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Our future depends on the health of the ocean

Our future depends on the health of the ocean
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Far too few people realize that the futures they expect to have actually depend on the health of the ocean.

Some get it. Artisanal fishers whose chief source of protein is the fish they catch themselves and bring home in the evenings understand this now that many have seen their yields decrease steadily. Coastal homeowners whose properties are vulnerable to sea-level rise see their flood insurance premiums skyrocket and worry about their property values. They, too, know things aren’t what they had hoped to be.

Others aren’t quite on board, for understandable reasons. The ocean is to them a faraway abstraction, a nice place to visit sometimes, where people boat and surf and a source of all-you-can-eat shrimp. 

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This has to be a point in history, however, in which even those who believe themselves far removed from the ocean, geographically or otherwise, start embracing it. The ocean governs climate, provides most of our water supply through the hydrologic cycle and is the main source of protein for billions of people for whom turning vegan may not an option. All these once-reliable conditions are changing because of us.

In short, if you experience weather, drink water or breathe air, you can count yourself among those whose wellbeing is influenced by the ocean.

A United Nations initiative known as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which runs through 2030, may hopefully help make that clear. The initiative, where I serve as an adviser, has 150 countries signed on in support of “ocean shots” — big programs that we’ll be starting on our own home planet instead of the moon or Mars.

We’ve never mapped the entire seafloor in detail. We’ve never cataloged the biology that exists in the world ocean. It’s not that we can’t. Ocean exploration technology has exploded in the last 20 years. It has become possible — and far less expensive — to probe the ocean, but scientists have still been hesitant to propose their most sweeping ideas. The timing has not seemed right, but the ocean is now changing quickly — the Ocean Decade could change the calculus.

The endeavor is a once-in-a-century opportunity to ensure society’s future in important ways. The Ocean Decade is a multidimensional effort drawing upon as many participants as possible to achieve a sustainable future. It makes a point to bring urban planners, economists, engineers, non-profits and early career professionals to work on ocean sustainability, as well as youth who will inherit the future ocean. The Ocean Decade also seeks to reinforce our cultural connection to oceans.

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I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes these majestic initiatives don’t live up to their aspirations, but some do. I say “once-in-a-century” opportunity thinking back to the International Geophysical Year (IGY) launched in 1957. That was an international endeavor hatched by a group of scientists in someone’s living room a few years before. Even at the peak of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both bought into it.

That year organized study of topics like solar energy, geomagnetics and meteorology. Scientists discovered ocean ridges en route to understanding how plate tectonics work. In fact, it was under IGY that Scripps Oceanography’s Dave Keeling established carbon dioxide monitoring stations at the South Pole and Mauna Loa in Hawaii that have shown us the impact of our fossil fuel use and land use change on the composition of the atmosphere.

As is the case with the Ocean Decade, the participating countries made a point of openly sharing all information collected. Besides founding the Keeling Curve, the IGY also yielded the first satellites Sputnik and Explorer I, a space race that continues to this day, and a government agency called NASA, which was founded in 1958.

And that was only a year — imagine what we could do in a decade.

Margaret Leinen is director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and vice-chancellor of marine sciences at UC San Diego