Posts Tagged 'google earth'

Thoughtful Thursday: Ignoring the Unknown

The moon might seem like a mysterious, distant speck in the night sky, but, truth is, we know more about its backside than we do about four-fifths of our own planet.

Did you know? We have maps detailing every mountain and crater on the moon’s surface, but only 5 percent of our ocean has been mapped in high resolution. The rest has been captured in low-resolution maps that offer limited detail, often omitting volcanic craters, underwater channels and shipwrecks.

­Unsurprisingly, most of the seafloor we’ve been able to thoroughly map is close to shore and along common commercial shipping routes. And if you think “close to shore” at least incorporates America’s exclusive economic zone—the underwater territory spanning 200 miles off our coastlines—think again. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our nation’s own EEZ.

mapping graphic

So why don’t we have more high-res maps of our blue planet? Well, considering the average ocean depth is approximately 2.2 miles, or 12,000 feet, it’s a massive project to take on. We’re talking about more than 200 years of collecting data via ships, plus billions of U.S. dollars.

That said, these maps are invaluable tools for understanding everything from the condition and extent of seafloor habitats to how tsunamis spread around the world.

Additionally, those detailed images could also be used by organizations as visual tools to help change the way humanity views and cares for the ocean. Think about it: You’re unlikely to care about something you can’t see and know very little about. Because the ocean is largely unknown, unseen and inaccessible, conservation efforts are often challenged by a sense of futility, apathy and even alienation. Seeing what lies beneath the water’s surface could help inspire the world to protect it.

To view the areas that have been mapped, check out Google Earth. Its 3-D maps—based on 20 years of data from almost 500 ship cruises and 12 different institutions—allow you to virtually explore some of the world’s underwater terrain.

google street view oceans

Another great resource is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, which offers sea floor maps of the world’s coasts, continental shelves and deep ocean.

There’s no denying that exploring and charting the vast ocean and seafloor is a difficult and costly endeavor; but considering it provides us with about half the oxygen we breathe, our main source of protein and a plethora of mineral resources, among other things we rely on daily, it may be a challenge worth tackling.

 

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The Ocean, Our Planet’s Final Frontier

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In Barcelona in 2006, oceanographer Sylvia Earle received an international award for her storied career as an ocean explorer. Also honored that day was John Hanke, developer of the now-famous Earth visualization tool Google Earth. Smiling slyly, Dr. Earle commended John for creating an amazing new way to view the world, then asked, “When do you plan to finish it? You’ve done a great job with the land—‘Google Dirt.’ What about the ocean?” Thus challenged, John asked Sylvia and her team to help him fix this oversight and in early 2009, we unveiled Ocean in Google Earth, offering earthlings a global view of the ocean’s vast bathymetry.

This story illustrates a truth about how many of us think (or more accurately, don’t think) about the ocean. Though half the world’s population lives within 50 miles of a coast, the cliché “out of sight, out of mind” describes the way most of us relate to the expansive, interconnected ocean that covers 70 percent of Earth’s surface and contains 97 percent of its water.

This blue planet is indeed a water planet, yet incredibly, over 90 percent of the ocean remains unexplored and unseen by humans. In a world that’s increasingly tamed and cataloged, it’s astounding to learn that until last year, only two human beings had been to the ocean’s greatest depth: Challenger Deep, off the Mariana Islands. That epic descent occurred in 1960—before we’d even ventured into space! Just last year, one more explorer made the voyage: renowned filmmaker James Cameron piloted a new craft, Deepsea Challenger, there and back. I suspect we’ll soon be treated to some spectacular footage of a world we understand less than we do the planet Mars.

Experts believe that up to two-thirds of the plant and animal species in the ocean may still await our discovery, with as many as one million species of non-bacterial sealife yet to be identified. In other words, we’ve only scratched the ocean’s surface.

Scientists, poets and philosophers have referred to the ocean as our planet’s life-support system, its blue lungs. Our air, weather, freshwater, climate and much of our food are ultimately regulated, moderated or provided by the sea’s seemingly limitless bounty. Over 2.6 billion people rely on the ocean for their primary source of protein. And we count on the ocean to absorb more than 30 percent of the climate-changing carbon dioxide (CO2) we produce.

Yet for all these benefits (called ‘ecosystem services’ by ecologists), the ocean cannot sustain our unrelenting onslaught. We put in too many bad things, take out too many good things, and reconfigure its shores, chemistry and balance. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists have calculated that the ocean absorbs and stores 50 times more CO2 than the atmosphere, yet it’s no secret that atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas are rising at an alarming rate and now routinely approach 400 parts per million; at this rate, we are poised to double pre-Industrial Revolution CO2 levels in the next few decades. And, in case you’re wondering, human-influenced climate change is no longer mere theory, as if it ever were. In a review of 12,000 papers published in research journals, 97 percent of the authors—atmospheric scientists who seldom agree on anything—concur that it is directly attributed to human activities.

Against this gloomy backdrop, one might ask, “What hope is there?” In my view, there’s plenty. We have never known so much about aquatic systems and the delicate interplay between them. We’ve doubled the area of our National Marine Sanctuary system over the past decade. We have a National Ocean Policy and a nascent implementation plan, the first in our nation’s history. Whether in fisheries management, ecosystem thinking or product life-cycle planning, we’re learning from our past and planning a better future.

Here at National Aquarium, we value the conservation of aquatic treasures—by which we mean habitats and inhabitants, human and non-human, individual and community. By definition, treasures are worth protecting. World Oceans Day is one way of celebrating such oceanic treasures. This year, I invite you to embrace a thought, one shared by all of us who commit our lives to the sea: the ocean matters to me and to those I love. With every drop of water you drink and every breath you take, you are connected to this complex ecosystem, whether you live on the coast, in the mountains, in a city or a desert.

Simply by existing, the ocean gives us the gift of life. It’s time we returned the favor.

Blog-Header-JohnRacanelli


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