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Oceans Are the New Atmosphere


Oceans are the new atmosphere.

What we mean is, that concern for the state of the oceans and the potential impacts of the on-going catastrophic collapse of ocean ecosystems is reaching a pitch that we haven't seen on any other environmental issue other than the build-up of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. We don't live in them – many of us have never even seen them -- but we're handily trashing them. And the state of the oceans is inextricably linked to the state of the planet as a whole.

Simply put, if the oceans crash, we crash, and the signs of impending collapse are everywhere. On the other hand, it's becoming clearer that new solutions and policies may actually give us the capacity to understand and prevent that crash, if we have the will.

Throughout recent history, most human impacts on the oceans have stemmed from a dramatic misunderstanding, both of their value and of their limits. For all the romance we've assigned them in art and literature, in reality we've used the Earth's oceans as waste dumps; as all-you-can-eat buffets; and as highways for global exploration, commerce and warfare.

The vast dead zones now spreading out from our coastlines appear to be largely the result of the vast rivers of chemicals, fertilizer runoff and sewage we're pouring into the sea. The mountains of more solid and buoyant waste (like household garbage) that many communities still dump directly into the nearest ocean are accumulating in shocking amounts, and degrading with unknown results.

But most troubling of all is ocean acidification, the result of relying on the oceans to absorb the CO2 that we spew into the atmosphere. There is increasing evidence that the problem of ocean acidification -- or "sour seas," as we heard it called a while back -- is worsening rapidly, foreshadowing potential impacts that could be catastrophic for all life on Earth.

As Alex has explained before, the threat of acidification is one of the main problems with many proposed geoengineering schemes meant to mitigate climate change. Some geoengineering ideas aim to lower the surface temperature of the Earth, for instance, by pumping huge amounts of small particles into the upper atmosphere. But these plans would do nothing about the CO2 we're still pumping into the atmosphere, much of which winds up dissolved in the ocean, making it yet more acid. Other plans are even more sketchy, such as the idea of "seeding" the ocean with algal blooms to trigger the uptake of more CO2 into the ocean. Proponents say this CO2 will be safely sequestered: but both scientists and governments disagree and have called for an end to these efforts.

The clear answer is a massive and aggressive planetary effort to first eliminate excess greenhouse gas emissions, and then begin pulling CO2 from the atmosphere through safe, terrestrial methods, such as afforestation and biochar. This should be combined, scientists say, with strong measures designed to curb the sorts of pollutants now killing huge portions of the ocean floor -- a problem that may well worsen as climate change continues to raise sea levels and increase flooding.

Although we often treat oceans (or the parts closest to us) as though they have defined borders and governing bodies, in reality they are, well, fluid. Like nearly every other system impacted by climate change, there is no fair distribution of cause and effect. Rather, the entire protective effort is only as good as the worst offender, and the destruction caused by some of us touches the lives of all of us.

That is why this year, as we work toward a new global climate deal, we also need to start pursuing a new global oceans deal. The law of the sea for ocean resources must be strengthened. It will take an unprecedented intergovernmental pact to recognize and chart a path towards a globally equitable and sustainable relationship to the extraction of food, minerals, oil and other substances. We need planetary agreements on fisheries' limits, limits that recognize that fisheries collapses have gone non-linear. We need to create and enforce marine sanctuaries, fund new research into fisheries and new approaches to ocean science and put what we already know about sustainable coastal development to work for people living in these most sensitive regions.

International alliances already recognize the importance of this task. Among existing agreements and accords are those outlined by the APEC nations' Bali Plan of Action Towards Healthy Oceans and Coasts for the Sustainable Growth and Prosperity of the Asia-Pacific Community (PDF):

We, the APEC Ocean-related Ministers, reaffirm our commitment to progress the 2002 Seoul Oceans Declaration by taking, subject to available resources and capabilities, substantial and concrete steps to balance sustainable management of marine resources and the marine environment with economic growth.
We, therefore, are determined to work domestically, regionally, and internationally, in the near to mid-term (2006-2009), towards:
I. ensuring the sustainable management of the marine environment and its resources;
II. providing for sustainable economic benefits from the oceans; and,
III. enabling sustainable development of coastal communities.

But, as the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands notes as a main focus of its work, the problem with managing the world's seas stems largely from the fact that, as one of the Forum's project outlines states (PDF), "To date there is no consensus on the various legal and policy issues surrounding marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, and there are many different options being elaborated and discussed about how these issues should be resolved." It is clear that we need a more complete agreement on how to govern, use and preserve the oceans.

