in Indonesia. 

Thank you, so let’s jump right into it. You are both ocean specialists and it will be exciting to learn what changes you might have recognised during the past few years. Oliver, for a professional skipper one of the biggest risks is hitting unidentified objects at sea – what objects are out there and have they increased in recent years? 

Oliver: Sailing long distances by yourself carries quite many risks, however most of the risks are manageable. But the issue with unidentified objects at sea is different: there is very little that we can do to minimise the risk of a collision with them. I can see that there are a lot of man-made objects floating in the sea. We’ve spotted containers that have fallen off cargo ships, but also wooden pallets, oil drums, fishing buoys that have come loose, big pieces of fishing net, as well as a lot of artificial material like plastic and metal. They’re the kind of things that take a very long time to decompose. We do try minimise the risk by installing a camera system on my mast 30 metres high. Did the amount of these objects increase? Well, the ocean is very vast, but I do notice that it occurs more and more often that we spot something, especially in certain regions, maybe Nirmal will agree with me. (Nirmal nods) 

Are there really containers floating in the sea? 

Oliver: Yes, it can happen. In theory there are hundreds if not thousands of containers that get lost at sea. A lot of them are in the Atlantic or Pacific, the main shipping routes between the continents. But then again, the oceans are so vast that I would have to be very unfortunate to hit one.  

And from a climate and ocean health perspective, it’s actually not the large objects that are the issue.  

Oliver: Right. It’s once they start to decompose. Plastic can get so small these days that we as humans can’t spot it anymore. But if you then take measurements and analyse the water closely it’s everywhere. And it starts to enter our food chain. (Nirmal nods) Of course, the obvious problem that you can identify is the objects in the sea, but once they start to decompose, they actually become an even greater threat for the planet as a whole. At that point there is very little that can be done because tiny particles are literally floating around the globe.  

Nirmal, you are an expert in reforestation of mangrove forests – why is this work so important?  

Nirmal: We restore mangroves for a purpose. The coastal communities are entirely dependent on these mangroves, which are breeding grounds for a lot of diverse flora and fauna. Many species breed in these mangrove systems, which protect them. And that’s the reason why the loss of mangroves could mean loss of livelihoods in the coastal communities, especially the fishers. Mangroves also protect the population from adverse climatic conditions, especially from tsunamis and cyclones, which have become even more frequent in recent years. You see a lot of storm surges: tidal waves and sea level rises. And just imagine the loss of lives and the devastation that can happen if the coastal communities are not protected from these natural calamities. Some mangrove species grow quite tall, more than 10 metres high, and are natural fences that break up the waves.  

How fast do mangroves grow? 

Nirmal: They continue to grow over many years, 20 to 30 years and beyond. Field data from restoration sites say that on average they grow up to 13 metres in 20 years. But these mangroves could also exhibit slower growth rates due to many factors, including coastal pollution. Mangrove areas also face threats of conversion to aquaculture ponds, and for agricultural and other uses. We are losing mangroves in that sense, it’s very challenging.  

Oliver, you are a witness to the impact that humans have on the sea. Your sailing turn has the hashtag #RaceForChange. What do you want to change, what is your aim?  

Oliver: Exactly, my sailing campaign has a big focus on sustainability. Everyone knows that our climate and our planet and our oceans are struggling at the moment and the negative changes are taking place at such a rate, that not even the science community can really keep track and understand fully what is going on. Our sustainability strategy includes three pillars. One of them is that we collect ocean data. I work with the Federal Institute of Technology, the University Lausanne, and the University of Bern. And whenever I’m sailing, I’ve got a sensor on board and we measure ocean data like temperature, salinity, CO2 content, and chlorophyl content to give the science world a bit more of an understanding of what's happening. A second thing is that we do promote sustainable technologies on board. I have an autopilot, I have lots of instruments that need electricity. We try to get most of it out of solar panels or hydropower. And the third strategy is, together with ClimatePartner, we are calculating my emissions and making my contribution to climate action to sail a responsible Vendée Globe campaign. We want to show that being sustainable and being competitive are not contradictory. In fact, if you embrace it from deep within, it’s almost a competitive advantage. We want to show “Hey, if we can do it as a young start-up, then many other companies or enterprises can do the same!” ClimatePartner helps us to calculate our carbon footprint and finance climate projects. This is our sustainability strategy. 

Nirmal, as mentioned before, you also do notice the effects of climate change when working near the sea. So, what exactly has changed during the past few years?  

Nirmal: The sea level rise is quite a problem that you see nowadays. That affects the mangroves because it’s a tidal ecosystem, the sea water comes and goes back, and that’s how they survive. If there is water stagnation for many days because of this flooding, the mangroves start to die. That increases the cost of mangrove reforestation, as this involves repeated planting action over many areas for the restoration areas to stabilise. Also, because of the habitation and population pressures in the terrestrial uplands, a whole lot of plastic is coming up from the upstream rivers and it’s clogging the mangroves near the ocean. It's quite unimaginable to see how much plastic is flushed out to the sea by the human population and that gets accumulated in the mangroves. And regarding plastic: though a number of awareness campaigns to promote the appropriate disposal and recycling of plastics is being undertaken, the problem is quite large and still needs to be addressed.  

To both of you: Can you specify what fascinates you most about the sea? 

Nirmal: My work has taken me quite close to the coastal areas all over India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Kenya, Sri Lanka. Mangroves are very dear to me I would say and it’s a fascinating ecosystem to work with as its restoration brings significant benefits to fishing communities. Although the challenges are high, whatever I can do on my end and whatever resources I can mobilise for it is what attracts me to be at the ocean front.  

And to preserve the beauty of it, right? 

Nirmal: Absolutely, and biodiversity. The magnitude that this kind of ecosystem brings to fauna and flora is immense.  

Oliver: Well, for me the fascination is that our planet gets very crowded, and two thirds of the planet is water. For a very long time, humans haven’t really spent a lot of time studying and researching what’s happening in the ocean. I think we know more about the moon than we know about our oceans. What fascinates me is the tranquility you get and also how the environment can change – it’s such a dynamic environment. One day it’s sunshine, it’s lovely weather, no wind, no waves. The next day you’ve got half a hurricane coming, 10-metre waves, and then it changes again. And in a way, by sailing the ocean, the world becomes quite small. (Nirmal nods) Land makes the planet big, the water in a way makes it smaller. That’s what fascinates me. 

Thank you both for this very interesting conversation.

More information about Oliver Heer.

More information about climate projects.