World Ocean Weekly

The Arctic, China, and the Blue Economic Passage

At the meeting of the Arctic Circle, the association of governments, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and civil society groups with interest in the Arctic, the ever-increasing presence of China continued to affirm the renewed geopolitical competition in the region, further amplified by the accelerating impacts of climate change and the melting of the circumpolar sea ice. Heretofore the Arctic, if anyone considered it all, was preemptively the concerns of the eight nations with direct Arctic access, a western focus, the east being excluded by natural barriers and focus elsewhere. China made its first important foray into this dialogue in 2013 when it was recognized as an Arctic “observer,” in 2016 when it announced a formal initiative, The Polar Silk Road, a strategic element of its larger Road and Belt Initiative, a declared strategy to assert it economic power from Asia into Europe by road, train, and shipping systems to accommodate expansion of Chinese production and trade, and in 2018 with the publication of an Arctic “white paper,” a major policy statement of justification and specific action.

The unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Arctic are now very much more available, economic value enhanced by depletion elsewhere, new technologies, climate realities, and national aspiration. The prize as valued by ecosystem service analysis has been estimated at some $281 billion a year in terms of food, mineral extraction, oil production, tourism, hunting, existing value and climate regulation in a 2017 assessment. It is a shocking figure, filled with implication for the regional environment, the local communities, and economic development opportunities in the future. It is an inevitable locus for Chinese interest and investment. With the opening of the Northern Sea Route, more direct connection with its land links and target markets is reduced in time and space with financial advantage through a circum-enclosure of Europe and increased access to the US and Canadian North Atlantic.

The “white paper” makes for interesting reading. It offers a list of the highest intentions, acknowledges existing national claim and international agreements, projects continuing serious investment in exploration and scientific study, and commits to cooperative bi-lateral treaties for specific intents, policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, what it calls “ blue economic passage” between China and Arctic states on almost every aspect of future development. The tone is responsible and collaborative; the rights of Nature and indigenous people are solemnly affirmed; and the sense of peace and harmony for these interactions assured. It appears progressive, reasonable, and inevitable.

To my view, the Chinese claim seemed overtly preemptive. The logic of their presence and influence goes against the certainties of the past, but they had expanded “observer” status almost to full and equal rights by simply being there. Further, in the list of Policies and Positions, below the blandishments and commitment to exploration, environmental protection, and cultural understanding, there was a key section on “Utilizing Arctic Resources” with several very specific implications:

1) Development of the Arctic Shipping Lanes

Calling for rights of use and freedom of navigation, a role in the establishment of security and logistical capacities, and infrastructure construction and operation of Arctic routes;

2) Exploration and Exploitation of Oil, Gas, Mineral and Other Non-Living Resources

Calling for participation in development of these resources through cooperation and forms of agreement; and participation and exchange in the study of clean energy sources such as low carbon technology, wind, and geothermal technologies.

3) Conservation and Utilization of Fisheries and Other Living Resources

Calling for access to the new fishing grounds of the future within the context of conservation and international agreements pertaining equally to all states; and access to the study and protection of marine genetic resources and the equitable sharing and use of the benefits of this exploitation.

The penultimate commitment pledges to the principles of “extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, emphasized policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties.”

In other words, a full seat at the Arctic table, like it or not.

The compelling interest in the natural wealth of the Arctic is not new news; it has been an underlying sub-text in all the prior meetings of the Arctic Circle, noble commitments to biodiversity, sustainability, indigenous communities, and traditional culture notwithstanding. What is interesting now is the arrival of a bumptious new player — with equal interest, advanced technology, more capital, autocratic decision-making, and fulsome determination. As genteel as it was all made to sound, it was a claim to power, pure and simple.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Marine Technology in the Information Age

by Peter Neill, founder and director, World Ocean Observatory

Stealth Nuclear Submarine |

Nations have been won and lost by war at sea. We think often of ships for exploration and trade, but those activities progressed into imperial reach and colonial expansion across the oceans to every other nation connected by the sea. The power was sea power, and for centuries the fleets of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, and later the United States projected global influence and aspiration, augmented and protected assets, and defined the intercourse of nations.

