The foundations of ecological science had yet to be formalized when John Muir wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe.” That often-quoted observation was a poetic way to describe the complex connectivity that is the essence of the science of ecology. Boundaries, like that between the land and the sea--the coastline--become blurred as connections between the ocean, the atmosphere, and ourselves grow increasingly apparent and troublesome. With human activities reaching a scale capable of altering both regional air quality and the global atmosphere, the ocean’s temperature and chemistry have also changed, with impacts on sea life and weather systems that feed back into the lives of people.
The coastal fringe is home to 53 percent of the United States’ population, a population density pattern that is found all over the planet. In California, 80 percent of us live within 30 miles of the Pacific. Where people concentrate in coastal areas, exhalations and emissions from their many daily activities are spread by regional and global winds, with consequences felt far inland. Smog, particulate pollution, and the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, are all part of the mix that I suggest we call “people fumes,” so we can be realistic about the source of these problems. Individual daily acts like driving a car, innocuous in small numbers, turn into acts of pollution when multiplied by millions, simply because California’s coastal air basins are so densely populated. The scale of certain individual pollution sources has also become immense. The southern California port complex at San Pedro and Long Beach, for example, produces 25 percent of the south coast’s air pollution and is the largest stationary source of air pollution in California (see sidebar).
The atmosphere communicates with the seas about these troubling “people fumes.” Ocean and atmosphere work as a system with linkages that transport and exchange heat, water vapor, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and other gases. As human activities during the Industrial Age led to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and atmospheric temperatures rose, the ocean dampened both types of increases by absorbing heat energy and carbon dioxide. Since the early 1800s, about half of the manmade releases of carbon dioxide have been captured by the oceans. But that has had increasingly severe consequences for the ocean and for global weather patterns.