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50 Years of Ocean Discovery: National Science Foundation 1950—2000
earthquake this week, a magnitude 5.7 quake near Papua, New Guinea. Needless to say, this has generated tremors of excitement on land.
This new ability to receive and record ocean data continuously and to communicate with scientific instruments on the seafloor will greatly advance our knowledge and predictive capabilities in ocean science. Nonetheless, even with this ever-expanding capability, we all know that scientists have explored relatively little of the deep sea and ocean floor.
Given the fact that our planet' s predominant geographical feature is ocean, approximately 70%, some have suggested that the name Earth is a misnomer, that we should have more aptly called ourselves Water. No matter the name, it is our interest and investment in the ocean sciences that counts. These have serious implications for our future prosperity and survival.
Historically, civilizations developed at the water' s edge. Today, there are 16 cities in the world with a population of over 10 million. Thirteen of these cities are along coastlines. And the present is not unlike the past, at least in the United States. According to a recent survey from Economist magazine, ". . . in America, almost half of all new residential development is near the ocean, and people are moving there at the rate of 3,600 a day." The sustainability of urban and altered ecosystems challenges our best scientific knowledge and opens new directions for research.
The many dimensions of an increasing world population, combined with the power of technology, have changed our global environment. There is both opportunity and responsibility for the science community here. Going back to Seneca's lines, "An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose [loosen] the chains of things." That suggestion, which dates back some 1,900 years, has a certain currency about it today.
A new, multifaceted idea has begun to take shape as a research direction, as well as a social understanding. I refer to this concept as biocomplexity, a word not yet familiar to most of the scientific community. The oceans play a significant role in the biocomplexity concept. Biocomplexity is not a synonym for biodiversity. It includes and reaches beyond biodiversity. When we speak of sustaining biodiversity, we mean primarily maintaining the plant and animal diversity of the planet—a very important goal. However, biocomplexity speaks of a deeper concept. It is not enough to explore and chronicle the enormous diversity of the world's ecosystems. We must do that . . . but also reach beyond, to discover the complex chemical, biological, and social interactions that comprise our planet' s systems. From these very subtle, but very sophisticated interrelationships, we can tease out the fundamental principles of sustainability.
Without a doubt, the oceans form the largest, most formidable, and even perhaps the least explored and understood of those systems. However, our survival as a human species, and the ecological survival of the entire planet, will depend on our ability to achieve what is a truly interdisciplinary task. Over many centuries, ocean travel has allowed us to discover the shape and size of the planet and to acquaint ourselves with its diverse cultures and commodities. Many hundreds of generations have fed themselves from the enormous variety of fish and seafood. We have taken this for granted and, out of ignorance, often abused instead of used, this bounty.
We have only recently begun to discover the hidden understandings and more subtle complexity of the sea. The economic and biomedical potential of the sea is just beginning to be realized. With the discovery of marine organisms that can thrive in extreme environments of heat or cold, all of the old truths about conditions required for life have been tossed to the winds. Results of on-going studies support the possibility that life originated near hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean. The microorganisms found there today appear to be genetically among the oldest on Earth. Our current knowledge of thermophiles and psychrophiles has broad implications for the future. The enzymes produced by thermophiles currently have widespread application in biotechnology.
Although biotechnology is a young field, it has already burgeoned into a $40-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Marine biotechnology has applications in medicine, agriculture, materials science, natural products, chemistry, and bio-remediation. It is estimated that aquaculture, just one branch of marine biotechnology, will be relied upon heavily to help meet world food needs. While world fisheries are over-exploited and/or commercially extinct, world population burgeons and world food needs increase. In addition, aquaculture can produce organisms that can be used as biomedical models in research, reservoirs for bioactive molecule production, and useful in bioremediation.
Clearly, we are just at the beginning of an exciting era in ocean discovery and ocean science. What lies ahead will have increasing impact on our daily lives. Our task will be to educate the public about the economic importance and new environmental understanding that continued work in ocean discovery will bring. Ocean science can no longer be viewed as an esoteric, "off-shore" discipline. It is mainland and mainstream. The health and bounty of our oceans are issues of planetary survival.
Centuries ago, the oceans served as our vehicle for learning about distant peoples and distant lands. Only recently have we been learning about the ocean's cyclical control of the planet's climate. The bounty of the oceans has fed human populations since the beginning of time. We are now acutely aware of how fragile that food supply can be. For centuries, human populations have been vulnerable to the forces of weather and climate; many of them are triggered by the oceans.
Today we have tools and knowledge to predict the onset of severe weather cycles months before their occurrence and prepare for the impact. Nineteen hundred years ago, Seneca predicted that many years in the future "the Ocean will loose