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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

State of the Oceans Essay

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood reflects on his recent trip to the Caribbean where he learned from attending a conference with a number of marine scientists that the oceans are in deeper trouble than he knew or realized before.


CURWOOD: On occasion I get out from behind my desk and this microphone to do a little reporting. And recently I caught a plane for Jamaica to spend a few days with some of the world's leading marine scientists. It sounded like a dream assignment: a chance to relax in the warm sun in a beautiful spot by the sea. It turned out to be a disheartening experience. The scientists were great people, but the stories they had to tell me were deeply disturbing. Some of course you've already heard on Living on Earth over the years. For example, we've reported on how the world's fishing grounds, once as flush as the great flocks of birds in the sky or the huge herds of buffalo on the plains, are turning barren beneath the waves as we hunt fish with ever more sophisticated gear. But the rest of the seas are all right, yes? Well, no, not according to these scientists.

In speech after speech they recited a litany of emerging dangers.

Item: there's evidence that the entire ocean system has been contaminated with toxic chemicals, and some of the larger creatures are showing disturbing accumulations of poisons in their tissues even if they live thousands of miles from the industrial regions of the world.

Item: there's evidence that a 4-degree rise in the regional temperature of Antarctica is disrupting the entire food chain on which whales, seals, and penguins depend.

Item: there's evidence that the rapid loss of coastal marine habitat is ruining the ability of many aquatic species to reproduce.

Some of these scientists took me diving to show me how the coral reefs, which in diversity are akin to the tropical rainforests on land, are fast disappearing. And there's more. And each of the trends is deeply worrisome. Taken as a whole, they raise the question of our very survival.

In a way it's like living in a house. Individual problems are annoying but manageable. A leaky roof, no heat, backed up plumbing. Any of those are inconvenient but one can get by. But if they all fail at the same time, it starts to become unlivable. While the oceans may seem distant to human affairs, consider that about 95% of the living space on Earth is the ocean. This is a water planet. Life evolved in the oceans, and even today our blood matches the salinity of the seas. Marine scientists say most of our oxygen comes from the seas and that most of our climate control is rooted in the seas. If we didn't have the oceans, they warn, this planet would be as hospitable as Mars.

At the end of their gathering, these scientists met to try to figure out how to issue a warning to the world about this largely ignored threat they see to our survival. I can only say this. We will try our best to keep you informed, so when it comes to the oceans you need not act from ignorance.



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