As we urge our leaders to work toward this vision, one of the best things we can do as planetary citizens is to arm ourselves with knowledge and appreciation of these awesome bodies of salt water and the worlds below the waves. We need more people around the world to learn about oceans, what they are, and why they matter.

But how can we spread marine education in a way that's enchanting and accessible even to the landlocked? One of the newest additions to the Google Earth family, Google Ocean, is starting to point out what's possible. As The New York Times' Andrew Revkin describes the downloadable app:

The new version of Google Earth allows users to mouse around under and over the seas, click on video clips of hydrothermal vents, read up on which seafoods are being harvested unsustainably, look at marine dead zones and sanctuaries and the like.
Visitors can create their own narrated, illustrated tours of a neighborhood, scuba excursion or honeymoon. They can also now visually scroll through time, backtracking through sequences of satellite-imagery to see how coasts, forests, cities and other features of the planet are changing under the expanding imprint of ever more people eager for ever more stuff.

Will virtual exploration truly open the eyes and minds of people wide enough to incite them to fight for better ocean policy? The journey from keyboard to kayak, or computer screen to concern for coral reefs seems daunting. But it's certainly a step in the right direction.

Yet we need much, much more. A touch of celebrity in the form of a Special Adviser on Oceans post in the Obama administration, for example, certainly couldn't hurt. More journalism, more education, more advocacy -- all are needed. But somehow, we've got to come to grips with the fact that the planet we live on doesn't stop at the beach.

Photo: A visitor admires the Philippine coral reef display at the California Academy of Sciences. The 25-foot tall installation, which debuted in August 2008, is the world's deepest living coral reef display. Photo credit: flickr/japes18, CC license.

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One proviso on the Google Oceans model of public outreach comes from social scientists, who warn that it's still vital to have direct experience with nature in order to have its importance and value (beyond the fish slabs in the market) really stick. That question is explored in much more depth (sorry!) in the Dot Earth post I did as a companion to the Science Times story above:

Posted by: Andy Revkin on 4 Feb 09

[Title: Google Ocean + Google Latitude = Real-time Fishing LBS Contents]
Have you heard about Real-time Fishing LBS Contents? Real-time Fishing LBS Contents is Location Based Service for IPTV, WiMAX, Mobile. This Service Model was created in 2002 by I&IWorld. I&IWorld's located in South Korea. As you know, there're many people enjoy fishing in the world(about 5 hundred million). I&IWorld's Real-time Fishing LBS Contents is like these.

[Main Functions]
1.the underwater topography and 3D views with fishing spots
2.Real-time fishing points tracing by GPS and angling direction guide
3.Service the real-time fishing condition about fishing place(weather, water temp, depth etc)
4.Angler Social network(such as Second Life)

Visit If you need more information, please send your email address.

Posted by: Min-woo Kim on 5 Feb 09

Great headline; important piece. Also, we are pre-beta-testing a news/commentary site on oceans at It's very early days. Like, it's a week old.

Posted by: Eric Roston on 5 Feb 09

Great headline; important piece.

Posted by: Eric Roston on 5 Feb 09

I'm reading 'The End of the Line' right now, terminally depressing if i hadn't come across this same time, about sustainable fish-farming:
International Aquaponics & Tilapia Aquaculture Course, June 14-20, 2009, University of the Virgin Islands, St. Croix, USVI
The protein craving won't be going away for the conceivable, so let's move on out of the primitive hunting/gathering phase in the oceans, & get to farming. For those with a mind for it, lots of money to be made here...

Posted by: Robert on 5 Feb 09

I'm particularly concerned about sonic torment of cetaceans, best known through mass whale beachings apparently caused by sonar systems used by the US Navy. It's an especially hideous form of noise pollution that remains largely hidden from the public.

Posted by: Kevin on 6 Feb 09

Pune (India)
If we are able to reduce the acid content of sea water, it will enhance the ocean's capacity to absorb more CO2.

Posted by: Dr J D Bapat on 6 Feb 09

I like the idea of having a Special Advisor on Oceans in the government as long as the position allows said advisor to actually get something done and not just pay lip service to saving our oceans. There needs to be a fundamental shift in mindset where conservation of our bodies of water is concerned. I've been reading Agenda for a Sustainable America over the weekend and there are a couple of excellent articles in that volume that speak to the issue of sustainable development and conservation where both oceans and freshwater sources are concerned.

