Humans have spent an extremely long time being fascinated by space. It’s a fascinating place, no matter how much you know about astrophysics, whether you just like looking at the stars or trace out the constellations or study supernovae with radio telescopes. Space has a deep, intense allure, which is part of why we are so excited when space probes launch, and when crews soar high above the Earth in rockets and shuttles. They are doing something that many of us deeply want to be able to do, and they are seeing the planet and its surroundings in an entirely unique way that is impossible to truly grasp from the ground. Astronauts are heralded as heroes and figures of mystique because they have taken the first step into the final frontier.
In some ways, we actually know more about space than we do about the world’s oceans, some of which haven’t even been fully mapped. As a species, we are also much more interested in space than in the ocean, despite the fact that the ocean is a deeply fascinating place. Deep in the heart of ocean valleys lie creatures more strange and curious than any dreamed up in science fiction; researchers routinely uncover new species enduring conditions that shouldn’t sustain life.
The rich colonies around hydrothermal vents are one illustration, but not the only one. Some creatures living in the depths of the ocean never see light, ever, and have developed senses to enable them to survive in an environment where predators and prey alike drift through endless cold darkness. Their bodies are specially adapted for tremendous pressure that would destroy a human body, that could take advantage of a tiny crack in the hull of a submarine to crush it in an instant. The ocean floor is covered with a legacy of centuries of living organisms, most of which came and gone without us being aware of them.
Yet, the oceans are more than just fascinating. They are critically important, environmentally. Space is interesting, and learning more about space is undeniably important, but most events in space are distant, objects of curiosity rather than being of pressing importance. When a star explodes or a galaxy forms, it is fascinating to observe, but it has no direct impact on Earth. Learning more about these things helps us understand what will happen to us, eventually, but we are speaking on a time scale of billions of years, rather than one which could unfold over the next decade.
The world’s oceans are a delicate and complex ecosystem. They are a critical part of what makes the Earth unique, and keeps it in balance. Weather is highly dependent on the ocean, as is oxygen production to sustain life on Earth. Setting aside their role as sources of food for many organisms, and as beautiful sights, and as avenues for epic journeys, the oceans are critically environmentally important, and that importance is becoming more evident as researchers probe the world’s oceans and what is happening to them.
Humans are trashing the ocean, literally in the sense of the garbage that makes its way into the ocean each year. And also figuratively, with activities that affect the ocean and in turn create a ripple effect that is extremely difficult to stop. This has very real implications; coral bleaching, for example, isn’t just ugly, but an indicator that an ecosystem is dying, and can no longer sustain life. It is also indicative of changes occurring in the ocean concurrent with warming, and mixing warming trends with the ocean is a very bad idea.
Oceanic circulation plays a huge role in global weather patterns, which is why understanding the ocean is so important. And why acting before circulation is affected is also important. Issues like temperature and salinity are key to how the waters of the world move themselves around, and when they are disrupted, circulation changes. It happens by bits at first, but accelerates over time, and has a very real risk of creating radical changes in the world’s weather. Changes which will not be reversible. Complemented by existing climate change, this is a recipe for disaster, whether you’re living in an area that will be destroyed by rising sea levels, flooded with incessant rain, or parched by endless drought.
People should be fascinated by the oceans because the oceans are fascinating. And because they hold the key to our continued existence and future. Conservation efforts focused on marine habitats aren’t just about saving organisms that are amazing and cool and wonderful, that demonstrate the diversity of life on Earth and the myriad ways in which life adapts itself to its environment. They are also, in a very real way, about conserving humans as a species, and ensuring that we, too, have a habitat we can live in.
While we are looking at the stars and admiring the vastness of space, pondering the mysteries of human existence and wondering when we will travel beyond our own galaxy, parts of the ocean are dying. This is a sad thing in and of itself, to watch something beautiful fade away because it can no longer sustain itself in a hostile world. It is also a bad thing for us, because we rely on an Earth that functions in a very particular way, and that way is enabled by the ocean. If that changes, we may never have an opportunity to travel into the depths of space, because we will all be gone, and the Earth will once again go through a period of adjustment and change that may or may not lead to the emergence of new life.