August 15, 2017

The beach

Why should you care about the ocean?

This is the question I pose to every audience I address. The answers vary, but, generally, the first is a resounding, “The beach!!!” Close your eyes and think of your ideal vacation spot - soft white sand, soothing waves lapping the shore as the sun warms your skin… sigh. While the beach is a great place to relax and recharge, the ocean is so much more than the sand between your toes.

The reality is the ocean is often out of sight, out of mind and, therefore, difficult for anyone to connect to their daily lives. So why should you or anyone else care about the health and well being of the ocean? Especially if you don’t live anywhere near it!?! Considering that we’re based out of Boulder, Colorado, it’s a question I get quite often and have come to really enjoy answering.

So, why should we all care about the ocean regardless of where we live?

Let me count the ways…

The ocean helps to regulate the temperature of the planet by moving heat around the globe. Water is a great thermoregulator; it is able to absorb a significant amount of heat, retain it, and slowly release it into the atmosphere. Where does the heat come from? It comes from the sun. Remember, more than 70% of the Earth is covered by ocean. That means that more than 70% of the Earth is absorbing heat from the sun every minute of every day (and night). Great oceanic conveyor belts circulate massive quantities of water around the planet and along with the water is all of that absorbed heat energy.

The Gulf Stream

Consider this fact: The coastal city of Aveiro, Portugal is found along 40.6°N and has an average high of 70°F and low of 55°F, while New York City, which is located at 40.7°N, has an average high of 76°F and low of 2°F. Why such frosty winters in the coastal city of New York and not Aveiro? The answer is the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream moves north from the Equator along the east coast of the United States, taking a pretty sharp right turn across the Atlantic Ocean toward Europe. The Gulf Stream isn’t just a fast moving current of water; it’s a fast moving current of equatorial water, which has been heated by the full power of the sun. That heat gets transported by the Gulf Stream to Europe so, as a result, yields fairly mild winters. Sorry to New York and the rest of New England- no heat from the ocean for you. Instead, you get the icy waters coming out of the Arctic Ocean courtesy of the Labrador Current moving south from the North Pole.

There is also this little component- the very air we breathe. No matter where you live, you probably like to breathe air. Would it surprise you to know that about two of every three breaths you take originated from the ocean. How’s that, you ask? Phytoplankton and algae are the little photosynthesizing machines of the ocean. Recall that photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy, water, and carbon dioxide into sugar, water, and oxygen- the gas we need to survive.

In some locations, more than 100 million cells can be found in a single liter of ocean water. That’s a lot of little oxygen-producing cells in a container half the size of a 2L of pop! And these little machines are found from the surface of the ocean to a depth of about 150 m (roughly 500 feet). Phytoplankton are very important; not only do they produce more than half of the very air we need to survive, but they’re the basis of most marine food chains. So, if you enjoy the occasional tuna, lobster, halibut, or oyster dinner, thank a plankton. Many of those seafood dinners you enjoy started out feeding on plankton. Also, if you’ve ever been whale-watching (well, baleen whale-watching), know that those behemoths rely on phytoplankton as well. Divers return to the beachPhytoplankton are small, but mighty important.

The ocean is also important economically speaking. Ever wonder how the fish in the freezer section of your local grocery store gets there? It was harvested out of the ocean, processed, and shipped to a market near you. Take a minute to think about all the people who had a hand in getting that bag of frozen, wild caught salmon to your freezer. Not just the fishermen, but the people who maintain the boat engines and fishing gear, the people who work at the processing plants and maintain the equipment there, the dock workers, the truck drivers, and even the people and companies that make the packaging material itself! If you think about it, the ocean employs a lot of people both directly and indirectly. Wonder what the benefits are like?!

Then, there is everyone’s favorite answer- recreation. The ocean is important to many people for the recreational opportunities it provides; the chance to relax on its sandy shores, snorkel its warm waters, float on a boat in the sun, scuba dive its sunlit depths and explore the blue abyss. The ocean holds a special place in many hearts for that reason alone. In fact, tourism revolving around the ocean is a multibillion dollar industry and employs millions of people worldwide.

So, the next time someone asks you, “Why should I care about the ocean, it’s nowhere near me?”, remind them that just because it’s out of sight, it should never be out of mind.

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