World Ocean Weekly

The Ocean Makes Earth Habitable: Part Five of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

For the next four weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean made the Earth habitable

To frame the discussion, let’s accept these premises:

The ocean is the cradle of life; the earliest evidence of life is found in the ocean. The millions of different species of organisms on Earth today are related by descent from common ancestors that evolved in the ocean and continue to evolve today.

Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere originally came from the activities of photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. This accumulation of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was necessary for life to develop and be sustained on land.

The ocean provided and continues to provide water, oxygen, and nutrients, and moderates the climate needed for life to exist on Earth.

These are sweeping assertions that nonetheless confirm the basic conclusions of natural and ocean science over time. But within each, there are key elements that might be emphasized here.

First, consider the scale of life, its extreme complication of diversity and change through the historical record that extends backwards to theories of the creation of our planet and the events, large and small, that have accelerated, impeded, and expanded the inventory of life. What is most humbling is to realize that, while that number is vast, perhaps an equal number or more remain to be discovered in the vast incubator of today’s ocean. The implication of this past and future catalogue is as mysterious and challenging looking forward as it is looking back. Can we ever completely understand the matter and meaning of ocean life? Can we ever avoid the contradiction or extinction of any one species that might matter and mean the most for our future? The humbling reality of this vast and fluid compendium of what is both known and unknown must give us pause, must give us guidance, must give us direction that will accrue to the benefit of all mankind.

Second, consider the ocean as an universal operating system that provides air, water, food, energy, and nurturing conditions for all life, most specifically our own as individuals and social organizations. Consider also the incontrovertible impact on our health, security, and psychological and geo-political stability. Our engagement is total. As with modern tools, machines and computers, we are vulnerable to any single disconnection, any glitch in the system, any break that interrupts or shuts down the process, that leaves us swimming in a different sea of uncertainty, disruption, and fear. To knowingly or accidentally produce such a condition is simply unacceptable.

Third, the assumption that the ocean will continue always to provide is dangerous, and self-defeating. That we would ignore existing or measurable consequence of inadequate or degrading outcomes is more than hubris; some idea that we know more than there is to know. That, ironically, transcends ignorance. If literacy is functional communication of knowledge, then to perversely pursue an uniformed path away from what the ocean provides is anti-social and fundamentally illiterate.

We must transform and apply our understanding of the ocean to solutions. What are the best practices now in use? What are the new ideas that we must dare to explore? What are the tools of invention by which to focus our energies and resources? What are the values, structures, and behaviors that must be changed to nurture and sustain what is a universal, inexorable system for the sustenance of all forms of life? The ocean is what makes our world, our land, our homes, our communities, and our selves habitable. We have neither reason nor right to compromise that, to poison that, or to limit that affirming aspect. We have every reason to study, analyze, and know the ocean, and in turn we are compelled to conserve, sustain and celebrate that vital gift.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Other episodes in the Ocean Literacy series:
< 01: An Introduction
< 02: One Big Ocean
< 03: Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth
< 04: Weather and Climate

Weather and Climate: Part Four of the Ocean Literacy Series

For the next four weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of principles defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate

Which comes first? The influence of weather and climate on the ocean? Or the influence of the ocean on weather and climate? Both, of course. Secondly, can weather or climate exist independently of each other, whether or not influenced by the ocean? No, they are inextricably inter-related, generally and specifically around the globe. These facts are not very well understood by the public, or, in many cases, by policy-makers, agencies, and politicians who, informed or not, must deal with the short-term consequences and long-term planning decisions that weather, climate, and ocean will demand. One can be blind to the implications of research and the almost universal evidence of science on the reality of changing climate and extreme weather on coastal populations, but one cannot be indifferent to the deaths, financial disaster, and physical disruption of storms, wind, drought, erosion, economic distress, community collapse, and cost of response and re-construction brought about by actual events.

