The Pacific Ocean and the River Above

Updated: Jun 29

The Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean on Earth, covering more than one-third of the globe, is a key global climate determinant. From its ocean surface and currents arise air and water forming the weather patterns that always move west to Asia, affecting all seasons and all lives. Every farmer and fisherman work according to the sky. This is how oceans, forests, and people are intricately linked.

The Pacific Ocean, covering one-third of the planet's surface, is the largest climate determinant on Earth. Oceania and Asia share a common image in the 'River Above'—the Pacific Ocean is the current of life and the river of Asia feeds all rivers, seasons, and lives. The surface area and ocean currents absorb energy and generate thermals and other air flows, forming the weather patterns and events while sustaining their movement westward with the jet stream. This close relationship between water and land forms the climate as one large biome of interaction that continues to flow west, picking up from the Indian Ocean and affecting Africa and the rest of the globe. This flow is life-giving and life-taking, especially as the climate is changing, biodiversity is being lost, and resources are being exhausted. The welfare of the lands and peoples is inextricably linked to the welfare of the seas. The traditional and Indigenous Peoples of these islands and countries are daily connected with biodiversity, and are very sensitive to changes. They hold much of the knowledge needed for adaptation, but also call for greater climate action from the consumption centers of the world.

Climate Change and La Niña in Oceania and Asia

El Niño-La Niña is a natural phenomenon linked with the oscillation of the southern pole (ENSO). Climate change has made this more pronounced to the point of becoming more exaggerated and more extreme in its impact, as the seas warm and typhoons are more sever and deviant. To explain the weather patterns today and wet months becoming dry and vice versa, there is a need to understand this larger picture for the region. For the last three years, there has been an "extended’ La Niña, what does this mean?

In Oceania, La Niña events lead to more widespread drought in central Oceania. This is because the winds that normally bring moisture from the Pacific Ocean across the region are weaker during La Niña years. This is having a devastating effect on agricultural communities, as crop yields are reduced and water supplies dwindle. Droughts are particularly devastating in atolls that lack adequate rainwater storage capacity. La Niña can also cause problems for fishermen, as fish stocks decline in areas where the water is cooler than normal. In Asia, the conditions allow for more rains. La Niña can lead to increased numbers of floods in other parts of the biome, and these are doubly devastating when they happen during the harvest times.

"After the rain, the flood. After the flood, the debris. I don't think the sign held back the water when our river flooded recently [in Burarado, NSW, Australia]." Credit: "Aftermath" by Peter Kerrawn is licensed under license CC BY 2.0

The effects of La Niña are not always seen as negative, however. "Good weather", meaning no rain, may be appreciated for tourism in some places, and if people have air conditioning, it does not affect urban office conditions. However, when drought conditions accelerate, the long-term possibilities, particularly in the lowlands, are overwhelmingly negative. Some areas and communities may benefit from improved water supply as glaciers recede or rainfall increases, but this is all in the short term with high risks. On the other hand, a greater amount of rainfall may cause more runoff, at least in the upper reaches of some river basins, but in terms of more frequent and damaging floods and mudflows as well as increased water pollution, such vulnerabilities in terms of seasonality demand much greater adaptation and mitigation than in the past.

Asia Oceania and the "River Above"

Small-scale fishermen are greatly challenged by global warming and rising sea levels as they more often live in coastal areas that are prone to flooding and erosion. They are also more likely to fish in areas that are affected by changes in the water temperature and acidity, which can disrupt the food chain and reduce the amount of fish available to them.

The River Above Us. The winds and the water of the Pacific move always west to Asia, affecting all seasons and all lives. Every farmer and fisher work according to the sky. This is how oceans, forests and peoples are intricately linked.

Ongoing sea level rise is displacing coastal peoples of Pacific small island states from their homes. Apart from these "slow-onset disasters," people in the region are highly exposed and vulnerable to more tidal fluctuations, intense storms, droughts, floods, and landslide hazards. The impact on biodiversity is growing, made more extreme by overfishing and now the threat of deep-sea mining. Meanwhile, massive garbage islands float in the oceans and devastate the shorelines.

The region faces threats from expansive economic interests that convert our forests to agriculture, mining, and logging areas; contaminate our soil and water with plastics and other solid non-biodegradable waste, sediments, agro-toxins, oil spills, and mine tailings; and displace our rural peoples to rapidly expanding cities.

Oceans, Forests and Cultures. Sixteen ocean states are totally dependent upon the ocean way of life. Forests are vital to the well-being of rural populations, particularly indigenous communities, smallholders, those living in close proximity to forests, and those who make use of trees outside forests. In Oceania, forests comprise 70% of the limited land area of small island states. Over 450 million Asians live in or around tropical forests and savannahs, and of them, 84 million live in extreme poverty.

An estimated 210 to 260 million people living in Oceania and Asia identify as indigenous or tribal. Indigenous cultures typically aspire to remain distinct culturally, institutionally, and geographically. They usually live within or maintain an attachment to geographically distinct ancestral territories. Traditional communities on the islands and coasts of the Pacific have extensive knowledge of the ocean currents and seasons, as well as coastal and far-reaching marine habitats. Their traditional knowledge is locally adapted and deeply connected with nature. Indigenous livelihoods respect and protect natural resources. As they represent a small portion of the region's population, many are struggling to sustain their socio-cultural integrity.

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