It’s been a depressing few weeks in ocean news. I’ve seen lots of downer headlines lately about new studies saying we’ve “screwed the oceans” with carbon dioxide pollution, left a dirty “bathtub ring of oil” in the Gulf of Mexico, and dumped so much plastic in the ocean that whales are choking to death. Plus I can’t escape the bickering in every media outlet about whether or not the carbon emissions agreement between U.S. and China means anything. You’re probably exhausted by it all too. But before you totally tune out, thinking that the ocean’s problems are just TOO big, let me tell you why I haven’t given up on the ocean.
As you know, I’m a scientist, so I like to think first about how science will help us out of this fix. My colleagues and I have been working on ways to break down what puts individual communities at risk for ocean acidification. We did this recently for Alaska, and now we’re finishing a similar study for the whole United States. Turns out, it’s not just oceanography that puts human communities at risk – it’s also the ways humans depend on marine harvests, and the ways communities are put together socially. This is great news for community leaders, who can encourage future regional development that will decrease these risks. The scientists who reported on the Gulf’s oily bathtub ring also point out that their research sheds light on how oil moves and breaks down in deep water, which offers ways to “avoid and mitigate oil spills in the future.” This is great news for accident response planners and restoration experts. And finally, studies of how marine animals eat plastic debris does shed light on how these animals hunt and behave (a tiny silver lining in a very, very, dark cloud), but most importantly, these studies have grabbed everyone’s attention. People around the world are appalled by this. And as a result, there is a growing movement to address ocean trash that is co-led by plastics manufacturers.
By breaking problems down into smaller-scale causes and effects, ocean research continues to find ways we can intervene and avoid a future without wildlife, clean water, or clear air. Even for big, bad problems like carbon dioxide and plastics pollution, we make progress step by step.
- Step one: change our personal habits for the better, even in simple ways like using fewer straws.
- Step two: help our families, schools, neighborhoods, and communities make more sustainable choices.
- Step three: let our elected officials know that ocean health is important to us, and our votes require it.
- Step four: Rinse and repeat, every day. It took us 200 years of industrial living to get us here today, so solutions won’t happen overnight. But persistence, guided by science, will pay off.