Weather and climate change affect and are affected by the ocean - its physical distribution on earth, its currents, and its temperature. The evaporation of ocean water into the global water cycle has further implications on conditions far inland with concurrent implications for rainfall, local water supply, watershed management, food production, employment and unemployment, internal distribution of goods, floods, forest fires, erosion, sanitation and public health, and almost every other aspect of human life. Incidents reflecting these factors are prolific, and we are inundated with reports of increased ferocity, frequency, and damage worldwide. As the ocean covers so much of the earth's surface, amplified by its extended influence, it becomes a primary source and force for such phenomena with enormous loss of real property and human life. If climate and related weather change are a function of anthropogenic intervention in the asset value and processes of Nature, then we are the unknowing, knowing cause of our own distress. Knowing this, and failing to respond, transcends paradox to become self-destructive and illiterate.

The ocean is equally affected by climate change and weather. Two results are perhaps the most important: temperature change and acidification. The first determines the growth dynamic for life in the ocean - the incubation, feeding, and durability of marine species of every kind and the availability of that life as protein, medicine, and livelihood. Artisanal and commercial fishing are both a reflection of supply and demand: if demand is increasing through population growth and changing human diet - and supply is consequently limited by over-fishing and compromised habitat - then decreased regeneration and redistribution of the remaining resources are diminished leading possibly to collapse or extinction.

Acidification is the changing pH of the ocean, the measure of acidity and alkalinity that affects the growth and feeding habits, distribution and sustainability of all life in the ocean, whether marine animals or plants. A small change in the ratio can mean a very large change in ocean health, a consequence that is at first invisible, then perversely damaging, then very difficult to mitigate or reverse over time. Research indicates that the changing acidity of the ocean is having real, measurable consequence for the food chain, ocean plants, coral reefs, algae blooms, and many other dangerous adjustments in a heretofore relatively stable environment.

What is the cause? Again, research has shown, and scientists have attempted to argue, that man-made carbon and particulate emissions have deposited in amounts over time to have generated the pH change with all dangers for security and well-being for the future. The Paris Climate Agreement, with all its efforts to modify carbon production, emissions control and alternative energy use is a major step forward, if not perfect, toward an institutional and human response to what is an institutional and human condition.

The ocean speaks louder than treaties or denials. It is a natural voice of reality that must be heard. That is more than influential. That is an inviolate determining factor that lies at the heart of our collective survival - a voice perceived through weather, climate, abundance, resilience, community, and personal benefit, that demands our hearing, understanding, and response.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.


The Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth: Part Three of the Ocean Literacy Series

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

For the next six weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth

Well, yes, and in how many ways does this occur? First, there is the geological record of forces above and below the sea that have moved glaciers, shifted tectonic plates, eroded and augmented the shape of the land, sometimes over eons, sometimes overnight. Wave action and currents are like blades of force that carve and curve the shore, build and un-build the coast, and define land-side response by such change: the addition of land, the subtraction of land, the deposits and sediments left behind, and the capacity of the terrestrial environment to support life in all its forms and functions.

Science helps us document this change - cartography for example, the continuous record by maps and charts of the features of land and sea as they change over time. From the beginning, humans endeavored to answer the question: where am I, in space and time? and through memory, documents, explorations, expeditions, and evermore technical and accurate maps, located, envisioned and planned routes from one place to another. In our era of comprehensive global observing and collecting of data, this documentary understanding of the features of earth and ocean has become more complete, detailed, and beautiful.

View: Comparative Lengths of the Principal Rivers, and the Heights of the Principal Mountains of the World David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Another shaping force of the ocean is the associated consequences of environmental change. Land once underwater is revealed; glaciers leave grinding, striated marks on land and rocky shores; the leavings coalesce as resources to be extracted as value; the success and failure of plant life is advanced as food or medicine; and the habitability of places is destroyed into history or enhanced into the future of civilization. Natural resources define watersheds, from mountaintops to streams, lakes and rivers; where rivers meet the shore, safe anchorages are found; safe harbors become ports; ports become centers of settlements; settlements become nodes of production, trade, and international connection. If the ocean is defined as a "hydraulic continuum," from fresh water to saltwater and around again, then it can be claimed to the most direct and impactful shaping force there is.

