World Ocean Weekly

The Hard Edge: Part One of a Seven Part Series on the Ocean Edge

This week we kick off a 7-part series dedicated to the ocean edge, exploring what takes place there, from the real to the symbolic. This week we’ll take you through the history of the industrial development and management of ports, wetlands and watersheds, and we’ll share some modern examples of hard-edge engineering and the challenges for existing structures in the face of projected sea level rise, storm surge and coastal flooding.


Thames Barrier, U.K. designed to protect London, England from storm surge. Back in 2013 Dr. Richard Bloore of the Thames Barrier Project Management Team has stated that the flood barrier was not designed with increased storm and sea level rise in mind, and called for a new barrier to be looked into immediately.

Our traditional approach to potential inundation by water has been the hard edge. It represents our cultural assumption that Nature is there to serve our needs and, when necessary, to be engineered to that advantage. You see hard edges everywhere: sea walls; dikes and levees; rip-rap erosion controls; dams; and canals that artificially connect water bodies for transport by ship, for hydropower, or for redirection away from alternative development.

Indeed, we have created large bureaucracies — water boards and the Army Corps of Engineers in the United States for example — with the mission to protect us from the encroachment of water, to shield ports and harbors against storm and surge, to facilitate the most efficient marine transportation, and to otherwise manage the environment, lakes, inland waterways, and coastwise, to human advantage as defined by the financial exigencies of the time.

The fate of coastal wetlands is another blatant example of hard over soft. Once massive buffers against storm incursion, wetlands served human needs additionally through complementary cultivation of hay for fodder for salt-water farms. But as those farms gave way to more concentrated settlement and sprawl, the marshes were first ditched to control pesky mosquitoes that annoyed suburban residents, a disruption of the natural arrangement that increased erosion and drained the buffer zone, followed thereafter by hard edges behind which could be deposited dredge spoils, construction debris, and other unnatural material that transformed the soft soil into hard ground on which could be constructed more housing, parking lots, shopping malls, and manufacturing plants — all uses antithetical to Nature’s original intent. You could describe a similar history for the destruction of coastal mangroves in other areas around the world.

Highways are hard edges. In southern New England where I once lived, the major north-south interstate highway that extends from Florida to Maine was built to follow a coastal route that created a concrete wall between the shore and the entire land mass and marine system upstream to the point that the entire natural watershed was blocked and re-directed to three cement conduits beneath the highway, not only interrupting and concentrating the natural drainage, but also the animal migration and surface water distribution that sustained the historical ecosystem resulting in all sorts of changes, disruptions, and negative environmental consequences to the region.

More modern examples of hard edge thinking also include such things as the Thames Barrier designed to protect London, England, from flooding. According to Wikipedia, the structure is built across a 1,710 foot wide stretch of the Thames, dividing the river into four 200 foot and two 100 foot navigable spans. The floodgates across the openings are circular segments in cross section that operate by rotating, raised to allow under spill for operators to control upstream levels and complete a 180 degree rotation for maintenance. All the gates are hollow and made of steel up to 1.6 inches thick. The gates fill with water when submerged and empty as they emerge from the river. The four large central gates are 66 feet high and weigh 3,700 tons. In January 2013 in a letter to the London Times newspaper, a former member of the Thames Barrier Project Management Team, Dr. Richard Bloore, stated that the flood barrier was not designed with increased storm and sea level rise in mind, and called for a new barrier to be looked into immediately.


Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch have long used the hard edge concept to protect the more than two thirds of Holland that sit at or below sea level. Image credit: Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

Finally, the Netherlands has long used the hard edge concept to protect the almost two-thirds of its national territory that is at or below sea level and otherwise susceptible to flooding by three major rivers: the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt. Before 1000 AD, the Dutch began to protect their coastal areas with earthen dykes, followed through the centuries by timber walls, followed by higher structures reinforced by crushed rock and cement, covered over by earth on which sheep continue to graze. But flood control engineering was soon augmented necessarily by the need for increased protection and the Dutch innovated radically with the construction of an enormous barrier system that closed the natural opening to the ocean and transformed the Zuiderzee into the IJsselmeer, literally from a sea to an inland lake. This was followed in the 1990s by the Delta Works, an even larger storm surge protection system that today, in the face of projected sea level rise, is nonetheless considered inadequate for the future and has sent the Dutch engineers back to the drawing board.

Hard problems, hard thinking, hard edges: might there be another way?


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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.

