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Science Communication

7 Reasons to Give Thanks For Our Ocean

Screen shot of a Google Image Search for "ocean" on Sunday, November 20. 2016

Screen shot of a Google Image Search for “ocean” on Sunday, November 20. 2016

 

Google the term “ocean”, and the majority of images that come up are mostly either a flat expanse of watery surface or white sand as far as the eye can see, devoid of life.  In reality, 90% of the livable space on our planet is ocean, and it hosts incredibly unique and productive ecosystems and inhabitants. Brightly coloured coral reefs, mangroves, hydrothermal vents, swaying kelp forests and everything in between, host life from the smallest microbe to the largest animal. This (American) Thanksgiving, let’s take a moment to look at reasons why we should give thanks for our watery friend.

A coral reef, mangrove forest, hydrothermal vent community and kelp forest. Image Credit from Left to Right: NOAA, Public Domain, NOAA, David Abercrombie

A coral reef, mangrove forest, hydrothermal vent community and kelp forest. Image Credit from Left to Right: NOAA, Public Domain, NOAA, David Abercrombie

 

1.  Our existence

A mess of stars. Image credit: NASA Goddard Flight Center

A mess of stars. Image credit: NASA Goddard Flight Center

In the infinity of space, so far within our searchable limits, we have yet to discover life as we know it, or an alternative planet we could possibly live on. There’s a reason why looking for evidence of water on a planet or moon is a requirement for space exploration of this nature. The earliest evidence of life was found in an ocean environment, and so, first life is thought to have begun in its depths. The very fact that we exist right now is owed to this salty liquid we call the ocean.

 

2.  Every second breath we take

Phytoplankton produces most of the oxygen we breathe, and is the foundation of the food chain. Image credit: NOAA MESA project

Phytoplankton. Image credit: NOAA MESA project

Earth was not always ripe with oxygen, before the “Great Oxidation Event” around 2.4 billion years ago, free oxygen reacted and formed compounds with many other elements such as water and iron.  Then, photosynthesizing marine microbes known as cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, proliferated and produced so much free oxygen that there was enough of it to build up in the atmosphere.  The Great Oxidation Event allowed life as we know it to develop and evolve. To this day, around 50-80% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by photosynthesis of phytoplankton, or single celled, microscopic algae in the ocean.

 

3.  The water we drink

The ocean covers around 70% of the earth’s surface and plays a key role in the water cycle, ensuring a supply of freshwater such as rainfall. The water we drink today has cycled through the ocean innumerable times.

 

4.  The food on our plates

Potato farmers in Peru, Image credit: S. De Haan, International Potato Center

Potato farmers in Peru, Image credit: S. De Haan, International Potato Center

It’s obvious that seafood comes from…well, the sea. Billions of people rely on seafood for protein and millions of people depend on fishing as a way of life. But that’ s not all, the ocean has a major influence on weather (daily fluctuations of temperature and precipitation) and climate (think long-term patterns in weather that prevail in geographic locations such as the overcast and rainy climate of the UK). There’s a reason why France is known for exquisite wine and cheese, why China and India can grow flavourful teas, and why there is an astounding number of potato varieties in Peru. (There are over 4,000 edible varieties of potatoes, most of which can be found in the Andes of South America). We grow different things in different climates, and in turn what we grow and where has shaped our cultural food traditions.

 

5.  Global Trade

Container Ship. Image Credit: Ingrid Taylar

Container Ship. Image Credit: Ingrid Taylar

Forget what you may have learned in school, there is only one ocean. Sure we have different ocean basins, but they are all connected. This aspect allows the transportation of goods and raw materials from the clothes on our back and shoes on our feet, to timber and other building materials.  Roughly 90% of global trade is conducted via maritime transport. This means that most things that exist on shelves everywhere, including groceries, and maybe even the shelves themselves have been at sea during some point in its lifecycle.

 

6.  Our Health

Smallpox vaccine. Image Credit: James Gathany, CDC

Smallpox vaccine. Image Credit: James Gathany, CDC

We get nutrition from seafood, but the ocean is also a bonafide pharmacy. Compounds from marine life (usually sedentary species that produce chemicals to defend themselves, such as coral and sponges) have been made or are being studied to treat sickness and disease. One example, though there are a myriad of examples, is that an extract of horseshoe crab blood is used in a test to ensure the sterility and therefore safety of virtually every vaccine in the world before it is allowed to go to market.

 

 

7.  Our Heritage & Culture

moby_dick_by_homemdofarol-d3fwmen

Moby Dick. Illustrated by homemdofarol

The ocean has influenced much of the human experience. From myths to ceremonies, and from seafaring and boat building, maritime traditions have been practiced since the dawn of humanity. Today, around 40% of the world population lives within 100km of the coast, and the ocean continues to inspire us. There are countless books, movies and music to prove it: Moby Dick, The Life Aquatic, Finding Nemo, and sea shanties are the teeniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg.

 

———————–

There are many more reasons we could give thanks for the ocean; from being an excellent playground to swim, surf, sail, and dive in, to the calm it can instill in us and the pure excitement of ocean exploration—more than 95% of the ocean is still unexplored after all. But this post needs to end at some point.

Like it or not, all life on Earth, including ourselves and the ecosystems we are part of, are interconnected and share a fate with the ocean. We have a responsibility to protect and manage what we are so lucky to have access to. The ocean provides for us, but there is a limit. No doubt ocean issues have hit headlines, from pollution, overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification. It may seem daunting, but all these issues are human created, and as a clever and innovative species, we all have the power to affect positive change. From daily choices, to community-level solutions that address the scale of the issue, to the work we get paid (or not) do. Now more than ever, the words of Margaret Mead are worth repeating: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Image credit: Gisela Giardino

Image credit: Gisela Giardino

 

Megan Chen
I graduated with a Masters of Coastal & Marine Management from the University of Akureyri in Iceland, and am currently working at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Ocean Education. I am interested in smart and feasible ocean solutions, especially in fisheries management, and the incredible adaptations marine life has come up with. In my spare time, I like to stargaze, watch talks on random topics and explore different corners of the world.

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