The cover story: The ocean's untapped power

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The Cover Story
The Ocean Is Climate Change's First Victim and Last Resort
By Elijah Wolfson
Editorial Director, TIME

I first encountered the mangrove tree in 2012, when I traveled to Railay Beach in southern Thailand. This thin, peninsular strip of land was stunning—and surprising. Surely the Indian Ocean should have long ago eaten it up. I came to understand the source of its persistence: on one side of the peninsula was a robust thicket of mangroves, remarkable trees that grow in salty coastal zones. They kept the waters at bay and allowed for a paradise to thrive.

Since then, I've thought often about mangroves—as have, it turns out, many of the sharper minds in global climate-change mitigation and adaptation. Not only do mangrove forests protect coastal ecosystems like that Thailand beach, but they can also store about four times as much carbon as the average tree. In theory, it's a no-brainer: more coastal mangroves means better climate change outcomes for us humans. The problem is that the trees tend to grow in places that would, if developed, be prime real estate, and so are a prime target for decimation.

This sort of push and pull underlies the stories in our Oceans Issue, published today. Most of the time, reading about the ocean in the context of climate change is a fairly depressing proposition. Indeed, to those who have been paying attention for the last two decades, the ocean has been the obvious, and massive, canary in the planetary coal mine. Long before droughts, floods, heat waves, and other extreme weather became more frequent and more devastating to terrestrial life, polar ice had begun to melt, sea levels were on the rise, and oceanic ecosystems had entered a state of disarray.

But in planning our coverage for this project, the TIME climate team decided to shift the lens: rather than making this another story of the ocean as only a victim of climate change, we would also consider it as an actor in a sense, a source of possible ways forward. Whether by providing carbon sequestration, or simply offering us a different way of looking at how we consume fossil fuels or emit CO2, the ocean has a role to play. Our job was to figure out what that role was.

Protecting and restoring mangrove forests is one aspect of this; my colleague Aryn Baker traveled to Karachi, Pakistan, to document how a local architect is fighting to protect these native plants—and thus protect the low-lying coastal city he calls home. We also spoke to the scientists and engineers constructing underwater turbines to capture the power of the tides and turn it into electricity for homes and cars. And we investigated the potential of new, carbon-free energy sources to fuel the massive container ships that traverse the globe, bringing you iPhones, avocados and everything in between.

None of these efforts alone will completely reverse the self-destructive course on which we're set. But they can help, and should inform a broader way of thinking about the crisis: even in situations where it might seem that nothing can grow, we may still be able to find examples of seemingly miraculous tenacity—if only we care to look closely.

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