The Ocean, Our Planet’s Final Frontier
Published June 08, 2013
In Barcelona in 2006, oceanographer Sylvia Earle received an international award for her storied career as an ocean explorer. Also honored that day was John Hanke, developer of the now-famous Earth visualization tool Google Earth. Smiling slyly, Dr. Earle commended John for creating an amazing new way to view the world, then asked, “When do you plan to finish it? You've done a great job with the land—‘Google Dirt.’ What about the ocean?” Thus challenged, John asked Sylvia and her team to help him fix this oversight and in early 2009, we unveiled Ocean in Google Earth, offering earthlings a global view of the ocean’s vast bathymetry.
This story illustrates a truth about how many of us think (or more accurately, don’t think) about the ocean. Though half the world’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast, the cliché “out of sight, out of mind” describes the way most of us relate to the expansive, interconnected ocean that covers 70 percent of Earth’s surface and contains 97 percent of its water.
This blue planet is indeed a water planet, yet incredibly, over 90 percent of the ocean remains unexplored and unseen by humans. In a world that’s increasingly tamed and cataloged, it’s astounding to learn that until last year, only two human beings had been to the ocean’s greatest depth: Challenger Deep, off the Mariana Islands. That epic descent occurred in 1960—before we’d even ventured into space! Just last year, one more explorer made the voyage: renowned filmmaker James Cameron piloted a new craft, Deepsea Challenger, there and back. I suspect we’ll soon be treated to some spectacular footage of a world we understand less than we do the planet Mars.
Experts believe that up to two-thirds of the plant and animal species in the ocean may still await our discovery, with as many as one million species of non-bacterial sealife yet to be identified. In other words, we’ve only scratched the ocean’s surface.
Scientists, poets and philosophers have referred to the ocean as our planet’s life-support system, its blue lungs. Our air, weather, freshwater, climate and much of our food are ultimately regulated, moderated or provided by the sea’s seemingly limitless bounty. Over 2.6 billion people rely on the ocean for their primary source of protein. And we count on the ocean to absorb more than 30 percent of the climate-changing carbon dioxide (CO2) we produce.
Yet for all these benefits (called ‘ecosystem services’ by ecologists), the ocean cannot sustain our unrelenting onslaught. We put in too many bad things, take out too many good things, and reconfigure its shores, chemistry and balance. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have calculated that the ocean absorbs and stores 50 times more CO2 than the atmosphere, yet it’s no secret that atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas are rising at an alarming rate and now routinely approach 400 parts per million; at this rate, we are poised to double pre-Industrial Revolution CO2 levels in the next few decades. And, in case you’re wondering, human-influenced climate change is no longer mere theory, as if it ever were. In a review of 12,000 papers published in research journals, 97 percent of the authors—atmospheric scientists who seldom agree on anything—concur that it is directly attributed to human activities.
Against this gloomy backdrop, one might ask, “What hope is there?” In my view, there’s plenty. We have never known so much about aquatic systems and the delicate interplay between them. We’ve doubled the area of our National Marine Sanctuary system over the past decade. We have a National Ocean Policy and a nascent implementation plan, the first in our nation’s history. Whether in fisheries management, ecosystem thinking or product life-cycle planning, we’re learning from our past and planning a better future.
Here at National Aquarium, we value the conservation of aquatic treasures—by which we mean habitats and inhabitants, human and non-human, individual and community. By definition, treasures are worth protecting. World Oceans Day is one way of celebrating such oceanic treasures. This year, I invite you to embrace a thought, one shared by all of us who commit our lives to the sea: the ocean matters to me and to those I love. With every drop of water you drink and every breath you take, you are connected to this complex ecosystem, whether you live on the coast, in the mountains, in a city or a desert.
Simply by existing, the ocean gives us the gift of life. It’s time we returned the favor.