Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Earth is Blue

I listened to a remarkable discussion on Science Friday this past week. It was about the wonderful oceans that cover the earth and it really got me thinking.
by Charlie Leck

I’m not the science type. Though I listen constantly to Minnesota Public Radio, I usually turn the dial on Friday afternoon, when Ira Flatow begins his show. This week I hung around and around… and listened intently to this discussion about the importance of our oceans and how we ought to be protecting them.

Listening to Science Friday turned out to be a real treat. I was especially intrigued with the discussion about exploring the deepest and darkest parts of the world’s largest ocean. (It’s about 47 minutes of extraordinary radio and you can listen right here!) Ira Flatow began this way…

“The Pacific Ocean,… it is the largest body of water on Earth, and its trenches are also the deepest. You could put Mount Everest into some of them, and the top would not even peek out.” (Or, for fun, should it be “peak out?”)

The Pacific covers about a third of the Earth's surface, yet more people have stood on the surface of the moon than have reached the very bottom of the Pacific. This hour, we'll be talking with a few people who have been there, diving to some of the world's least-visited places, like underwater mountain chains, unexplored coral reefs and the least-visited spot on Earth, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth.

Guests on the show included people like James Cameron, who is an explorer/film maker for National Geographic (NG); Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer who also founded Mission Blue and explores for NG and is a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). James McCosker, the chair of aquatic biology at CAS.

Earle made a remarkable point during the show about the huge difference between the exploration of space and that done in our oceans. Her point was that the “astronauts have somebody else build their spacecraft.” Billions and billions have been spent on space exploration, while the explorers of the deep need to raise the money and build for themselves the underwater craft in which they are going to explore.

“It’s a big mystery of the sea,” Earle said to laughter from the other guests. And then she said something that just captivated me and hooked me as a listener for the next 45 minutes.

“Why don’t people care? It is our life support system. The planet is blue, and we know so little about it, and we’ve allowed terrible things to happen to it. The ocean is in trouble. That means we’re in trouble, and we’re blissfully continuing to do dastardly things to the ocean, and we don’t even – you know, we haven’t made the investment in understanding what’s there. Only about five percent has ever been seen, let alone explored.”

You know, I just finished reading stories in the Washington Post and the New York Times about the volumes of dollars that are being raised by political candidates for office. I mean, I’m talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars being donated to the candidates’ campaigns by wealthy Americans in every quarter and sector of the nation.

If Sylvia Earle is correct – that the ocean is our life support – why the heck can’t we find the funds necessary to really explore the oceans of the world so that we can devise techniques to protect what we’ve got there?

Of course, the nay-sayers are screaming about the alarmists. The good-old Earth can take care of herself they assume. We’ll not damage it by polluting the skies and the seas. Just as they say that global warming is a myth, so they say that ruining the oceans is silly: “What we do to the seas in like spitting in the…. like spitting in the… in the… well, you know… the ocean!”

How much do we spend on exploring our oceans?
Well, I can guess that we don’t spend nearly the kind of money we spend on exploring space, but we must at least spend a few billion on checking out the health of our oceans, don’t we? Ms. Earle gives us the answer to that question:

“A tiny fraction, and I wouldn't take a penny away from what we're putting into aviation and aerospace, but we need equal support, at least, for this part of the solar system. I mean, this is part of the universe, too, this little blue speck that's in the great blackness of space. And, you know, the whole budget for the National Underwater Research Program is a few million dollars, and it is being zeroed out this year, right now.”

Zeroed out? What does that mean? I couldn’t wrap that comment around my brain – or I couldn’t wrap my brain around that comment!

“Well, listen, stupid,” my brain was screaming. “Write down a big zero on that little piece of paper in front of you. Now look at it! Or, would it be more helpful to write it out in big letters; you know, Z-E-R-O. Got it now? That’s how much money our nation will be spending on exploring and studying the oceans.”

Mr. McCosker waxed eloquently about the Galapagos and, though they seem far away from the oceans that border our nation on east and west, the man made some important points.

“Every dive we would make, we would make discoveries of new species, new behaviors, and we’d see – even human trash on the bottom of the Galapagos at 1,000 meters depth.

“It’s a World Heritage Site. It’s a national park. It’s still not that well-understood, and it’s being modestly protected, not adequately protected.”

Miss Earle gets the prize for wit during the show when she made the following crack in response to a Flatow question that sounded, suspiciously, set up:

FLATOW: Yeah, and Sylvia, I guess a lot of people don't realize that fish spend most of their time in the dark, right. It's dark and deep down there.

EARLE: Most of life on Earth lives in the dark, not just in places like Washington, D.C.

EARLE: Did I say that? I guess I did, oh dear. I had just come back from the Galapagos, the - you know, I got the TED Prize in 2009, awarded a wish, and one of my wishes was to get some brainy people together to go and brainstorm what we could do about the ocean. And the mission was to go to the Galapagos.
And just after getting back, what happened? April 20, the big blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which was a wakeup call for those of us who care about the ocean. In such a short period of time we can just change the nature of a big body of water like the Gulf of Mexico and how it's not just there, it's the whole planet that we have modified, changed on our watch, more change probably in the last 50 years or so, since John began diving...

The show plows on with the really important questions: What can we do? How can we do it? What can plain, old citizen-listeners do to help protect our oceans from abuse? Ms. Earle and Mr. McCosker bounce up with enthusiastic ideas for all of us. I’m telling you it’s worth listening to.

“So, knowing is the key,” Ms. Earle emphasizes.

Ignorance about the sea has to be wiped away with our fears of the oceans’ depths. We have to understand why these oceans are so important in sustaining our life on earth and what we are doing to harm them. There needs to be greater attempts to satisfy the curiosity of the young about the oceans and the life in the ocean. Young people need to demand that the international community invest in undersea exploration and testing. Space stations? Yes, and undersea stations too.

Move toward the end of the radio discussion and listen to McCosker and Earle talk about the amount of trash in the sea and the damage it is doing to ocean life. It’s a frightening chat that ought to awaken us to ourselves and what we are allowing to happen on a world-wide scale.

I don’t want to leave you with the idea that there is NO hope. There is hope! And, both McCosker and Earle talk about that and outline what can be done (what must be done) to understand how the oceans provide life to us – cause the rains to fall and enable us to breathe. Earle goes on…

“You don't have to touch the ocean yourself for the ocean to touch you everywhere, every day. We're just beginning to appreciate that, and knowing that, it is perplexing that it's taking us so long to take action.
“Our perception that the ocean is so big, so vast, we don't have to worry about it, it'll take care of itself, persists. It's there in the way that we treat the ocean, what we put in, what we take out. But just as in the early part of the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt and some of his pals at the time began to take action to protect the land, now in the ocean, starting in the latter part of the 20th century and now beginning to speed up a bit, areas in the ocean are receiving some sort of protection, about 1 percent.”

I just have to believe that our children and grandchildren will awaken to the great dangers in which we place our oceans – that they will demand more study and more action!

I can only imagine how beautiful and blue the Earth must look when one looks down upon it from the stars.

Again, if you have 45 minutes to spare, you can listen to the whole conversation right here! Let it play and fascinate you as you go about some of your important work.

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