The ocean shapes our lives every day through the impact of fisheries as a protein harvesting industry, at large and small scale, the world over. We have nations, towns, and villages that have been founded on and sustained for centuries through coastwise and offshore catch in many forms to feed us and promote our well being as individuals and communities. The ocean is also a vast pharmacopoeia, an inventory of literally millions of plants and animals that we know or remain to be discovered. Coral reefs, for example, contain biological and chemical diversity that may hold the cure to diseases beyond imagination, some of which might well be the result of over-population, other unthinking interventions into natural processes, or engendered by activities and other so-called advancements with consequences unforeseen. So much about the ocean remains unknown. So much of what it has provided in the past is at risk. So much of its value as part of the Earth may serve us still through continuing research and scientific analysis as we continue to study and understand.

Finally, the ocean has shaped our cultures and beliefs. We can see the history of fisheries, for example, in the monuments and architecture of coastal towns: stone tablets listing fishers lost at sea; stories, songs, and poetry describing and remembering sea experience; wharves and buildings that once supported the transfer of fish products from catch to table, from villages to cities, and from there to cities elsewhere inland or for international exchange; Captains' houses, stained glass scenes in local churches; logs and accounting books; and rituals and beliefs, baptisms and burials, sagas and myths - all shaped by the ocean.

To be literate about the ocean is to be open to and knowledgeable of everything thereby connected.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Other episodes in this Ocean Literacy series:



One Big Ocean: Part Two of the Ocean Literacy Series

One Big Ocean

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

For the next seven weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of premises defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The Earth has one big ocean with many features.

This first of the seven Ocean Literacy principles would seem obvious, but not so fast. There are some assumptions within that are worth a bit of emphasis. First: what is the actual physical relation of ocean to earth? We know that the ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface; that some 97% of the water on earth is salt; that of the remaining 3% that is fresh, two-thirds is frozen, for now, in the polar caps. But what is the mass relationship of ocean to earth? I will spare you the math, but scientists have concluded that the ocean represents just 1/4400th of the total earth’s mass, 71% of surface coverage equating to .02% of the planetary total, an astonishing calculation of relative volume. Let me argue here, then, that the relative impact of scale, ocean to land, is a very imbalanced equation between the productive value of the ocean / freshwater continuum and the land. This is more fully exaggerated if you include the reasonable observation that the productive value of the land shows evermore critical warning signs of exhaustion. Each year, we calculate the day when what the land produces can no longer meet the needs and demands of its population, and each year that day comes earlier indicating a production deficit that can only be met by increased exploitation of the ocean.

Secondly, the premise asserts that there is only one ocean, not seven seas, but one integrated oceanic system that connects us all, even as we are separated by continents, politics, economic development, and cultural traditions. This, too, appears not so obvious when you understand that our governance, historical exchange, patterns of settlement, and social organization has been almost exclusively land-based. Only with the most recent realization of globalization, that is the interconnectedness of all nations and all peoples, has the world come to understand the unifying reality of the ocean and its undeniable force for the future.

Third, the premise affirms the existence of the ocean’s many features: its still unfathomable catalogue of marine life and processes; its measure as integrated global natural system that circulates and exchanges worldwide with calculable impacts on weather, agriculture, food production, coastal settlement, security, and other acknowledged natural outcomes, but also in the acceptance of its social connection through economic development, exchange of manufactured and processed goods, financial transfer, worldwide communications, and the increasing force of intellectual property and invention.

Watershed River Basin Map | Etsy Shop: Grasshopper Geography, Robert Szucs

The Earth has one big ocean with many features.

