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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November-December 2013

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Editorial - Oil Spills: Quantifying the Smaller Damages

Oceans. Who among us has not gazed out at a seemingly endless expanse of ocean, perhaps calm, perhaps not, and wondered what lay beneath the surface? Or flown over an ocean and, looking down, thought of the myriad activities that must lie below? They are endlessly fascinating.

Covering more than 70% of the planet's surface, there is really only one ocean, despite our preference for naming the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and so forth. It is a connected body of water that gives the appearance from space of a blue marble. The surface also hides mountain ranges and large valleys of some magnitude; the “Challenger Deep,” for example, is a part of the so-called “Mariana Trench” and drops to a depth of 36,070 feet below the surface in the North Pacific.

The oceans are as scientifically important as they are intriguing, which is being recognized by a number of important events. In 2000, President Clinton convened a group of specialists and challenged them to develop a blueprint of exploration and discovery. Thirteen years later, a similar group convened in Long Beach, California, to assess progress and develop future programs. It is vital that we learn as much as we can about this massive body of water and its effect on climate change, food availability, and countless other things that actually affect our daily lives, often in ways we do not know or understand.

For example, about one quarter of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans; this, in turn, causes changes in ocean chemistry, which can lead to changes in coral reefs, for example. These and many other issues deserve very careful study as we continue to disturb our ecosystem with human industrial activities.

There is much to be done. And the prospect for public engagement is high and could be very important. As Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, said in a recent editorial, there is great excitement “around growing public engagement in many aspects of ocean exploration through mechanisms that did not exist 13 years ago” (at the time of the last presidential panel on the oceans).1 Beach and coastal cleanup days and weeks are impressive examples of what volunteers can do.

Hence, the Environment series on the oceans that began with the article, Managing Marine Resources Sustainably, by Susan J. Roberts and Kenneth Brink in our July/August 2010 issue and which continues in this issue with the first of a two-part article by John W. Farrington. There will be more forthcoming, as we examine the multiple facets of oceans and how we interact with them in many complex ways.

One feature worth mentioning about Farrington's piece (actually, there are many worth noting—this is just one of them): We tend to focus our attention on extreme events, both because that is what the media report, but also, frankly, because we find them more interesting than the mundane everyday life of many things. The wind blows every day; it is only when it reaches hurricane proportions that we and the media pay much attention to it. It rains many days of the year; only when the rains produce floods do we notice, at least in any detailed way. So, too, as Farrington points out, we pay careful and close attention when oil spills occur, and pictures of oil-covered birds and oil slicks on beaches fill our television screens, but we pay little attention to and don't know about—understandably—the little leaks that occur every day from vessels plying the seas. Small in the particular but huge in the aggregate, these may turn out to be the most serious spills of all.

So there is much to be learned and much to be done. Pay attention to the series to come, and let us hear from you.

1. Marcia McNutt, “Accelerating Ocean Exploration,” Science 341, p. 937 (August 30, 2013).


— Alan H. McGowan

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