The importance of a healthy ocean
HEIDI DUMESICH & BELLA CHARLESWORTH
The state of Earth’s oceans is often delivered to us in news reports and scientific papers as a series of facts and figures, making it difficult to comprehend the reality of the situation we are now faced with. We are urged to take action for our dying planet but rarely are we told how to do so. So much of the ocean is unexplored and its sheer size and depth has, for many, caused it to become ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The majority of humankind does not yet have a complete understanding of just how crucial Earth’s oceans are to our survival. The ocean fuels our active healthy lifestyles, it is of huge economic value in terms of tourism and food production, it governs prevailing weather patterns and, perhaps most importantly, the ocean contains so much of the life on this planet – intrinsically, it is invaluable.
Earth would be uninhabitable if not for the great mass of water that covers more than 70% of the planet’s surface. Since the ocean was formed on early Earth it has been absorbing heat and carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere. Today, 93% of the heat trapped in Earth’s atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans. To put this in perspective – without the oceans absorbing all this energy, Earth’s average surface temperature would be 50 °C (Dahlman, 2015… wait crap, this isn’t an essay). That’s average temperature, now imagine an Australian summer.
Although oceans are intrinsically important, it is often easier to communicate the importance of an ecosystem or environment in terms of monetary value, or at least this seems to attract greater attention. In 2009, Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning (Hummel), conducted a study to assess the monetary value of marine biodiversity. In 1997 Constanza et al. estimated the value of the ocean to be between $16-54 trillion USD per year, and with Earth’s exponentially growing population we can only expect that this number has risen since then. This high monetary value is catalysing the overexploitation of Earth’s oceans. The Great Barrier Reef alone provides $2 million per year in tourism. Out of the total economic value of the biosphere, oceans contribute around 60%.
Understanding the sheer value of the ocean, it only makes sense to protect it. However, this mindset doesn’t seem to radiate amongst everyone. One ocean voyage made a conservative estimate that there are 5.25 trillion particles of plastic, weighing 268,940 tons, afloat in the ocean. Plastic pollution affects all marine fauna from zooplankton to cetaceans by ingestion and entanglement. This affects the quality and quantity of marine fauna in the oceans, further catalysing a number of chain reactions affecting ecosystems and thus our own marine food source.
Sustainable Ocean Alliance at the University of Sydney is a different kind of organisation - it is providing the opportunity for students and professionals to collaborate. There are numerous organisations committed to the protection of Earth’s oceans, many of which students may be completely unaware of. We want students to be aware that SOA exists on campus and is ready for the exciting opportunity to welcome in students from every field of study. SOA aims to promote the sustainable usage of the ocean whilst educating the world of its importance. Our goal is to educate students and inspire them to use their talents, in whichever field they may be, to have a positive effect on the world’s oceans.
Whether you simply come along to beach clean ups or collect data for coral reefs we would love to have you on our team.
Heidi and Bella are both members on the executive of the Sustainable Oceans Alliance, one of Sydney University's newest societies.