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Warming world: Our threatened oceans

Both the beauty and the fragility of the planet were on spectacular display Monday as TODAY reported on climate change live from four very diverse regions around the globe.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Both the beauty and the fragility of the planet were on spectacular display Monday as TODAY reported on climate change and the power of water from the Ends of the Earth.

Hosts Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira, Al Roker and Ann Curry signed in simultaneously from the Western Hemisphere’s longest coral reef in Belize; drought-stricken Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent; Iceland, where fire meets ice; and 13,000 feet up the flank of Mount Kilimanjaro, the “Roof of Africa,” whose famous snows and glaciers are on pace to disappear within the next dozen years.

Water covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, but, as Lauer, Vieira, Roker and Curry reported, 1.1 billion people — a sixth of the planet’s human population — do not have access to a clean supply of this most precious and essential resource.

As glaciers continue to melt, droughts intensify and existing clean water sources are polluted, it is estimated that by 2025, 5.3 billion people will suffer from water shortages.

It is the realization of the horror expressed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”

Vieira Down Under
Australia is the embodiment of that famous line. Vieira reported from Sydney Harbour with the city’s iconic Opera House in the background. She, like the continent that has nearly 23,000 miles of coastline — just 1,000 miles less than the circumference of the planet — was surrounded by water.

And yet, Australia is desperately dry, locked in a cycle of drought that is in its seventh year. The Murray-Darling river basin, which waters 15 percent of the country, is severely depleted, and farmers are going out of business, unable to get enough water to raise their livestock and grow their crops.

The average American consumes 100-175 gallons of fresh water each day to cook, clean, wash and flush, but, the TODAY anchors reported, the pressures on this resource that are so obvious at the Ends of the Earth will ultimately affect everyone.

Australia has taken many measures to cope with the chronic shortage of water, from issuing bans on washing cars to limiting showers, in some cases to four minutes. As Vieira reported, what’s happening in Australia could happen elsewhere, including the American West and Southwest, where water resources are also stretched to the limit.

Climbing Kilimanjaro
In Africa, the effects of changing climate on water resources is particularly dramatic in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, Curry reported from her camp 13,000 feet up the mountain.

The gigantic volcano is more than 19,000 feet high, and for as long as anyone can remember, the glaciers on its snow-covered peak have provided water — and life — to the people below.

The name Kilimanjaro “means ‘Mountain of Greatness,’ ” Curry reported. “But it’s becoming known locally as the ‘Mountain of Defeat.’ The snows of Kilimanjaro are disappearing. The glaciers have decreased 84 percent in 100 years … The Masai say their mountain is dying ... Wells are running dry. Rivers are getting smaller.”

Curry’s trek is the most complicated of the four. She and her support crew set out last week on a trek that has carried them through four climate zones, beginning in tropical rain forest and continuing through heath, moorland and alpine desert.

Because of all the equipment they must carry, more than 100 porters were recruited to assist with the ascent up the most difficult route to the glacier at the summit. Curry’s ascent is complicated by seasonal rains, severe headaches and altitude sickness and subzero nighttime temperatures.

Curry’s goal is the summit of Kilimanjaro, which she hopes to reach by Friday.

Cold neck of the woods
In Iceland, where Roker reported in from the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall, it would appear that there is no shortage of water. Iceland generates 80 percent of the electricity used by its 320,000 people from hydroelectric projects.

The other 20 percent comes from geothermal sources powered by the scores of volcanoes that built the island nation. The nation has embarked on a program to become totally carbon neutral by 2050.

But, Roker reported, the glaciers that feed thousands of rivers and streams and cover 11 percent of Iceland’s surface are in retreat because of climate change. It is estimated that by the end of the century, the glaciers will be gone. With them will go the source of much of Iceland’s power.

Worse for the rest of the planet, if all the world’s glaciers were to melt, sea levels would rise by as much as 230 feet, wiping out island nations and inundating coastal areas where much of the world’s population lives.

Reporting under water
One such place is Belize, the small Central American nation that snuggles between Mexico and Guatemala on the Caribbean Sea.

Lauer opened his report in scuba gear beneath the ocean’s surface in Belize’s famous Blue Hole.

Located 46 miles off the Belizean coast, the Blue Hole is a nearly perfect circle of coral, some 1,000 feet in diameter and more than 400 feet deep. First extensively explored by famed marine adventurer Jacques Cousteau in his submersible “Calypso,” the formation is part of the 185-mile-long barrier reef that protects Belize and sustains so much marine life.

Lauer reported that 90 percent of all life on earth is in some way dependent on the planet’s coral reefs and the complex web of life that they generate. As global temperatures rise, the world’s reefs have been under extraordinary pressure. Lauer reported that a rise in ocean temperature of just one degree can destroy coral, first bleaching it, then killing the living organisms that are so vital to the food chain.

In Belize, just 11 percent of the coral is considered healthy, Lauer reported, and researchers are racing against time to find ways to save not just Belize’s reef, but others around the globe.

In Belize, the coral and coastal mangrove swamps are vital to the nation’s existence. Without those buffers between the elements and the land, much of the low-lying country could be wiped out.

“We’ve seen coral reefs just decline,” he reported.

“We’re seeing decreased fish populations. It’s happening very, very quickly.”

TODAY’s Ends of the Earth series continues Tuesday on NBC.