Ocean Movement: Thoughts for a New Year

We think of the ocean as being in constant movement. And indeed it is: changing every minute of every day in every place on the planet in reaction to gravitational force, the earth’s rotation, tides, currents above (and below), the rising and falling in the water column, and the extremities of weather.

Is the ocean ever still? I can think of only one instant that exists between interstices of these multiple forces — that point in time when the tide changes, also known as slack tide, an absence of all dynamics just for a nano-moment when all vectors pause, twice a day, to live in an existential stasis, out of time, pure space, motionless and free. Many of us search for that same experience today in our evermore occupied and pressured lives. We yearn for quiet places, no communications or connections in demand, peace and solace in our time and place where we can pause, empty our bodies and minds of cacophonous intrusions of movement, be quiet, be still, be pure of heart.

Some of us will never find that place. Some of us may drop out, thinking we have found it. Others will transfer, meditate, or otherwise adopt structures that help protect us from our selves and circumstances. To belabor the ocean metaphor: we are each in our little boat on a tempestuous sea and must survive the storm through knowledge, experience, and luck, and find a still small place for survival.

I offer these thoughts in the spirit of renewal and the new year. One of the most compelling aspects of the ocean is its offer of solace and support. We go to the shore in search of re-creation — whether or not we bathe, build sand castles for our children, or just sit and burn in the sun and salt as a kind elemental purge through the ocean’s concentration upon all our senses.

All religions have some connection to water at the core of belief and ritual: baptism, bathing, place for prayer, symbolic opening to providence and transcendence. We renew ourselves by the sea, and we come as close as we can to immersion in its nature, during or not the moment when the tide turns. Re-creation/renewal/regeneration — all words that imply a forward look and a valuable exercise in self-advancement.

To belabor the metaphor again, why not think of the stroke of midnight on the last day of the year as one of those existential moments? Don’t let the tolling bells, celebratory horns, confetti poppers, shouts of the crowds in the streets or your living room drown the quiet of that transitory instant between past and future of your oceanic life.

Finally, a last iteration: of the ocean as a place that is alive with the human spirit. There is irony there. Think of the millions of us who live by the sea for our sustenance and community, of all those souls lost at sea, of the growing number who request that their mortal remains be scattered at sea. These are not morbid thoughts, but rather memorials to individuals who inhabit the ocean still as their place for rest. I have chosen the scatter option myself. For a while I though it was mostly a political act, a kind of rejection of the religious formalities and crass commercial conventions of dying, but no longer. Recently, in a place alongshore, strong winds, massive waves, I had the thought that my going there in death was not an ending of life but rather a beginning celebration in a place of vitality and constant motion, my being truly lost at sea, immersed in a community of natural life in all shapes and forms and stages of existence that is eternally nurtured by the world ocean.

My very best wishes to you all for a healthy and happy new year.


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, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

What If Nature Had Rights?

The Earth Law Center is a New York-based environmental non-profit organization dedicated to the concept that Nature, as an ecosystem, deserves the same rights as humans to exist, thrive, evolve and be protected by law. This week on the blog we share the scope of their work and advocacy, their programs and values, and the communities that are served by their involvement in American and international environmental court cases, laws, briefs and resolutions.

Law brings order to chaos. We have international treaties as agreements between nations. We have legislated statutes that provide structure to civil behavior. We have regulations that counter abuse. We have contracts that define terms of exchange. We have moral laws that are powerful guidelines for human conduct.

Environmental law pertains to all these categories. And we have many organizations, and individuals, to write, analyze, promote, and challenge others, using the law as a fulcrum for innovation, equity, and justice. More and more we see environmental conflicts restoring to litigation and judicial proceedings for resolution. In the laws we must trust if we expect to retain our rights in a civilized society.

What does the word RIGHTS actually mean?

A search through Black’s Law Dictionary left me overwhelmed and dissatisfied, proof of my Father’s judgment that his profession was one I had best not pursue. Here is the clearest general definition I could find: “Rights are legal, social, or ethical principles of freedom or entitlement; that is, rights are the fundamental normative rules about what is allowed of people or owed to people, according to some legal system, social convention, or ethical theory.” Note the assignment to people exclusively, a fundamental assertion of humankind as the epicenter of social interaction, all other circumstance excluded. But that social interaction relies on Nature as its source and supply for living: for air, land, and water, not just as gifts for the taking to exhaustion, but as loans for the sustaining of life and the repaying of that debt so that life may endure.

Thus, today, to defend the rights of Nature is an anomalous and courageous endeavor, out of normative context, demanding that we examine our historical and present values, structures, and behaviors to change them toward a new system of laws that is now essential to human survival. Survival? Yes, it does seem that essential and urgent.

