Professor Dan Tchernov does not believe the earth has a climate problem. In fact, “The earth has no problem,” he says. Tchernov is the head of the Mediterranean Sea Research Center of Israel, the scientific director at the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station and the founder of the Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa. We are the ones with a problem, he insists, and our greatest lifeline is the Mediterranean Sea.
‘Within a timeframe of 30 to 40 years we won’t have food and water’
“The earth has been through five mass extinctions. At worst, there will be another extinction. We’re the ones who won’t survive. The concern for the planet is misplaced. Even if everything here goes, it will come back in 10 million years,” he says.
While the earth will be fine eventually, Tchernov says that we are marching toward another mass extinction event. This time, things are a little different than the last mass extinction 250 million years ago. “Now it’s indeed something else, and also very interesting. For the first time an organism – us – is initiating the extinction. What’s fascinating is that we’re doing it with greenhouse gases, and that’s reminiscent of the processes that took place back then, as far as geologists can understand them. In other words, we’re artificially recreating the natural processes that led to prior extinctions on earth.”
‘People make the mistake of thinking that we will always have plenty here and that things will always be available’
So you’re saying it will get hot, we’ll go extinct, and then it will get cold again?
“For 800,000 years, in 100,000-year cycles, we’ve been moving between ice ages and inter-glacial ages – meaning a warm climate. What’s important is that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranged from 180 to 280 particles per million in a regular pattern, according to changes in temperatures, which indicates stability in the earth’s climate system. Today that no longer exists. Instead of 280 particles per million, we’re at 412,” Tchernov says. Now, there’s no certainty that the earth will cool down again quickly. “The cycles of stability are over,” he says. “We’ve lost a wonderful thing – the ability to predict.”
While there is little debate that humans are responsible for the added carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, people are less aware of one of the most important factors in determining the rate of climate change.
“When people think about climate change,” Tchernov says, “they don’t talk about the ocean, but it’s an enormous resource and the most significant factor impacting the climate. This huge body of water creates cloud cover and determines temperatures based on its warm and cold currents. Storms, rain, and carbon dioxide – the world’s reserves lie in the ocean. In our area, the Middle East – Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the entire Fertile Crescent – It’s an even more complex process. We’re at the epicenter of climate change and agricultural damage. We’re in the eye of the storm, and that’s why the sea is such an important resource and we have to emphasize it 18-fold.”
Tchernov explains that the Mediterranean is the fastest-warming body of water on earth, facing a unique set of challenges. Most of Israel’s potable water comes from desalinated sea water. The Suez Canal also allows for the passage of migrant species, which change the composition of the ecosystem at an accelerated pace. On top of all this, is the gas infrastructures and oil drilling platforms being erected in the Mediterranean.
“These are huge processes taking place and decision-makers don’t know the sea well enough to manage it in a rational, scientific, fact-based matter. Rather, they’re just guessing. That’s how critical issues arise. If the sea turns, we lose control,” Tchernov says.
‘We’re artificially recreating the natural processes that led to prior extinctions on earth’
What do you mean turns? What could happen?
“Turns, meaning turns anaerobic, or oxygen-deprived. It’s like how you make soda: A lot of carbon dioxide that feeds itself. The more carbon you make available, the bigger the problem becomes. It can cause the flora and fauna to die off, and then the water will become toxic. On top of all of our troubles, we’d have a huge water problem. That’s what happens when you don’t use a resources responsibly. In short, the sea is our strategic resource: Drinking water, energy and food security.”
You mean fish?
‘The warming is ongoing. The number one problem is that sea water could flood all our coastal towns’
“Fish too, but also seaweed, invertebrates and other natural substances from the sea. The only sustainable protein reserve that can be managed in Israel is the Mediterranean Sea, and we have to develop it rationally. We have the potential to develop vegetarian fish, which has amazing economic potential. It’s an untapped resource. And the amount of fish we take out of the sea is negligible. While Israelis consume between 100,000-120,000 tons of fish per year, it only produces about 15,000 tons, of which only 3,000 tons come from the sea. The vast majority of fish is imported, and even out of the 15 percent produced in Israel, most comes from ponds. We have to develop a local fish, suited to the region and sustainable.”
Tchernov explains that Sea Bream, a local fish, often referred to as “Denis” in Hebrew, is predatory, polluting and unprofitable to raise. Tuna and salmon, are also unsustainable to raise in Israel, as well as environmentally harmful. What Israel needs, he says, is to develop a local fish or other form of protein from the sea.
“Why are people willing to pay 70 shekels a kilo [about $10 a pound] for frozen salmon in the supermarket, or 100 shekels a kilo for fresh salmon? Because the Norwegians have spent 45 years developing that fish. It’s a glorious industry. They were smart and figured out how to enhance the salmon. The fish we eat today has no connection to natural salmon. It’s a completely different animal. It grows faster. It’s resistant to disease. Even its color is different. Nowadays the salmon is pigmented so that the flesh is pink and not pale. Otherwise, people wouldn’t buy it. In Ketura in Israel’s Arava desert, there’s a dye factory where they prepare edible pink dye for salmon feed.”