Certain technical achievements enhanced these powers: charts and navigational instruments, steam power supplanting sail, increased armament and accuracy of weapons on-board and along-shore, the airplane, nuclear power, the submarine. This latter advanced naval warfare from two to three dimensions, upset all the historical rules of engagement, and provided an invisible array of weapons for both offense and defense that demanded an entirely new way of waging war at sea.

Submarines, armed with torpedoes and missiles, belittled the scale of ever-larger warships - cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers - that suddenly needed protection by escorts and defensive weapons against the threat of attack by small, surprisingly unseen enemy vessels that could penetrate the deep water and lurk in the shallows. Counter-measures were required and a wave of new technical and tactical weapons evolved: sonar, satellite, and stealth as means to seek and destroy. The identification and monitoring of larger and more effective submarines became a modern fixation in response to the destabilized and contradicted conventions of naval engagement.

As technology has expanded on every other front, so too has this evolution of sub-sea activity reacted. A recent article in Marine Technology Reporter enumerates some of the advances now being deployed. They seem to manifest in support of two strategies. The first strategy is particularly defensive: to turn the underwater zone into a vital space enhanced by sensitive recording that provides complete information regarding detailed ocean conditions and the sea floor, the detected movement of any large object underwater (including whales), and the changing aspects of the water column that might provide better classification of threat and early warning, and affect the efficiency and accuracy of detection and delivery. The second strategy is primarily offensive: to use unmanned, automated, robotic vehicles that can be profuse, inexpensive by contrast to surface craft, carry larger and more effective payloads, and be operated autonomously using artificial intelligence and remote control from land-based centers, expanding "the battle space" at lower cost, higher success, and no loss of life - that is, unless you are on the receiving end of these attacks.

September, 2018 | Marine Technology Reporter

We know that we live in an information world. He who has the most data wins, right? We seem to be heading for a new kind of warfare where comprehensive measurement arrays provide strategic awareness of the battlefield; computers recognize classifications, potentials, and false signals; multiple systems provide analysis of specific tactical options and response; artificial intelligence calculates the probabilities, concludes, and issues the command; and algorithms on- and off-board execute the offensive or defensive action; and the engagement is won.

I often walk along the ocean edge, stimulated to think about what is out there, in a dynamic space that I cannot see. I think of the food chain, a constant feeding up and down of creatures that need each other to survive. It is a hard world out there, lots of threats and enemies, in the deep ocean and lurking in the shallows. But what else is there that is invisible to me? The beams of searching electrons, the devices fixed to the dark soundings, the sleek engineered constructs that float and glide, follow paths of directed light, listen and feel the marine environment around, collect and evaluate the data that even in its minutia contributes to the great geo-political conversation and the exercise of power? Is that what is going on the great world ocean? Or is it something else?

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Climate Change Refugees: Reaping the Whirlwind

Here in New England, summer is gone. We are having a perfect fall: the calendar colors, magnificent sunsets, wide night sky, and crisp temperatures. In the harbors, the boats are being down-rigged, sails off, heading for the winter yards where they endure the cold, sufferable winter.

What a summer it was. Here in Maine we had fog for much of it, followed by several weeks of intense clarity, sunshine and revolving winds. But what about the rest of the world, where the consequences of climate engendered hurricanes and wildfires, droughts and tsunamis destroyed the lands and inundated the coasts? It was a summer of extremes, blowing in the air and in from the ocean. Those of us protected from those things this year could only react with awe and admiration for the response and resilience evinced by those affected worldwide.

There is a Biblical phrase that signifies the reality of consequences for human action: They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. We experienced one whirlwind after another this summer, and one wonders if it can be anymore possible not to equate the contribution of human intervention to these unnatural natural outcomes. The results are tragic, counted in the loss of human lives, community destruction, broken systems, inadequate response, and the inequitable distribution of the cost, the pain, and the loss among those who could afford it least.

