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Why the ocean matters

I have been reading a book by Alanna Mitchell entitled “Sea Sick” that discusses various ecological crises at different marine locations around the world. There was a line in the book that read:

If all life on land were to vanish tomorrow, creatures in the ocean would flourish. But if the opposite happened and the ocean’s life perished, then the creatures on land would die too”.

This made me realize that not everyone may be aware of how vitally important the oceans are for human survival. This is not just a concern that is limited to marine conservationists and environmental activists, but something that should be of concern to every single person on this planet. Many people tend to have the view that the ocean is only there to provide us with endless supplies of food or and travelling routes to new places. It’s believed that the planet’s vast resources will always be there and it will be resilient enough to compensate for whatever human’s are doing. It is important that everyone understands how the ocean is supposed to work so we can then understand how our actions are damaging it, and what the implications of an unhealthy ocean actually are.

The oceans cover 72% of the planet making it the largest ecosystem on earth and it is responsible for controlling the temperature, climate and key chemical interactions with the atmosphere. Phytoplankton (photosynthetic organisms that live in the surface waters) are responsible for producing more than half the oxygen in the atmosphere that we breathe, but get little recognition for their contribution. You probably think of trees and the rainforest as the largest oxygen producer for the planet, but you can thank the chlorophyll containing microalgae for that title. There are multiple threats to phytoplankton (ocean acidification for one), which would cause a decrease in the world’s breathable air by 50%.

Further to that effect, another important chemical process the ocean performs for us is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which if disrupted, can lead to ocean acidification. The oceans are in constant equilibrium dissolving carbon dioxide from the air into the water, removing about one third of the carbon from the atmosphere each year. As the concentration of CO2 in the air increases, the concentration in the water increases as well. The addition of this carbon dioxide causes the water to become acidic and this devastating effect will cascade throughout all the marine ecosystems, ultimately leading to a large die-off of many creatures.

Even if you have no interest in the conservation of the ocean’s biodiversity, and don’t even like eating seafood, you should know that the ocean holds 97% of the earth’s water and provides 16% of the world’s protein. Phytoplankton are at the basis of all marine food webs, with their decline brings fish declines, coupled with overfishing pressures from humans there is a guarantee in global food shortages for millions of people. There are also many consumer products that contain materials from the ocean such such as peanut butter, ice cream, and toothpaste.

Finally, the ocean acts as a giant thermostat for the earth regulating local and global temperature and climate conditions. The global conveyor belt includes both deep and surface currents and plays a vital role in regulating weather and climate and distributing heat around the world. Winds and ocean water density drive the currents that carry heat from the equator to the poles, without it the tropics would be uninhabitable and the poles would be harsh frozen lands. With changing ocean chemical composition, these currents are subject to interruption and in turn changing the climate of the planet.

Whether you live near or far from the sea, the ocean affects everybody, it is the foundation to our lives and it is dying. The oxygen is being depleted, and acidity is rising, not to mention the added stressors that humans bring such as overfishing, and pollution. We are heading towards a mass extinction of marine organisms, global food decline and changes to our atmospheric processes. To put it simply, in order to live comfortable, healthy lives, we need healthy and happy oceans.


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