World Ocean Day: Why Do We Currently Know More About the Moon than Our Own Oceans?

2016-06-29T10:22:31+00:00 June 7, 2011|

How much do we know about life in the ocean? A lot, you might say. But how much do we really know about life in the ocean? A lot less than you might think, I say.

(From The Vancouver Sun / by Jonathan Thar, Research Program Coordinator, Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Program (POST)) — Take a look at the map below. It was prepared in late 2010 to summarize the current state of our knowledge at the end of the groundbreaking decade-long Census of Marine Life. The coloured dots are half-degree squares where we do have data on life in the ocean. White areas are where we have not studied ocean life – an unexplored majority of the 71 watery percent of the Earth’s surface.

A map of the nearly 30 million records of 120,000 species from over 800 datasets collected in the Census of Marine Life’s legacy database, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). Coloured dots represent half-degree areas where there is data on ocean life; white areas are where we lack data. Much of the uncatalogued ocean lies in the Arctic and waters south of the equator. (Credit: OBIS)

(Click to enlarge) A map of the nearly 30 million records of 120,000 species from over 800 datasets collected in the Census of Marine Life’s legacy database, the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). Coloured dots represent half-degree areas where there is data on ocean life; white areas are where we lack data. Much of the uncatalogued ocean lies in the Arctic and waters south of the equator. (Credit: OBIS)

If that does not convince you, think in the third dimension: depth. The diagram below is a cross section of the various depths of the global ocean. Reds and oranges show where in the water column we have a good amount of information about ocean life. Blues and yellows, on the other hand, show where we have little or no information.

A scaled cross section of the depth of the global oceans shows where we have much (reds and oranges) and little (blues and yellows) data on ocean life. The data, aggregated from OBIS, reveal a vast volume of deep water, far from the world’s shores, where we have little or no information on what lives there. (Credit: Webb et al 2010, PLoS ONE 5(8): e10223)

(Click to enlarge) A scaled cross section of the depth of the global oceans shows where we have much (reds and oranges) and little (blues and yellows) data on ocean life. The data, aggregated from OBIS, reveal a vast volume of deep water, far from the world’s shores, where we have little or no information on what lives there. (Credit: Webb et al 2010, PLoS ONE 5(8): e10223)

The moral: despite the valuable knowledge gained from the tireless efforts of thousands of marine biologists and ecologists who have and continue to dedicate themselves to learning about life in the ocean, we still have much to learn.

So what is the benefit to knowing more about ocean life? The more we know, the more we will be able to effectively protect and conserve ocean life. And why is it important to conserve ocean life? For a multitude of reasons, particularly considering the threats that many marine animals face; but ultimately because the ocean brought life to and is the great regulator of our earth. The health of marine life is a key indicator of the health of the ocean. The health of the ocean is hugely important to the health of the planet.

Some marine animal or plant could give us answers to secrets about curing deadly diseases, or how to more efficiently feed a growing world population. We, land dwellers, are inextricably linked to life in the ocean. If something goes awry under the sea, the more we know about ocean life, the more ready we will be to interpret what is happening, face the challenges and mitigate the results.

But because so much of the uncatalogued ocean lies so deep and so far from shore, learning about what lives there poses a real challenge. About 40 years ago, we sent 12 astronauts on six different missions to the surface of the moon, 400,000 kilometres away. Ten years prior, in 1960, two aquanauts dove 11 kilometres below the surface in a submarine, to the deepest part of the ocean in the Marianas Trench. In the 50 years since, not one person has been that deep, only two unmanned remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

We need to take advantage of recent technological advances and shift the focus of human exploration away from the skies and to our oceans. It does not make sense that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of our oceans.

The program that I work for, the Vancouver Aquarium’s Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Program (POST), spent its time as a partner of the Census of Marine Life applying the underwater equivalent of cell phone technology to migrating ocean animals. In ten years, we have gained a more detailed picture of where marine animals travel under the ocean’s surface. As POST moves into its next decade of exploration, we are experimenting with using autonomous ocean gliders, capable of transiting an entire ocean basin, to track these tagged animals far from shore and deeper than ever before.

Perhaps we are starting to see a shift in curiosity towards what is left to explore on our own planet. The Census of Marine Life garnered significant international attention and real interest when it released its results last October. But the interest cannot end there.

Starting this 2011 World Oceans Day, get curious. Learn more about what we do and do not know about life in the ocean. Let your imagination soar with the amazing things you learn and think about what else might possibly live beneath the surface, and how we can learn even more. Your novel ideas and innovations can revolutionize our understanding of our world. Run with those ideas and make a difference.

World Oceans Day was first proposed by Canada in 1992, and officially recognized by the UN in 2008. It is celebrated annually on June 8, and organized by The Ocean Project and World Ocean Network.