Why is it that those who are the most vulnerable are made to bear the burden of bad policy, indifference, and willful governance that fails them over and over again?

Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters

What results is a measurable shift of population and finance. As an example, let’s take the people of the Virgin Islands or the people of Puerto Rico who remain still without adequate power, water, and services a year after struck by a similarly devastating storm. And then consider the irony of the most recent hurricane (Florence) hitting the southern United States coast just weeks ago. It caused the evacuation of millions, comparable destruction, and the prospect of equally prolonged restoration of home and health in a state where government had determinedly legislated against even the mention of climate change and willfully offered no plans for preparation and protection for probability predicted for years. Just how foolish is that?
Houses surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence. North Carolina. Jason Miczek/Reuters

But this is old news, sad to say. Today we see displacement everywhere: homes in California; farms in North Carolina; coastal villages in Indonesia and Japan; insects and birds changing their migration patterns; fish moving to different water; ice and permafrost melting; aquifers drying up and rivers disappearing; rains coming in torrents that defy the land to absorb, its irrational descent to the ocean taking with it topsoil, homesteads, occupations, whole towns, social stability, and optimism for the future in a mass flow that erodes the basic foundations of our living.

This displacement makes refugees of us all. Think about it: all these extreme weather events as resultant, not-so-subtle movements of people bereft of their belongings and their occupations, looking for shelter in another place that may not be prepared for or interested in their arrival. We see it in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Asia, South and North America: climate refugees, entire societies disrupted and made to move away toward uncertainty and the unknown.

Joanne Francis on Unsplash

The most challenging, underlying social, political, and economic conflicts in the world today revolve around refugees. Where can they go? How will they survive? What will they do once they arrive at a place that will not accept them? If we are not experiencing the outcome of our willful ignorance and mindless consumption of natural resources, if we are not proving the necessity for a revolutionary shift in our values, structures, and behaviors, if we do not change our ways wherever we may be to address the causes for all this misery, then we will continue to reap the whirlwind we deserve.

Summer is gone… We enter the autumnal time, and the winter is coming.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.



Ocean Literacy: A Conslusion

For the last eight weeks we have been discussing the concepts of ocean literacy, a framework for formal and informal education to help us better understand the ocean’s influence on us and our influence on the ocean. Our series wraps up this week as we challenge the existing methods for teaching and learning about the ocean, suggesting that traditional curricula could be re-examined and multi-disciplinary approaches explored so that we may begin to understand the ocean as the defining feature of our planet and the influence it has on all things living on earth.

A vital living natural system demands a vital living educational system to explain the vital living social implications of its value, as addition to our well being at every level. What has interested me about this discussion is the increasing revelation of scale. Conventionally, we approach education through data: the facts of history and science, the explication of philosophical ideas and works of art. We explore the record of inquiry and discovery as a map of knowledge that can be measured, parsed, interpreted, and understood. The ocean has been presented through the disciplines of geology, biology, physics, and engineering — more a didactic construct of many tiny functional parts than a dynamic flow of movements and processes, of discoveries and their consequences. When we speak of the ocean as a global connector, we can also describe it as the historical routes of trade and migration, and by so doing amplify its substance as a system of exchange of goods, people, and ideas. Thus, we have started small and ended large and that extent reveals a scale of awareness that may have surprised many, certainly challenged the existing methods for teaching and learning about the ocean.

Another provocation possible is the suggestion that we completely change the order of approach. That is, move from large to small, start at the largest possible human implication, relationship, and consequence and move downward in increments to reach the structure of the component parts. Let me offer two examples:

First, what if we were to begin our lesson with a powerful, relevant, essential experience of which every student would already be aware? Let’s start with salt. We salt our eggs, our French fries, the many dishes we love, and we have an inherent visceral knowledge of its meaning through taste. What is salt? Where does it come from? How is it made? By whom? What is it made of? What elements and by what process? How do we know this? What is the scientific process to get us to this understanding? In this reversed passage, from large to small, we have moved from the known to the unknown, to be explored and learned in smaller and smaller detail, with perhaps a more immediate and deeper meaning. There is such an ocean curriculum in Africa that is organized in just this way, and, incidentally, all the illustrations incorporate African figures and context to underscore the immediate relation and relevance to the students and their surroundings.