The World Ocean Observatory advocates for the conservation of the ocean/freshwater continuum as a scientific, political, financial, cultural, and moral imperative, and one of the best agents for such purpose is the Earth Law Center, based in New York, which addresses the innovative, revolutionary concept that Nature, as ecosystem, just as people, should have the right to exist, thrive, evolve, and assert accepted rights for protection by law — a right that would accrue to the benefit of everyone on Earth.

Earth Law divides its work between river and land rights and ocean and coastal rights to protect these systems from climate change, contamination, invasive species, destructive exploitation, and detrimental human intervention through various specific strategies in many places around the world. Its programs involve the codifications and declarations of rights, initiatives in the US, Africa, South America, Asia, and elsewhere. Earth Law advocates by educational outreach and training, creating and promoting legal reforms in specific locales and situation, at the United Nations, and through legal publications and training for young lawyers who are drawn to this necessary transformation of policy, governance, engagement, and protection of Nature. Earth Law has inserted itself into the public dialogue through authoring laws and resolutions in certain communities, amicus briefs and comment letters in national and international cases, speeches and testimony in conferences and public hearings, book chapters and journal articles, educational videos, and the preparation of a new law school textbook to expand “critical analysis of legal solutions to problems that threaten Earth as a human habitat, presenting sources of study that include American and international court cases; International Charters and Declarations; local, national, and international laws; jurisprudence; indigenous peoples’ laws; animal rights; guardianship; and public interest litigation strategy. It is a complicated but very effective agenda for a small but very successful endeavor.

My personal thoughts on these matters take me to the idealistic notion of ethos defined as “the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or a period.” Is it not then the highest goal for today; to establish a system that affirms the rights of Nature as the core principle in a new global ethos revealed by a fresh expression and application of reformed beliefs, customs, and practices that must become the dominant assumption of our time?

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The Catalogue of Life

Data Collection for a Sustainable Future

Data, data everywhere…the recommendation of every scientist is to collect more data. There are vast compendia, most everything caught up in a colossal search engine for information to fuel the even more demanding requirements of artificial intelligence which we will rely on more and more for how the future works, decisions are made, problems are solved, students are taught, and services are delivered. Our world has become a huge data sink with the intent to observe everything there is to see, to know everything there is to know, whether or not we can understand it.

Thus we have efforts to assemble a definitive record of our existence: material culture in museums and historical societies; documents and visualizations in libraries and archives; seeds and genomes in protected underground shelters; and penultimately, in a database called The Catalogue of Life, a digital community of users based in The Netherlands, defined on its website as follows:

“The Catalogue of Life is the most comprehensive and authoritative global index of species currently available. It consists of a single integrated species checklist and taxonomic hierarchy. The Catalogue holds essential information on the names, relationships and distributions of over 1.6 millions species.”

The justification for this endeavor reads as follows: “The loss and degradation of biodiversity are vital concerns for humanity. There is currently no single, universal and complete reference to what species we think are alive today. Without this we cannot sustainably use, explore, monitor, manage and protect biodiversity resources… The Catalogue of Life depends upon the contributions of more than 150 Global Species Databases, established at centers of expertise around the world, that continue to identify new data sources that address gaps…” So, what we have here is a database of data bases, everything we know about life on earth in every form everywhere in every time and place.

There is an ironic calculation embedded in this process. We add to our count of species by consolidated records and new research and discoveries, and we subtract our count by the disappearance of species at a disconcerting rate as a result of conditions created by the human species detrimental, terminally, to some others. Beyond toxins and other poisonous conditions for habitat, climate change is an additional major consideration as temperature, circulation, and other shifting conditions attack the distribution and survivability of species on land and sea.

Data collection in the ocean is growing exponentially through fixed and floating observations systems, underwater vehicles, research vessels, satellite analyses, and redirection of scientific interest from terrestrial to marine environments worldwide. Initiatives in the US, Europe, and Asia are receiving large investments by governments, non-governmental organizations, and private capital. It is as if the old frontier is either polluted or already known, and the research energy must shift to a new horizon where knowledge awaits, that is if you can see through the chemicals dumped, oil spilled, persistent organic pollutants circulated, de-oxygenating nitrogen concentrated, waste and plastic discarded, reefs and coastal nurseries despoiled, and all the other negative conditions now so evident in an ocean that no longer can be expected to infinitely heal itself.