Posted by: Ruth on 9 Feb 09

The title of this article is so apt that it made me feel very uncomfortable. We keep reading about so many happenings wrt oceans and seas that we can no longer afford to ignore.

We have been crying about global warming, wildlife extinction and more thinking that these vast waters are impervious to any harm... or that they are not on our priority list, at least for now and for few years to come. Quick reality check throws horrifying facts and statistics ranging from dead zones in oceans, dying marine ecosystems, oceans are terrorist's operational routes, and so much more.

Oceans are indeed the new atmosphere. They need to be protected.

Posted by: Ishrath on 15 Feb 09

We need to be taking a serius LOOK @ how much Nitrogen we are using in excess as an Agricultural Country. Nitrous Oxide is 310 time a worse Green house gas than CO2, but nobody in this country of New Zealand want to address it as it (Nitrogen)is so heavly used , our Atomosphere is made up of 79% Nitrogen so we don't need to be adding excessively more as we have been doing for the Last 50 or so years. This over use on our Pastures is STOPPING the natural nitrofication process which leads to heavy leaching of Nitrogen and other man made fertliser into our waterway and ocean's ,WHEN ARE WE GOING TO WAKE UP and STOP DOING THIS ! Karl Barkley

Posted by: Karl Barkley on 1 Mar 09

Wake up Southland
Presently There Are Approx 414000 Dairy Cows
@ 2008 in Southland on Approx 750 Farms
414000¸750 giving an average 552 Cows/Farm

500 cow Farm Develops approx 50000 L / day
of Cow Shed Effluent Daily

There fore 750 Farms x 50000L/day = 37.500.000mil L/DAY
If stored for 90 Days =3375.000.000mil L

Then ES Gives Consent to Apply to Land
over 20 Days = 168.750.000L/day
Instead of 37.500.000L/day @ NORMAL Rate

That’s 168.750.000L/day from the pond plus another
50000L x 750 Farms = 37.500.000mil L/DAY
from Todays Milking
>>>That’s a STAGGERING 206.250.000mil L/DAY <<<
Instead of 37.500.000L/day @ NORMAL Rate
going onto Southlands Soils that’s if it’s fine enough to apply it
>>>When did we last have 20days of fine weather<<<
if not it will be going straight into OUR Drinking WATER
When is Something Going to be Done
To Address This ?
Fontera is Talking about another 105 Dairy Farms for next season?
So add another 1323.000.000milL /season without Storage included

My figures don’t allow for wintering over on farm
?? My other Question is if these ponds are failing now what’s going to happen over time and also if we have the MAJOR Earth Quake??
The Shit will be going straight into OUR Drinking WATER
SOS Farm Supplies
Sustainable Organic Farm Supplies
Email :
Karl Barkley 021 02393648

To whom it may concern Karl Barkley
189 Dee Street
PO Box 1572
021 02393648
Email :
21 March 2009

Where Have NZ Standards Gone ?

Dairy Ponds are being built around Southland . ES tells us some are failing coursing Dairy Effluent “ E-Coli ” to get into our Drinking Water . I was at a Field day today 19th march . Held at a New pond under construction, @ South Hillend Road Centre Bush , The owner was stopped from completing it as it did not comply with ES Code of practice ,which he thought it was being built for him to this Code .
There were over 200 Earthmoving Contractors , Farm Consultant/Engineers , and other interested people who had come along to see what was going wrong with the construction of some ponds, and to discuss what could be done to improve there construction . I asked why we are having problems in the South when all these problem’s have happened further North , Ch Ch , Waikato etc several years earlier. I also wanted to know at what consistency was the clay that was being used to line the Pond walls and floor , First ES told us it should be 20-30% then later this was said to be 15-20% , one of the contractors felt that the poor quality Clay on this site was suitable for compaction to seal this pond . If this is the standard to which ES code of practice and these Ponds are being constructed heaven help us and look out Southland , Invercargill our water Quality is heading Down the Gurgler . ES tells us they don’t want to set the standard as this would make them liable for any failing ponds . So who has the balls to do this “John Key” is your Government going to step up to the Edge of the Pond . I ask the Question again Where has all the NZ Standard’s this country was built on gone? along with the Ministry of Works who was done away with , and had the experts to build Dams not leaking ponds .
If you are concerned like me about our Drinking Water Quality look at ES public Notice which will be out soon regarding Dairy Effluent Ponds and Applications. Have your say or Drink the Crap for the rest of time !

Karl Barkley

Posted by: Karl Barkley on 4 May 09

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