The Ocean Is Largely Unexplored

The Ocean Literacy Principles Series

Unless humanity learns a great deal more about global biodiversity and moves quickly to protect it, we will soon lose most of the species composing life on earth.

We’re 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 is largely unexplored.

No one argues this point with such authority as Edward O. Wilson, university research professor emeritus and an honorary curator of entomology at Harvard University, who, in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times entitled “The 8 Million Species We Don’t Know,” writes,

“The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it. Even the number of living species can only be roughly calculated. A widely accepted estimate by scientists puts the number at about 10 million. In contrast, those formally described, classified and given two-part Latinized names (Homo sapiens for humans, for example) number slightly more than two million. With only about 20 percent of its species known and 80 percent undiscovered, it is fair to call Earth a little-known planet…”

To preserve these organisms, Wilson and other conservation scientists propose to keep half the land and half the sea of the planet as wild and protected from human intervention or activity. Called the Half-Earth Project, they argue for conservation of places chosen by three main criteria: First, areas judged best in number and rareness of species by experienced field biologists; second, hot spots: localities known to support a large number of species of a specific favored group such as birds and trees; and third, broad-brush areas delineated by geography and vegetation, called eco-regions.

These, applied to the ocean, underscore the efforts by governments and ocean advocates to designate marine protected areas around the world as reserves to protect the natural biodiversity from further destruction, human intervention and exploitation. Associated tactics such a marine zoning are corollary to this effort, by additional designation of remaining areas to restrict specific enterprise such as industrial fishing, limited shipping routes, prohibited waste disposal, and all the other activities that occur on the ocean as a result of destructive behaviors on land.

Wilson continues,

“In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of other living worlds — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, corals, loriciferans and on and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life… With new information technology and rapid genome mapping now available to us, the discovery of Earth’s species can now be sped up exponentially. We can use satellite imagery, species distribution analysis and other novel tools to create a new understanding of what we must do to care for our planet.”

So where and how are we looking? Research vessels, fixed observation systems, autonomous vehicles on the surface, in the water column, and on the ocean floor. Ice cores, hydro-thermal vents, coral reefs — all these ocean places contain evidence of past and present life with enormous implication for future life in the form of new species, discoveries, medicines synthesized from marine organisms, mimicry of ocean processes, and more complete knowledge of what surely is the last great wilderness where Nature still exists to support life in all its forms, now and to come.

Ocean literacy comprises principles and awareness that will inform our world. We cannot be truly educated without it, reliant on only half of Earth’s supporting assets. We can also learn from what has gone before: the exhaustion by indiscriminate use of the land, the corruption of the air, and the already evident compromise that may delimit the essential value of the freshwater/ocean continuum. To be literate means to know the history and to learn from it; to see the reality and challenges of the present; and to engage in the pursuit of knowledge — in the vast ocean world — on which our future will depend.

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 the Ocean Literacy series:

< 01: An Introduction
< 02: One Big Ocean
< 03: Ocean Shapes the Features of Earth
< 04: Weather and Climate
< 05: Ocean Made Earth Habitable
< 06: Diversity of Life and Ecosystems
< 07: Ocean and Humans Are Inextricably Linked