A second example of change in the conventional order is to not present the ocean simply as a natural system at all. At the World Ocean Observatory, we have changed the definition of the ocean from a natural system apart to an integrated global process that begins at the mountain-top and descends to the abyssal plain, transcends the established focus on marine species and habitat, and relates the ocean to climate, fresh water, food, energy, health, trade, transportation, science, research, finance, planning, policy, governance, international relations, community and regional development, and cultural traditions. This is a transformation assumption that upsets the educational order, confronts existing structures, and assumes alternative behaviors to be successful. Traditional curricula must therefore be re-examined, singular disciplines must meld into multi-disciplinary content and team teaching, and other subjects, including civics, history, and art be allowed to inform the lesson plans and activities. Technology has a key role to play as a means to research, manage data, communicate results, and share knowledge of the ocean as a determining force in the educational process.

So, what is ocean literacy? The literate Citizen of the Ocean understands the pervasive influence of all things ocean on all things human, the full range of its contribution to our health and welfare worldwide, and the imperative to conserve that understanding and give back for the benefit of all mankind.

* * *

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

The Ocean Is Largely Unexplored

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on earth.

We’re discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean is largely unexplored.

No one argues this point with such authority as Edward O. Wilson, university research professor emeritus and an honorary curator of entomology at Harvard University, who, in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know,” writes,

“The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can only be roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet…”

To preserve these organisms, Wilson and other conservation scientists propose to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity. Called the Half-Earth Project, they argue for conservation of places chosen by three main criteria: First, areas judged best in number and rareness of species by experienced field biologists; second, hot spots: localities known to support a large number of species of a specific favored group such as birds and trees; and third, broad-brush areas delineated by geography and vegetation, called eco-regions.

These, applied to the ocean, underscore the efforts by governments and ocean advocates to designate marine protected areas around the world as reserves to protect the natural biodiversity from further destruction, human intervention and exploitation. Associated tactics such a marine zoning are corollary to this effort, by additional designation of remaining areas to restrict specific enterprise such as industrial fishing, limited shipping routes, prohibited waste disposal, and all the other activities that occur on the ocean as a result of destructive behaviors on land.

Wilson continues,

“In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of other living worlds — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, corals, loriciferans and on and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life… With new information technology and rapid genome mapping now available to us, the discovery of Earth’s species can now be sped up exponentially. We can use satellite imagery, species distribution analysis and other novel tools to create a new understanding of what we must do to care for our planet.”

So where and how are we looking? Research vessels, fixed observation systems, autonomous vehicles on the surface, in the water column, and on the ocean floor. Ice cores, hydro-thermal vents, coral reefs — all these ocean places contain evidence of past and present life with enormous implication for future life in the form of new species, discoveries, medicines synthesized from marine organisms, mimicry of ocean processes, and more complete knowledge of what surely is the last great wilderness where Nature still exists to support life in all its forms, now and to come.

Ocean literacy comprises principles and awareness that will inform our world. We cannot be truly educated without it, reliant on only half of Earth’s supporting assets. We can also learn from what has gone before: the exhaustion by indiscriminate use of the land, the corruption of the air, and the already evident compromise that may delimit the essential value of the freshwater/ocean continuum. To be literate means to know the history and to learn from it; to see the reality and challenges of the present; and to engage in the pursuit of knowledge — in the vast ocean world — on which our future will depend.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Other episodes in the Ocean Literacy series:

< 01: An Introduction
< 02: One Big Ocean
< 03: Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth
< 04: Weather and Climate
< 05: Ocean Made Earth Habitable
< 06: Diversity of Life and Ecosystems
< 07: Ocean and Humans Are Inextricably Linked