Despite all this, the ocean and its nurturing watershed remains our planet’s most astonishing catalogue of life. If we are to know it, we must preserve it. And, to paraphrase what Jacques Cousteau so famously said, “If we are to sustain it, we must love it and act to protect it.” Yes, let’s collect the data as if that knowledge might be lost to memory, but yes, also, let’s join every political and social action locally, nationally, and internationally to restrict and re-order how we engage with the ocean and with that living data that is our inevitable sustenance for the future. Let’s collect what we know; let’s put our knowledge to use.

Citizens of the Ocean, unite!

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.

About the Catalogue of Life
The Catalogue of Life is an online database that provides the world’s most comprehensive and authoritative index of known species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms. It was created in 2001 as a partnership between the global Species 2000 and the American Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Learn more at

Tools for Understanding the Value of the Ocean

Publications, reports, and projects are integral to the evolution of ocean policy and science, including the Atlas of Ocean Wealth, published by the Nature Conservancy in 2016, which provides a tool for understanding the true value of what Nature provides in surprising and previously unrecognized ways.

We recently discussed an international cooperative project to create a comprehensive picture and profile of the sea floor as a baseline resource for further understanding of the world ocean. From that science we derive additional information through expanded, layered perspectives, and that knowledge finds its public expression in different publications and resources often independently conceived and executed, but taken together represent substantive progress in our awareness of the true value of the ocean on which the future of human life on earth will depend.

There are several other key publications and projects that I believe are seminal to the evolution of public policy, ocean science, and analysis of ocean value. The first is The Ocean, Our Future — Report of the Independent World Ocean Commission, published in 1998, the UN Year of the Ocean, in which a group of informed individuals assembled what is, in my opinion, still the best long-term outline of the issues confronting ocean sustainability and governance. The list of recommendations is fundamental, concise, prescient, progressive, and unequalled.

The second is the UN Atlas of the Oceans, a vast encyclopedia of ocean information accumulated by UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, that attempts to integrate all UN resources into a major database, augmented by links to other agencies and organizations. The site remains live, and the value of the resource is enormous, but it is not aggressively maintained and updated. Nonetheless, it contains very specific research and innumerable reports that are of great utility for anyone searching for international ocean policy and oversight from a global inter-governmental perspective.

The third project is the Ocean Health Index, a country-by-country evaluation of all aspects of ocean impacts on the national economy, the result of a multi-year research effort to gather such information according to consistent parameters and metrics that provides an annual “health quotient” number that can be compared with other nations and shift annually as information improves and circumstances change. It is a fascinating endeavor and well worth your interest.

Atlas of Ocean Wealth | The Nature Conservancy

The fourth effort is The Atlas of Ocean Wealth, published in 2016 by The Nature Conservancy. This report contains a concentrated survey of natural elements that contribute to the well being of civil society, be they marine-protected areas, fishing practices, certain species protections, and the impact of constructive (and destructive) human behavior. What is especially important about this project is its emphasis on “ecosystem services analysis,” that is, an inclusive calculation of the financial implication of the preservation or loss of a particular aspect of the marine world and its correlative economic consequence.

This is a radical new tool for understanding the true value of what Nature provides us in previously unrecognized ways. For example, take coastal mangrove swamps or dune-protected beaches that act as a natural barrier to storm surge. How do you measure or balance in economic terms the profit or loss should these be eroded or filled for waterfront development? When such storms occur we are familiar with the astonishing estimates of resultant costs — in human life, property loss, insurance pay-outs, rebuilding costs, lawsuits and conflict resolution, and the implicit certainty that these expenses will happen again and again as a result of not preserving the natural protection inherent within as a measurable service. Such calculation can produce very interesting alternative argument for certain actions, and are particularly helpful in the analysis in advance of any planned action that would intrude upon environmental resources. The Nature Conservancy is to be congratulated for its investment in this approach when applied to its own actions and those of every other ocean-related proposal still to come.

What follows this approach represents a telling fifth effort: the application of a changing, pro-active, realistically calculated evaluation to guide us in defense of the ocean and its contribution to our well-being, to be incorporated into all development plans and decisions.

Evident here are the core assumptions of an international policy and guide to best practice for the ocean — a principled, insightful plan; a full detailed map of the complete ocean; the aggregation of comprehensive oceanic research, science, and information; an integrated system of measurement of the full spectrum of societal behavior; an inclusive calculation of the ocean’s value in terms of all aspects of human life; and a resultant application of what has been accumulated as a progressive tool for the future.

Those tools are in place . Let’s use them.

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, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.