World Ocean Weekly

Ocean and Humans Are Inextricably Interconnected: Part Seven of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

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 and humans are inextricably interconnected.

The full extent of this statement is key to any future resolution of today's challenges to the natural health and social value of the ocean. First, there is the affirmation of human presence - action and reaction - in all aspects of the natural world. Denial of the impact, positive or negative, is simply not a fact of life. Second, there is the finality of inextricability, the certainty that there can be no separation one from the other, no compromise of the actuality of connection. Third, there are the implications of the prefix, inter: to be located or existing between, in the midst, as in inter-grated; to be reciprocal or carried on between, as in inter-national; or to be occurring among, as in inter-vening. There are linguistic subtleties here that relate to nuance that, when amplified to a global scale, have incontrovertible meaning and significance.

How can we better communicate this connection? For example, most students learn about the water cycle in their earliest science classes. They see and understand the circular inter-action between ocean water, evaporation, circulation in the atmosphere, and condensation into fog or rain or snow far inland that further deposits and flows through run-off, streams, lakes, rivers, to an extent ending back again in the ocean near or far from each drop's point of origin. It is simple, elegant, easy to explain, and so most students retain it as a fundamental understanding of a natural system. But what about the human impacts of this circulation? While these may seem obvious, it is surprising how disconnected this knowledge is from understanding of the social consequences of the cycle as essential for our daily lives in the form of drinking water, irrigation, sanitation, manufacture, and so much else. When we claim that the ocean begins at the mountaintop and descends to the abyssal plain, we are amazed at the surprise such a declaration engenders, as if we have re-defined the ocean far beyond and in some original way from how it is conventionally understood as a distinctly separate place apart from the land.

Another similar example pertains to our patterns of consumption and exchange. Most people don't understand that almost every thing we make or purchase for our use has its economy and efficiency affected by maritime transportation and trade. Much of our energy, appliances, electronics, automobiles, processed foods, computers and communications, and even financial products such as currency and trading, are produced somewhere else and exchanged via ships or underwater cables that are, even in port cites such as New York or Shanghai, located away from the concentrated populations that consume these goods and services. When we interrupt this delivery, as a result of market forces, tariffs, regulations, or other economic or political actions, this global network slows or stops with further devastating inhibition of world security and stability. This ocean system is invisible and necessary as a structure for the circulation of goods that unites us in the best of times and separates and alienates us in the worst.

Finally, there are connections of people and ideas. Never have the people of this world been more mobile, moving as business executives, tourists, migrants and refugees seeking opportunity or fleeing tyranny. Never have ideas and innovations been more shared between teachers, students, policy-makers, governors, creators, and curious individuals who find connection though art, language, and invention. We have all become inter-connected citizens of the world through media and information facilitated by the same network of connection that brings us to the admixture of things and people that we call civilization.

We look at a world map and we see the continents as if floating in a unifying ocean. It has been so since the beginning of time.

We are not separated by the ocean; the sea connects all things.

---

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.

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

Diversity of Life and Ecosystems: Part Six of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

 

For the next three weeks we are 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 supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems

The ocean is an astonishingly rich and fertile place at every level: micro to macro. Infinite bits and pieces are simultaneously organized into relationships, processes, and amplified systems that are in constant movement of generation and re-generation, life and death, life again, and life again, that is dynamic beyond our present knowledge, perhaps our imagination.

How is such a phenomenon to be observed and understood? How can science even begin to access, collect, analyze, and conclude such a vast work and world of seemingly infinite change?

Several ideas come to mind.

One way to understand the ocean is to enumerate its component parts. And that is precisely what science does today, with a global network of observation stations, buoys, autonomous vehicles, satellites, and research vessels with underwater instruments for exploration and discovery. The old adage that we know more about Mars that we do the ocean is changing. Yes, Mars has its exciting aspects and intimations, but knowledge of the the ocean as a physical, geological, chemical, and biological space is accelerating exponentially, driven by expanding technology, the power of curiosity and revelation, and a growing sector of the public that wants to see and know what’s out there and how it pertains to our living in so many ways. In my informal anecdotal poll of career aspirations among the young, Astronaut have been handily replaced by Oceanographer or Marine Scientist, an encouraging sign for the future of ocean exploration.

Another way to understand the ocean is to reduce its vastness to manageable elements such as marine protected areas, whereby large parts of the ocean map are designated for restricted use and safety from extraction and polluting activities at risk. A similar method is the partition of the total fecundity into definable species of flora or fauna that can be studied horizontally across a migration path or food chain or life cycle that relies on the efficiency and economy of specialization. And yet another method is to focus on the whole, not so much as a sum of parts, but rather as an arrangement of connections that run off energy generated from outside or inside the ecosystem, viewed as an entity in and of itself and interacting with other system of similar composition and scale.

A third way toward understanding is, of course, the amalgam of these two as affected by human responses in the form of utility and additional layers of social interaction as defined by finance, community, and culture. The complexity of the ocean system is further complicated by human applications and interactions, comparably organic, fraught with possibility, fraught with pain. Human life is but a part of ocean life. An ecosystem relates biological organisms to one another and their physical surroundings, just as it is political entity that seeks to protect its value from all forms of pollution.

