Onward and downward

Sylvia Earle's lecture kicked off the Sustaining Coastal Cities Conference on Wednesday evening. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Sylvia Earle’s lec­ture kicked off the Sus­taining Coastal Cities Con­fer­ence on Wednesday evening. Photo by Brooks Canaday.

Between 1969 and 1972, 12 people (all of them men) walked on the moon, took an after­noon stroll 240,000 miles away. Around this same time, Sylvia Earle, the first chief sci­en­tist for the National Oceano­graphic and Atmos­pheric Admin­is­tra­tion, was just learning to dive deep below the sur­face of the sea. Back then the tem­per­tature of the earth was about one degree cooler than it is today, coral reefs were thriving, and we still thought of the ocean as “too big to fail,” Earle said in a lec­ture on Wednesday evening to kick off the first annual Sus­taining Coastal Cities con­fer­ence, an event hosted by the Col­lege of Sci­ence.

A “living legend” according to the Library of Con­gress, Earle first became enam­ored with the sea as a kid when she read a book by William Beebe, the man who devel­oped the first under­water breathing system, which he and Otis Barton used to plunge them­selves a half mile down. Beebe’s obser­va­tions showed Earle that the ocean was more than just a big puddle of water, it was alive. It con­tained sea horses, whales, dol­phins, and stom­atopods. Ninety per­cent of its crea­tures, she said, com­mu­ni­cate with one another through intri­cate bio­lu­mi­nes­cent pat­terns. These crea­tures, and their quiet impact on the rest of the planet, fas­ci­nated her.

Today, nearly half a cen­tury after Earle learned to dive, we are begin­ning to set our sights on Mars. And yet we still aren’t capable of going much deeper into the ocean than Beebe and Barton did in the 1930s. “We’ve spent bil­lions to access the skies above,” said Earle, “and it has paid off enor­mously. But we’ve neglected the oceans and it’s costing us deeply.”

A stomatopod is a crustacean that, in some cases, uses bioluminescence to communicate. Photo via Flickr.

A stom­atopod is a crus­tacean that, in some cases, uses bio­lu­mi­nes­cence to com­mu­ni­cate. Photo via Flickr.

The ocean is an enor­mous sink for carbon dioxide and the phy­to­plankton that pop­u­late its upper layers gen­erate as much as 70 per­cent of the earth’s oxygen. “If you like to breathe,” said Earle, “you’ll take care of the plankton.” But the plankton don’t stand alone, they are but one organism in a vast system of organ­isms and processes that rely on one another for optimal sur­vival. Too much phy­to­plankton, and the coral reefs begin to suffer. When the corals suffer, the fish that eat them do, too. When the fish suffer, humans suffer. We rely on marine organ­isms for a huge por­tion of our pro­tein supply, and thou­sands of fishing com­mu­ni­ties across the globe rely on them for their very survival.

The ocean gov­erns the weather, the cli­mate, and dozens of nat­ural cycles like the carbon cycle and the water cycle. So, if we don’t take care of the ocean, Earle said, we’ll ulti­mately destroy our­selves. But we haven’t been taking care of them. We’ve actu­ally been treating them pretty badly over the last cen­tury or so. Back in the day, Earle said, the ocean was so unknown to us we imag­ined it to be a great sink, capable of absorbing all of our waste. We’ve since learned better, but the plas­tics and other refuse that have made–and con­tinue to make–their way into the sea over the years spell tur­moil for marine life.

The coral reefs that were thriving when Earle learned to dive have since suf­fered greatly. Half of them have been destroyed due to bleaching, a result of increased ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion, itself a result of cli­mate change. The tem­per­a­ture of the earth is now higher than it has ever been in Earth’s his­tory, and lies well out­side the range of normal tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­a­tions. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmos­phere are rising sharply, and we’re begin­ning to worry about our ability to sur­vive on this planet in the long term. As we try to figure out ways to make Mars, with its high CO2 levels lim­ited or non-​​existant water supply, a more hab­it­able place, Earle said, we con­tinue “Mar­si­fying Earth.”

We have to make peace with the blue planet before we can ever respon­sibly go to another one,” she said.

The good news, though, is that “now we know,” now we’re asking the right ques­tions, now we can look at the past, see its impact on the present, and project into the future with that knowl­edge. “We are living in the most extra­or­di­nary time in human his­tory,” Earle said. We’re at a sweet spot where we can either keep staying this destruc­tive course, or we can wake up, pay atten­tion, and make some changes. While half the corals are gone, Earle reminded the audi­ence on Wednesday, half of them are still alive.

Earle has spent months of her life living on the bottom of the ocean. She led the first team of women “aqua­nauts” down there in the 1970’s and has had the oppor­tu­nity to go back ten sep­a­rate times. She’s 77 years old but she has no plans for set­tling down up top any time soon. She is one of the 0.1 per­cent of humanity that’s seen the deep ocean and all that it holds. There are crea­tures down there that are seven thou­sand years old. “Imagine what humanity was doing seven thou­sand years ago,” she said. But since it’s all buried so deep below the horizon we’re used to, few of us realize the great jungle it con­tains. The deeper you go, Earle said, the less we know about the crea­tures and the less we know how our behav­iors on land are impacting them. If we ever hope to truly under­stand cli­mate change and its impact on the envi­ron­ment, we have to spend just as much time and money exploring the depths of our own planet as we have exploring those beyond, Earle said. As we con­tinue to move onward and upward, we should also con­sider going down­ward. I never real­ized it before, but I’m in com­plete agreement.

And just in case you missed it, or haven’t enough Sylvia Earle, here’s Wednesday night’s talk in full, cour­tesy of the Col­lege of Science:

Video streaming by Ustream