This simple sentence reveals a complicated system that has not been fully understood, not been taught in our educational system, or used as a foundation for the organization and re-organization of our policies or our constructive evolution of new concepts and ideas for change, future development, and the demand for sustainability of best practice on land and sea. To accept this first premise is to accept an entirely new way of knowing the ocean, establishing the extent of its future production and protection, and its inevitable and urgent meaning for continuity, sustainability, equity, justice, and peace in the 21st century.

We can visualize these connections: the re-emphasis of integration over separation in our global depictions; the measurable impacts and predictions of climate change; the depiction of watershed connection is Europe and South America; the ocean conveyor that distributes heat, protein, and persistent pollutants with equal efficiency; the routes of ships engaged in international transport and trade; the shifting population from heartland to coastal concentration; and many, many more examples of the many features of one big ocean.


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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Climate Insurance in a Changing World

How might we protect against the far-reaching impacts of extreme weather, changing temperatures, sea level rise, and other phenomena that affect everyone, even when no single cause can be identified?

Tulen Travel, Budva Municipality, Montenegro | Unsplash

Insurance. It is an element prevalent in every aspect of our lives – in our homes, our cars, our health – a massive global industry exists to protect us against risk, against accident, against personal circumstance, against almost every manifestation of human endeavor where there is an opportunity to use an insurance scheme to protect us financially against loss.

In some cases, such as car ownership or business liability, insurance is required by law.  There is fire insurance, property and theft insurance, unemployment insurance, mortgage insurance, bankruptcy insurance, crop insurance, flood insurance, marine insurance, and many more such specific coverage types that are financed by premiums paid by individuals and corporations into a collective pool from which claims, as they arise, can be paid. In the meantime, the insurance companies use the aggregated monies for investments, marketing, and dividends to their shareholders. It is a lucrative business, and is often “re-insured,” that is—the  companies claims covered by yet another company that protects for another premium, against corporate loss.

As we consider the threats we face in our changing world, insurance might be a hopeful tool or discipline to protect and compensate for events not covered, but potentially devastating to us all – the impact of which extends beyond that of specific events and massive financial and social disruption.

The effects of climate change are being felt everywhere on earth, and nowhere more destructively as in the most vulnerable communities where development and poverty are at the highest. So what about climate insurance?  How might we protect against the far-reaching impacts of extreme weather, changing temperatures, sea level rise, and other phenomena that affect everyone even when no single cause can be identified, no accountability possible? If these are defined as acts of God then insurance does not apply. But if these are defined as the result of collective actions, by many entities in many places, how is it possible to insure against the predictable economic consequences and critical social detriment?


The Munich Climate Insurance Initiative (MCII) is a response to the growing realization that insurance-related solutions can play a role in adaptation to climate change, as advocated in the Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. The initiative provides a forum for insurance-related expertise on climate change impacts. The Initiative also brings together insurers, experts on climate change and adaptation, NGOs and researchers intent on finding effective and fair solutions to the risks posed by climate change, as well as sustainable approaches that create incentive structures for risk and poverty reduction. The Munich Initiative is hosted by the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and issued its first report in October 2016.

As with all insurance policies, the language is complicated, but the report is based on seven principles that represent a clear bias toward the needs of the poor and a real intent to address comprehensive needs-based solutions, reliable coverage, affordability, accessibility and participation through practical programs and associations, transparency and accountability, sustainability over the longer term, and enabling the environment through capacity, literacy, regulation, partnerships, and technology. 

The possible role of insurance represents a positive and optimistic step forward through the adaptation of a conventional tool for risk management to serve those most vulnerable. It is an alternative to the sequential, one-time disaster financing we have seen in the aftermath of tsunami or typhoon or other sudden and new examples of climate-related destructive events. Will insurance find a new and useful form and application? Will it be financed adequately and responsibly to provide the amounts and continuity of funds surely to be required? Will it be supported by other government programs or private financing schemes that will address the root causes of poverty in the context of rapidly changing environmental circumstance? Will it lead us to adapt and mitigate climate change otherwise by new values, systems, and behaviors?

These are big questions; how do insure they are answered?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.