Finally, there is a fourth way to understand, by the negative value of the deprivation of diversity and life, activities that consume species to extinction, degrade habitats to dead zones, poison the sustaining cycles of food and food chain, modify or destroy the genetic cycle, and deprive all participants in the ocean world of succeeding parts of its total fecundity, its implication for global health, a process of subtraction of value until the other ways of understanding are subverted, compromised, and left for dead. It will take more than a generation of aspiring marine scientists and ocean explorers to protect us from this destructive regress.

So what will it be? A process of addition, or subtraction, in an ocean account book of ecosystems and diversity? Ours to choose. A future that is ours to gain or lose.

                                                      -   -   -

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.


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
 

 

The Ocean Makes Earth Habitable: Part Five of the Ocean Literacy Series


The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

For the next four weeks we are 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 made the Earth habitable

To frame the discussion, let’s accept these premises:

The ocean is the cradle of life; the earliest evidence of life is found in the ocean. The millions of different species of organisms on Earth today are related by descent from common ancestors that evolved in the ocean and continue to evolve today.

Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere originally came from the activities of photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. This accumulation of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was necessary for life to develop and be sustained on land.

The ocean provided and continues to provide water, oxygen, and nutrients, and moderates the climate needed for life to exist on Earth.

These are sweeping assertions that nonetheless confirm the basic conclusions of natural and ocean science over time. But within each, there are key elements that might be emphasized here.

First, consider the scale of life, its extreme complication of diversity and change through the historical record that extends backwards to theories of the creation of our planet and the events, large and small, that have accelerated, impeded, and expanded the inventory of life. What is most humbling is to realize that, while that number is vast, perhaps an equal number or more remain to be discovered in the vast incubator of today’s ocean. The implication of this past and future catalogue is as mysterious and challenging looking forward as it is looking back. Can we ever completely understand the matter and meaning of ocean life? Can we ever avoid the contradiction or extinction of any one species that might matter and mean the most for our future? The humbling reality of this vast and fluid compendium of what is both known and unknown must give us pause, must give us guidance, must give us direction that will accrue to the benefit of all mankind.

Second, consider the ocean as an universal operating system that provides air, water, food, energy, and nurturing conditions for all life, most specifically our own as individuals and social organizations. Consider also the incontrovertible impact on our health, security, and psychological and geo-political stability. Our engagement is total. As with modern tools, machines and computers, we are vulnerable to any single disconnection, any glitch in the system, any break that interrupts or shuts down the process, that leaves us swimming in a different sea of uncertainty, disruption, and fear. To knowingly or accidentally produce such a condition is simply unacceptable.

Third, the assumption that the ocean will continue always to provide is dangerous, and self-defeating. That we would ignore existing or measurable consequence of inadequate or degrading outcomes is more than hubris; some idea that we know more than there is to know. That, ironically, transcends ignorance. If literacy is functional communication of knowledge, then to perversely pursue an uniformed path away from what the ocean provides is anti-social and fundamentally illiterate.

We must transform and apply our understanding of the ocean to solutions. What are the best practices now in use? What are the new ideas that we must dare to explore? What are the tools of invention by which to focus our energies and resources? What are the values, structures, and behaviors that must be changed to nurture and sustain what is a universal, inexorable system for the sustenance of all forms of life? The ocean is what makes our world, our land, our homes, our communities, and our selves habitable. We have neither reason nor right to compromise that, to poison that, or to limit that affirming aspect. We have every reason to study, analyze, and know the ocean, and in turn we are compelled to conserve, sustain and celebrate that vital gift.

                                                      -  -  -

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.

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

Weather and Climate: Part Four of the Ocean Literacy Series

For the next four weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of principles defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate

Which comes first? The influence of weather and climate on the ocean? Or the influence of the ocean on weather and climate? Both, of course. Secondly, can weather or climate exist independently of each other, whether or not influenced by the ocean? No, they are inextricably inter-related, generally and specifically around the globe. These facts are not very well understood by the public, or, in many cases, by policy-makers, agencies, and politicians who, informed or not, must deal with the short-term consequences and long-term planning decisions that weather, climate, and ocean will demand. One can be blind to the implications of research and the almost universal evidence of science on the reality of changing climate and extreme weather on coastal populations, but one cannot be indifferent to the deaths, financial disaster, and physical disruption of storms, wind, drought, erosion, economic distress, community collapse, and cost of response and re-construction brought about by actual events.

Weather and climate change affect and are affected by the ocean - its physical distribution on earth, its currents, and its temperature. The evaporation of ocean water into the global water cycle has further implications on conditions far inland with concurrent implications for rainfall, local water supply, watershed management, food production, employment and unemployment, internal distribution of goods, floods, forest fires, erosion, sanitation and public health, and almost every other aspect of human life. Incidents reflecting these factors are prolific, and we are inundated with reports of increased ferocity, frequency, and damage worldwide. As the ocean covers so much of the earth's surface, amplified by its extended influence, it becomes a primary source and force for such phenomena with enormous loss of real property and human life. If climate and related weather change are a function of anthropogenic intervention in the asset value and processes of Nature, then we are the unknowing, knowing cause of our own distress. Knowing this, and failing to respond, transcends paradox to become self-destructive and illiterate.

