Is it really possible that the planet’s blue space is at risk of being completely consumed and abused?
Given the gusher in the Gulf (86 days and counting) it is easy to imagine man having nothing but negative impact on the world’s ocean. But with 72 percent of the planet covered by salt water is it really possible that our one big ocean could truly be at risk of what some have dubbed “ocean sprawl?”
I’d like to say no, that the ocean is simply too big, that while the its fringes may suffer from man’s flagrant contempt, won’t the bulk of it be protected simply by its its depths, its enormity, its far-awayness?
Then I remind myself just how rapacious we have proven as a species.
Man’s heavy footprint on the ocean came to me the other day flying low in a helicopter south of Port Fouchon, Louisiana, headquarters of the state’s $70 billion a year oil industry. Below, everywhere I looked were scattered oilrigs, shrimpers, tankers, small fishing boats, floating docks and barges, stretching for many miles away from the coastline.
Let’s not be fooled by current events though; it is hardly just the oil industry that is threatening Planet Ocean.
Oil and natural gas are obvious villains, in part due to the BP spill, but also the infrastructure that accompanies it, giant physical rigs and infrastructure carrying resources from seabed to shore.
But we use – and abuse — the ocean in hundreds of ways, from fishing to generating electricity, from tourism to military protection. Shipping lanes collide with the migration routes of endangered whales. Fish farming booms while climate change alters ocean chemistry. Power lines, reefs, lobster traps and sunken ships compete for seafloor space. New energy sources including wave generated power and offshore wind turbines each eat up space. Every year coastal development destroys 20,000 acres of estuaries and near-coast fish habitat (Louisiana’s coastline alone loses 25 square miles a year, a football field every half hour). Urban waste runs-off into the ocean, so do millions of gallons of pesticides from farm fields. Plastics and cigarette butts are the most common types of ocean litter. And then there are those damn oil spills.
It is the cumulative impact that is most worrying. Is the ocean’s future to become some kind of watery version of Houston – paved over, horribly polluted, with no zoning, no controls.
Around the globe three billion people live within an hour of the ocean. In the U.S. the ocean that surrounds creates more than two million jobs and more than $128 billion in gross domestic product each year. One impediment to taking care of and monitoring man’s impact is because there is no one agency or policy controlling it. In the U.S. more than 140 laws are administered by six different federal departments and twenty different agencies, each operating under conflicting mandates and often failing to coordinate with one another in their efforts to “look after” our ocean and coastlines.
Within months of taking office President Obama set up a first-of-its-kind task force to put together a federal plan for the ocean and coastlines. He stocked it with some of the best and the brightest drawn from the marine biology world. Since issuing an interim report ninety days after it was first set up the task force has been largely on hold as the same team has devoted itself to the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher.
For all those good intentions, which I hope arrive at some kind of national Ocean Policy, ever since man started using the ocean – to explore, to open trade routes, for resources – he has approached the ocean with a single mindset: Out of sight, out of mind.
It is in part the ocean’s very vastness and seeming toughness that has allowed us to continue to abuse it.
That has to change, for the ocean’s sake, for our sake.
I’m obviously among the last to know since it took my mother to tell me this morning that a new ocean has been discovered, forming beneath Ethiopia. Apparently Africa is splitting apart at the seams, literally. According to a report by Scientific American, from the southern tip of the Red Sea southward through Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the continent is coming unstitched along a zone called the East African Rift, “like a shirtsleeve tearing under a bulging bicep.” This spectacular geologic unraveling, already under way for millions of years, will be complete when saltwater from the Red Sea floods the massive gash. Ten million years from now the entire rift may be submerged. Which makes me wonder if it will then be host to its own “garbage patch,” filled with floating plastic or whatever other detritus we’ve left behind.
This region of the African continent, known to geologists as the Afar Depression, is pulling apart in two directions—a process that is gradually thinning the earth’s rocky outer skin. The continental crust under Afar is a mere twelve miles from top to bottom, less than half its original thickness, and parts of the area are over three hundred feet below sea level. Low hills to the east are all that stops the Red Sea from encroaching.
Back in 2005, when a massive 35-mile-long rift broke open in the Ethiopia desert some geologists controversially claimed that a new ocean was forming. Currently, scientists from several countries have supposedly confirmed that the volcanic processes at work beneath the Ethiopian rift are nearly identical to those at the bottom of the world’s oceans, and the rift may likely be the beginning of a new sea. A reconstruction of events shows that the rift did not open in a series of small earthquakes over an extended period of time, but tore open along its entire 35-mile length in just days. A volcano called Dabbahu at the northern end of the rift erupted first, then magma pushed up through the middle of the rift area and began “unzipping” the rift in both directions.
Such proximity to the planet’s scorching interior has transformed the region into a dynamic landscape of earthquakes, volcanoes and hydrothermal fields—making Afar a veritable paradise for people, like me, eager to understand those processes. Yet few outsiders, scientists included, have ever set foot in Afar. Daytime temperatures soar to 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, and no rain falls for much of the year. But I knew I faced more than treacherous geology and climate. Nasty geopolitical struggles—namely, war between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea—combine with those natural hardships to make Afar utterly inhospitable.
Geologists predict another million years of the land stretching and sinking, combined with a massive deluge from the Red Sea, could put Afar at the bottom of a new ocean. For now, this incipient seabed is a desolate landscape where lava stifles vegetation, hellish heat makes acid boil, devilish formations emit toxic fumes, and the salty legacy of ancient Red Sea floods provides nomadic tribes of Afar with a precious export.
A clean ocean equals jobs and wealth. According to the Public News Service more than two million jobs in the United States depend on the planet’s ocean. In New York alone, fishing, beaches and other ocean-related industries add tens of billions of dollars to the state economy. But all that depends on healthy oceans. Experts say declining fish populations, increasing pollution and “dead zones” are all signs the oceans are in decline.
Allison Chase, an ocean policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the threats to the health of the oceans also threaten economic health.
“Oceans contribute more than $24 billion to New York’s economy, and when the ocean suffers, New York suffers. For example, beach closings on Long Island cost the state $60 million in 2007.”
Last week, the Obama administration offered a plan to restore the oceans to better health by proposing the first-ever national policy for regulating the use of the nation’s offshore waters and coastlines.
Chris Mann, senior officer with the Pew Environment Group, points to the need for a coordinated oceans policy because more than 20 different federal agencies have jurisdiction over a portion of ocean management. He says the Obama approach would encourage competing agencies to work together to identify and fix the worst problems.
“If their boss, the President, says ‘I want you to make this a priority, and by God you kids play nice together,’ that’s a sea change.”
President Obama’s Ocean Policy Task Force is holding its only East Coast listening session this week. Fishermen, community leaders, scientists and the general public will be able to comment on the administration’s ocean plan on Sept. 24 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Rhode Island Convention Center, Providence.