The Fate of the Ocean


Our oceans are under attack, and approaching a point of no return.

Can we survive if the seas go silent?

Illustration: Yuko Shimizu

WE’RE IN FOR A WILD RIDE, say Oceanus’ 13-person crew, salts old and young, most of them Cape Codders with lifelong careers on the water. Consequently, many of the 12 members of the scientific team—oceanographers, science technicians, and graduate students, along with this observer—scatter across the ship’s three decks in the moments before we sail, seeking privacy for our last cell phone calls home, backs turned to the rain, shouting against the wind. At 177 feet and more than 1,000 tons, R/V (research vessel) Oceanus is the smallest ship in the long-range fleet of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and I suspect there’s not one of us aboard this morning who doesn’t wish we were sailing on one of the larger vessels.

Bad weather at sea is exponentially worse than bad weather ashore. The liquid world reacts in a pyrotechnical way to blowing air, exploding into the marine equivalent of a firestorm at winds that onshore might only make you button your coat. We’re headed into a Force 9 (strong gale) on the 12-point Beaufort scale. Before we make landfall, one week hence, we’ll have dabbled in Force 10 (storm) and skirted Force 11 (violent storm) conditions. Force 12 is a hurricane.

Outside of Buzzards Bay, we’re slammed with 20-foot seas ripped white by wind and careening unpredictably on the shallow waters of the continental shelf. The swell is abeam of us, and Oceanus wallows with the corkscrew motion sailors despise. One by one, those of us not on watch disappear below to set the storm rails on our bunks, wedge our life jackets under the edges of our mattresses, climb in, wait, and hope for intestinal fortitude and good seamanship from Captain Lawrence Bearse’s crew on the bridge. The only way to avoid being flung from our bunks by the violent motion is to hold on and hug the wall, which is essentially the outer skin of the vessel. It’s a strangely intimate experience, below waterline, feeling the ship bowing and flexing against our backs, and absorbing into our bones the deafening thunder of steel as the largest waves drive Oceanus nearly to a shuddering stop before her single propeller fights back with the power of 3,000 horses. I’m torn between staying awake and worried in a fascinated kind of way, or falling into oblivious sleep.

A cold front from the north, fueled by the remnants of Tropical Storm Tammy, and Subtropical Depression 22 are merging and birthing a midlatitude cyclonic monster destined to grow 1,100 miles in diameter. Twenty inches of rain have already fallen over parts of New England, the region’s weightiest rain event since 1999’s Hurricane Floyd. A day earlier, en route to Woods Hole and stuck in Chicago by weather so bad it closed down Boston’s Logan Airport, I called Ruth Curry, the expedition’s chief scientist, to ask what she made of the forecast. “Science doesn’t stop for the weather,” was her cheery reply.

Concerns about weather are part of what’s sending us to sea in the first place. By studying the ocean’s chemistry, which affects currents and, in turn, weather, Curry hopes to better understand how we humans might be affecting the critical elements of our own life-support system. Data from physical oceanography, marine biology, meteorology, fisheries science, glaciology, and other disciplines reveal that the ocean, for which our planet should be named, is changing in every parameter, in all dimensions, in every way we know how to measure it.

The 25 years I’ve spent at sea filming nature documentaries have provided a brief yet definitive window into these changes. Oceanic problems once encountered on a local scale have gone pandemic, and these pandemics now merge to birth new monsters. Tinkering with the atmosphere, we change the ocean’s chemistry radically enough to threaten life on earth as we know it. Making tens of thousands of chemical compounds each year, we poison marine creatures who sponge up plastics and PCBs, becoming toxic waste dumps in the process. Carrying everything from nuclear waste to running shoes across the world ocean, shipping fleets spew as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as the entire profligate United States. Protecting strawberry farmers and their pesticide methyl bromide, we guarantee that the ozone hole will persist at least until 2065, threatening the larval life of the sea. Fishing harder, faster, and more ruthlessly than ever before, we drive large predatory fish toward global extinction, even though fish is the primary source of protein for one in six people on earth. Filling, dredging, and polluting the coastal nurseries of the sea, we decimate coral reefs and kelp forests, while fostering dead zones.

I’m alarmed by what I’m seeing. Although we carry the ocean within ourselves, in our blood and in our eyes, so that we essentially see through seawater, we appear blind to its fate. Many scientists speak only to each other and studiously avoid educating the press. The media seems unwilling to report environmental news, and caters to a public stalled by sloth, fear, or greed and generally confused by science. Overall, we seem unable to recognize that the proofs so many politicians demand already exist in the form of hindsight. Written into the long history of our planet, in one form or another, is the record of what is coming our way.

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