“We need our own protein, seaweed or fish,” Tchernov says. “It has to be profitable. It’s not an easy thing to develop, but it will ensure our existence. People make the mistake of thinking that we will always have plenty here and that things will always be available. That’s nonsense. The coronavirus pandemic gave us a taste of what could happen when there is an event we can’t control. Extreme events are multiplying.”
So, what do you propose?
“Among other things, that we enter the deep sea, which has been blocked for decades. I’m talking about a depth of 800 to 1,200 meters (about 2,600 to 4,000 feet). There are enormous coral reefs there with tens of thousands of sharks and other species. We don’t want just the oil and gas companies out there, but it also can’t just belong to the nature lovers. From a national perspective, it’s a huge deposit of resources for industry – for the pharmaceutical industry among others. There’s so much we don’t know and it’s a shame we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Maybe it’s a good thing that we haven’t reached the deep sea yet and haven’t had a chance to destroy it.
“When it comes to destruction we’re already there. There’s a battle being fought over those reserves. We’re living under the illusion that everything is fine. No one cares about the corals, but if there’s a major change in the Mediterranean Sea it’s game over.”
A single leak at the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline could knock Israel’s desalination industry out of business, Tchernov says, warning that an oil spill would take many years to clean in the Mediterranean. “In order to prevent something like that from happening we have to invest. From a national perspective, we must prepare ourselves for much more organized and invested research. We need to set up an authority that coordinates between all the bodies that deal with the sea,” he says.
“It’s unbelievable. In Israel we have dozens of different bodies, each with its own tiny angle, instead of some overarching body: The Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of the Environment, the Interior Ministry, the planning authorities, local authorities, the Nature and Parks Authority. The whole system is terribly disorganized,” he says, “In every location there are different enforcement powers. In Portugal, where the situation used to be similar, they have a Minister of the Sea and a Ministry of the Sea.”
What did they do?
“They’re investing in the field. They mapped the sea bed in the areas under their control. They’re already organized and providing enormous support for deep sea research. We’re not speaking about nature and beauty. I’m talking about the needs of the state: Water, energy, food. Beyond that, it’s difficult for me to persuade people.”
‘Warming is already here, it’s happening, climate changes are occurring. There’s no way to stop it, we can only deal with the changes’
A black hole
Tchernov, who is married with four children, grew up in Eilat – any sea researcher’s dream. “The Australians have to sail 200 kilometers to do what I do in Eilat, a meter from home,” he says. But when he moved to Haifa, he suddenly discovered that, as opposed to the research being done in the Red Sea, in the eastern Mediterranean there is “a huge gap in the data, a black hole.”
“I have a slide that shows everything we know about the Bluefin Tuna, the most important fish in the world,” he says. “The data stops at an imaginary line that divides the Mediterranean from Greece to Libya. Everything east of that – in the direction of Israel – there’s no data. A Bluefin Tuna has never been tagged on the eastern side of the Mediterranean.”
Is that why you changed the direction of your research?
“Yes, because of natural gas drilling as well. With all due respect to myself, and all the articles I’ve written about Red Sea corals, the big story is the Mediterranean. It’s our lifeline. We set up a research station, all of our raw information is uploaded to the cloud and anybody in the world can take it and write an article. It’s against our interests, but we wanted to create a body of research quickly, before the rig was built.”
Is the rig causing damage?
“I’ve looked at the facts, and I can’t see any damage. I live nearby and it really stinks, but we can’t tell yet whether it’s polluting the sea. I asked them to put research equipment on the rig, but they refused. We have other means. Israel can’t exist without energy, but we have to make sure it’s managed properly.”
While Tchernov says that drilling for natural gas doesn’t pose an obvious danger, he is strongly against prospecting for oil in the sea. “It absolutely must be prohibited,” he says. “One mistake is all it takes to cause a terrible situation. If something goes wrong, you’ve killed the State of Israel.”
“Development is essential. We need gas, water, and food. The way to do it properly is to know everything possible about the sea so as not to make any potential mistakes,” he adds. “EAPC (Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company) have already polluted, but in this case, it will be completely different.”
Tchernov says Israel has been close to disaster before. “We came close to losing the Sea of Galilee,” he says, which for many years was Israel’s main source of drinking water. “Draining Lake Hula almost killed the Sea of Galilee. There was a real danger that substances would flow into the see and kill it. We were saved by luck. In the 1990s, the Sea of Galilee was taken over by poisonous algae. We could have seen a disaster that would have caused liver problems for anyone who drank the water. When something like that happens, it’s already too late to fix it. Somehow, it passed naturally.”
You said that out of all the bodies of water on earth, the Mediterranean is warming the fastest. How will that affect us?
“The warming is ongoing. The number one problem is that sea water could flood all our coastal towns. If, God forbid, the sea’s currents are affected by warming and change even a little, it will cause further climate catastrophe – the temperature change will also affect clouds and wind systems. Globally, the ocean and the polar caps are the main factors. The melting ice is effecting the sea and bringing change even closer.”
How long will it take before we really start to feel all this?
“We need to take care of ourselves. Warming is already here, it’s happening, climate changes are occurring. There’s no way to stop it, we can only deal with the changes. Once, we thought that only our grandchildren would feel it and we’d already be dead, but it’s happening earlier. Within a timeframe of 30 to 40 years we won’t have food and water.”