The ocean is equally affected by climate change and weather. Two results are perhaps the most important: temperature change and acidification. The first determines the growth dynamic for life in the ocean - the incubation, feeding, and durability of marine species of every kind and the availability of that life as protein, medicine, and livelihood. Artisanal and commercial fishing are both a reflection of supply and demand: if demand is increasing through population growth and changing human diet - and supply is consequently limited by over-fishing and compromised habitat - then decreased regeneration and redistribution of the remaining resources are diminished leading possibly to collapse or extinction.

Acidification is the changing pH of the ocean, the measure of acidity and alkalinity that affects the growth and feeding habits, distribution and sustainability of all life in the ocean, whether marine animals or plants. A small change in the ratio can mean a very large change in ocean health, a consequence that is at first invisible, then perversely damaging, then very difficult to mitigate or reverse over time. Research indicates that the changing acidity of the ocean is having real, measurable consequence for the food chain, ocean plants, coral reefs, algae blooms, and many other dangerous adjustments in a heretofore relatively stable environment.

What is the cause? Again, research has shown, and scientists have attempted to argue, that man-made carbon and particulate emissions have deposited in amounts over time to have generated the pH change with all dangers for security and well-being for the future. The Paris Climate Agreement, with all its efforts to modify carbon production, emissions control and alternative energy use is a major step forward, if not perfect, toward an institutional and human response to what is an institutional and human condition.

The ocean speaks louder than treaties or denials. It is a natural voice of reality that must be heard. That is more than influential. That is an inviolate determining factor that lies at the heart of our collective survival - a voice perceived through weather, climate, abundance, resilience, community, and personal benefit, that demands our hearing, understanding, and response.

-  -  -

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

 

The Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth: Part Three of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

For the next six weeks we are 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 and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth

Well, yes, and in how many ways does this occur? First, there is the geological record of forces above and below the sea that have moved glaciers, shifted tectonic plates, eroded and augmented the shape of the land, sometimes over eons, sometimes overnight. Wave action and currents are like blades of force that carve and curve the shore, build and un-build the coast, and define land-side response by such change: the addition of land, the subtraction of land, the deposits and sediments left behind, and the capacity of the terrestrial environment to support life in all its forms and functions.

Science helps us document this change - cartography for example, the continuous record by maps and charts of the features of land and sea as they change over time. From the beginning, humans endeavored to answer the question: where am I, in space and time? and through memory, documents, explorations, expeditions, and evermore technical and accurate maps, located, envisioned and planned routes from one place to another. In our era of comprehensive global observing and collecting of data, this documentary understanding of the features of earth and ocean has become more complete, detailed, and beautiful.

View: Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers, and the Heights of the Principal Mountains of the World David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Another shaping force of the ocean is the associated consequences of environmental change. Land once underwater is revealed; glaciers leave grinding, striated marks on land and rocky shores; the leavings coalesce as resources to be extracted as value; the success and failure of plant life is advanced as food or medicine; and the habitability of places is destroyed into history or enhanced into the future of civilization. Natural resources define watersheds, from mountaintops to streams, lakes and rivers; where rivers meet the shore, safe anchorages are found; safe harbors become ports; ports become centers of settlements; settlements become nodes of production, trade, and international connection. If the ocean is defined as a "hydraulic continuum," from fresh water to saltwater and around again, then it can be claimed to the most direct and impactful shaping force there is.

The ocean shapes our lives every day through the impact of fisheries as a protein harvesting industry, at large and small scale, the world over. We have nations, towns, and villages that have been founded on and sustained for centuries through coastwise and offshore catch in many forms to feed us and promote our well being as individuals and communities. The ocean is also a vast pharmacopoeia, an inventory of literally millions of plants and animals that we know or remain to be discovered. Coral reefs, for example, contain biological and chemical diversity that may hold the cure to diseases beyond imagination, some of which might well be the result of over-population, other unthinking interventions into natural processes, or engendered by activities and other so-called advancements with consequences unforeseen. So much about the ocean remains unknown. So much of what it has provided in the past is at risk. So much of its value as part of the Earth may serve us still through continuing research and scientific analysis as we continue to study and understand.

Finally, the ocean has shaped our cultures and beliefs. We can see the history of fisheries, for example, in the monuments and architecture of coastal towns: stone tablets listing fishers lost at sea; stories, songs, and poetry describing and remembering sea experience; wharves and buildings that once supported the transfer of fish products from catch to table, from villages to cities, and from there to cities elsewhere inland or for international exchange; Captains' houses, stained glass scenes in local churches; logs and accounting books; and rituals and beliefs, baptisms and burials, sagas and myths - all shaped by the ocean.

To be literate about the ocean is to be open to and knowledgeable of everything thereby connected.

---

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