June 21, 2011

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Remarks for Royal Geographic Society, June 6, 2011
Sylvia A. Earle

I am deeply honored to be the recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s 2011 Patrons Medal. It is humbling – and exhilarating — to join the company of some of my greatest heroes.

Since my first breath of air under the sea in 1953, I have had the joy of spending thousands of hours diving, living under water, using submersibles, witnessing and sometimes participating in the greatest era of exploration in the history of humankind. As a research scientist and explorer, founder of three engineering companies, Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and as a National Geographic Explorer in Residence, I have experienced the use of new technologies that for the first time have enabled humankind to connect the dots, see patterns, gain access to places, understand processes, and anticipate the future armed with unprecedented new insights.

I wonder what John Murray, who sailed aboard HMS Challenger between 1872 and 1876, edited the more than 50 volumes that resulted from that great voyage of discovery, and received the Royal Geographic Society’s Founders medal in 1895, might think if he could go aboard a 21st century ocean research vessel.

What would impress him most?

The ability to pinpoint exactly where in the ocean he was using satellites beaming data from high in the sky?

The ability to hear the voice and see the image of a scientist half a world away and compare notes in real time? Or to call his family from thousands of miles away, see their faces and get an instant update about what was happening on the homefront.

Surely he would marvel at maps, not on paper, but on large, illuminated screens portraying great mountain chains that curve like giant backbones down the major ocean basins; of sea mounts, valleys, and broad plains that hold most of Earth’s water – and most of Earth’s life.

I would personally like to take John Murray and his fellow Challenger scientists on a vicarious tour and watch their expressions whilediving into the Ocean in Google Earth– a project I have been privileged to be part of since 2006.

Murray was the first to note the existence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and of oceanic trenches, but he did not know, could not know, about plate tectonics, the underlying processes that cause continents to move and oceans to shrink and expand.

He did not and could not know about hydrothermal vents and chemosynthesis as a mechanism for powering deep sea communities of life. The technology did not yet exist to take observers miles under the sea to record what was there– and safely return them to the surface.

Murray would likely be thrilled by the results of the 10 year Census of Marinelife that turned up more than 250,000 species of organisms in the ocean, with a prediction that a million to perhaps 50 million more may await discovery.

He might be astonished that humans have walked on the moon and now inhabit a station in space, live underwater, and journey across continents and oceans in hours, not months or years.

But all things considered, two things might most surprise John Murray as a visitor from a century ago.

First — I can almost hear him saying, “What! You have mapped all of the land on Earth, the moon, Mars and Jupiter, but only 5% of the ocean floor is known with comparable accuracy . . .You say 95% has never been seen, let alone explored?
In 1960, two men went to the deepest place in the sea, but no one has been back ? What are you thinking! What’s holding you back”

The second big surprise would likely be how much the world generally, the ocean particularly, has changed in a century.

Once common creatures – tunas, sharks, swordfish, cod, turtles, and many others have been reduced to a fraction of their former abundance.

Coastal marshes, coral reefs, sea grass meadows, mangroves have been depleted by half or more.

Millions of tons of plastic trash clog ocean gyres on the high seas, litter beaches, and snare thousands of birds, turtles, seals, fish and other wildlife every year.

Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning forests and fossil fuels is entering the sea, driving a trend toward acidification.

Murray and his contemporaries would be shocked that these things could happen, and happen so swiftly. Actually, many still believe the ocean is so vast, so resilient, that there is little the humans can do to change its nature.– and even if some species and ecosystems disappear, why should we care?

Now we know.

The ocean drives climate and weather, shapes planetarychemistry, governs the oxygen cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the carbon cycle – the cycle of life. If you like to breathe, the ocean matters.

Some whales, sea turtles, deep sea fish and corals alive today may have begun their lives two hundred years ago when the industrial revolution was just getting underway. They may sense that the world has changed, but they do not know why, and even if they do, would not know what to do about it.

We do know why the changes are happening, and we can do something about it.

Fifty years ago, we did not know the magnitude of our ability to alter the nature of nature – or the consequences back to us.

Fifty years from now, options presently open may be gone.

Ten percent of the sharks, tunas, swordfish, cod and many other ocean species remain. With protection, they may recover.

Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape. If protected, they can serve as a model and source of restoration for damaged areas.

As never before, we know the value of intact natural systems to everything we care about .

Perhaps as never again we have a chance to act on this new knowledge to secure an enduring place for humankind within the natural systems that keep us alive.

The greatest era of exploration has just begun

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