Later today filmmaker and ocean explorer James Cameron will be headlining a hearing in the Senate Commerce Committee about the importance of funding ocean science and exploration. Also on display outside the hearing is the Deepsea Challenger, the submersible Cameron piloted in a historic solo dive to the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench.
Fantastic voyages like the one taken by James Cameron are truly inspiring for the sheer physical accomplishment. But they are also a stark reminder of how little we still know and understand about the ocean. In a world where the chemistry of the ocean is now changing faster than life can adapt, it’s vitally important that we learn as much as we can about the ocean to better prepare for the future.
The knowledge gained through these inspiring feats of marine exploration must be used to drive meaningful policy. Today’s hearing is exactly the kind of follow-through that is needed. Blockbuster expeditions like that taken by the Deepsea Challenger are few and far between, but basic research and monitoring of the ocean should be happening every day.
The Senate hearing today will focus on key issues, like how the government could fund more research on critical topics like ocean acidification, or on globally important areas like the Arctic Ocean.
Ocean acidification happens when significant amounts of carbon dioxide pollution are absorbed by the ocean. A chemical reaction is occurring in our oceans right now as our carbon emissions increase, making the water more acidic, thus making it harder for some sea creatures to thrive.
Last year Washington State established a panel to develop recommendations for how the state should address ocean acidification. Its oyster industry nearly went bankrupt because of the problem, and they’re worried about other impacts to species, such as salmon and crab. The panel is providing some money for research but a great deal more is needed to address this challenge. We are just beginning to understand the effects ocean acidification in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic. Other states like California and Maine are beginning to express concerns about ocean acidification as well. Just yesterday Maine’s legislature announced a resolution identifying ocean acidification as jeopardizing their coastal economy.
On the federal level we are fortunate to have the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009. That Act was designed to help coordinate and promote research across the country, but right now it is far from being funded at levels that are equal to this massive challenge.
Some non-governmental organizations are responding to the need - the X-Prize foundation is developing a prize for improvements in ocean acidification sensors, but federal funding is still a critical need for scientists working on acidification and businesses impacted by it.
Separate from the challenge of acidification, temperatures in the Arctic are warming at twice the rate of the global average, seasonal sea ice is diminishing rapidly, and there is increased interest in oil exploration, commercial fishing, shipping, and tourism in the region. Senator Begich of Alaska has introduced legislation that acknowledges that lack of integration and coordination among existing Arctic research and science programs has limited our ability to understand the important changes that are taking place in the Arctic. Our understanding of the Arctic marine ecosystem, which provides irreplaceable benefits, is further hampered by a lack of reliable baseline data, critical science gaps, and limited documentation and application and use of traditional knowledge. In addition to urgently-needed baseline data and analysis of ecosystem functions in Arctic marine waters, Senator Begich’s legislation would enable the gathering of information about subsistence resources and patterns of use in local economies, which are essential to the people and cultures coastal communities in the Arctic.
The kind of broad, steady monitoring of the ocean’s health may not be as spectacular as record-breaking dives to the deepest, darkest sea floor, but the knowledge we can gain and the benefits we can reap from a healthy ocean are certainly no less valuable.