A Most Fundamental Substance: Oil and Oceans

Brenda Cooper @ 23-06-2010

Every month, I spend about a week with an ear to the news, specifically sifting for ideas for this column. I like to plan around something that resonates with me. This month, I’m sick at heart about the catastrophic oil spill. It feels like death. But there are already a lot of people writing about it. Besides, it would make me sad to research it extensively. So I turned my attention to the oceans in general. I was surprised to find out how much they feel the same as the oil spill. But I’m going to write about them anyway. I normally hope you’ll enjoy my column, but in this case, I think I just hope you read it. It’s tough to feel enjoy news about our oceans right now.

First, it amazes me how little we know. We may know more about the rest of the solar system than we do about the bodies of water we sail and play and trade and fight across every day. Yet we know we’re killing them. Just this morning, after I’d already spent a few days researching, I heard an NPR story about sailing a boat around the America’s to highlight the poor condition of the ocean. The journey is just now over, and there is a great website with pictures of the trip, crew logs, and information about the ocean.

What’s Happening

Five or six years ago, I listened to an oceanographer named Sylvia Earle talk to a room full of thousands of geographic information systems developers about ocean health. She talked about how little we had actually visited or mapped, and how damaged many of the close-in shores are becoming, even right along the American coasts. Last year, Sylvia Earle won the “One Wish to Save a World” prize associated with the TED Talks. I listened to the TED video of her winning talk. Here it is, since I think everyone should hear Sylvia. Even if you don’t follow any of my other research links, this talk is worth listening to.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, and years ago humans came through and cut almost all of the old growth forest. It can’t be replaced in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetime, or my grandchildren’s lifetime. We’ve already done the same thing to the large game fish in the ocean, and many other populations.

In addition to harvesting much of the ocean’s old growth and driving many species near extinction, we’ve polluted the water with something that may be even worse than oil – the things we make with oil. Plastic. We’ve covered vast swathes of the ocean with plastic, creating trash dumps and dead zones. Here is another TED video, this one featuring Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He is the man who first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And in a related link, here is a picture of a plastic covered beach from the Around the Americas mission I mentioned above.

There are other whole areas of research I haven’t even touched on here such as the affect of climate change of the oceans, much of which is predicted to be bad.

On the positive side, scientists and research institutions around the globe are building more ways to understand the ocean. The University of Washington, here in Seattle, got a grant last year to build a robotic undersea observatory. There is a working seafloor observatory in Monterrey Bay. ESONET is a large collaboration designed to understand the European seas.

The oceans have even more rabid champions than these researchers. The Sea Shepard and the stories that are told on the popular animal planet series “Whale Wars” aren’t based on reality – they are reality. I’ve met Captain Paul Watson and heard him speak. He’s funny and smart and dedicated. And so passionate about his mission it’s nearly scary. This is a man (and team) making a difference in the world, and willing to die for it if necessary.

My prediction?

The oceans are huge. I come from a sailing family. I’ve leaned over the bowsprit and watched bioluminescent dolphin swim in the waters off of California. I’ve snorkeled in clouds of colorful fish off of the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s hard to image we could affect something so huge. It feels bigger than us. Yet I have the distinct feeling that we’re doing close to irreparable damage to the oceans (or at least irreparable in context to our short lives).

It’s very likely to have to get worse before it gets better. These gyres full of trash can’t be easily cleaned up, and maybe they can’t even be cleaned up at all. Where do you put such hugs piles of plastic even if you can extract it?

I expect that we’ll have more warnings about what fish we can and can’t eat. Many more species of marine life may become rare if not extinct.

We’ll see huge fights over the Arctic Ocean as it opens due to sea ice melt. We may win some of those – and if we do, that could be the turning point we need to begin to at least slow down the damage we’re doing to the oceans. That’s the best hope I have right now – that we can slow it down and buy a little time to actually learn about the oceans. We on land are truly dependent on them. As long as humans have been around, the oceans have provided food and weather and water, beauty and awe, mysteries and myths. We need them.

Science Fiction and the Ocean

My first underwater fantasy book was a dog-eared and yellowing copy of “The Water Babies” by Charles Kinglsey. The first science fiction I read about the ocean was Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Written in 1869, it was as much as “sense of wonder” book as any I’ve read about space exploration. Both are classic, and written in the Victorian era. I found an online list of many, many science fiction books that deal with living under the sea.

More immediately relevant, and online for your reading pleasure, is Cat Rambo’s excellent story that appeared in Clarkesworld in 2009, “The Mermaids Singing, Each to Each.” This story references the plastic trash dump in the middle of the sea. I found it both chilling and touching. [There’s also a great and somewhat redemptive take on the Pacific Trash Vortex in Kay Kenyon’s story “Castoff World” in the Shine anthology – Ed.]

If you want to learn more:

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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