The vastness of the ocean is hard to fathom. Over 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by the sea – 312,000,000 cubic miles of water. As humans, we’ve come a long way from the days where we stood upon the shoreline and determined that our world was flat, but how much of the ocean have we discovered since then? And what mysteries of the deep continue to stump us to this day?
We have explored less than 5% of Earth’s oceans. The discoveries we have made are vast, enchanting, and, often, alarming. And still, we’ve barely dipped beneath the surface.
On average, the ocean is about 2 miles deep. In a particular area southwest of Guam, the Pacific ocean is closer to 7 miles deep – the deepest part of the ocean.
Scientists estimate that there are over one million animals in the ocean – 95% of which are invertebrates, such as shrimp and squid. These creatures are important links in the web of various ecosystems and also in the theory of evolution. These connections not only inform our understanding of the ocean but of ourselves and how we came to exist as we do today.
The majority of life on our planet is aquatic. As you may have heard, the largest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, swims and migrates through various parts of these waters. Acoustic biologists have made exciting realizations about humpback whales in the past few decades – coming to understand that these giant sea-dwellers have traditions of songs. Their melodies and cadences reflect whale family structure and migration patterns.
The most common vertebrate in the ocean? A bristlemouth fish, which has needle-like fangs and glows in the dark.
Plantlife is a critical aspect of these ecosystems as well. For example, algae in the ocean produce about half of the oxygen us land mammals breathe. Oceans regulate the earth’s temperature, they determine our weather patterns, and make life on land possible. Through scientific observation, we now understand that even if you live in the Sahara Desert or the cornfields of Nebraska, your life is dramatically affected by the ocean.
So what don’t we know about the ocean? It’s a funny question to ask since the ocean’s mystery is inherently difficult to quantify or describe. Scientists and other ocean activists and enthusiasts have made plenty of discoveries that lead to more questions, though.
For example, there is a portion of the ocean (103 million square miles of it) that is perpetually dark. We refer to this as the “deep sea” or “inner space” of the ocean. We’ve pieced together that the hefty currents in the deep sea are like “an engine that controls our climate” though we still don’t understand the nuances of how this engine functions. As glaciers and polar ice melt accelerate due to climate change, we know that an excess of cold water is funneling into this inner space of the ocean. But how will that impact our planet? We still aren’t sure – but will definitely find out, one way or another.
But it isn’t only the deep sea that confounds us. Over 80% of the ocean remains unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. Most parts of the ocean are extremely difficult to get to, and it’s incredibly expensive to do so. Scientists often rely on sonar, which can generate maps of the seafloor but leaves many questions unanswered.
“Our biggest threat to the ocean is our ignorance of it,” says Margaret Leinen, one of the world’s foremost marine scientists and director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Many scientists, activists, and world leaders share this sentiment. Global initiatives by the U.N. are underway in response. The hope is that the next decade will include a collective rally of humanity to invest in understanding the oceans and the ever-shifting portrait of climate change. With this sort of push, we might unlock possible solutions to save ourselves and this beautiful blue planet.
You’d truly need to be living under a rock to have somehow missed that our oceans – and therefore humanity – is in danger due to the climate crisis.
The unsustainable practices of global capitalism and the fossil fuel industry have caught up to us and our oceans are warming. This is a really big deal and we must address it immediately. With a crisis this large, it can feel paralyzing. But as we know, thanks to many ocean scientists, we do not have time for inaction. There are so many places where you can learn more about how to get involved, how to make personal decisions in regard to the ocean, and most importantly, how and where to vote for politicians who prioritize green initiatives and renewable options for our societies. Ocean and climate justice are intricately linked to racial justice and gender equity. We have as much to discover about ourselves and the future we will build as we do about the deep mysteries of the ocean.
[Featured image by StockSnap from Pixabay]
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