What's the use of ocean science?Paris - Although they hit the headlines, flood, drought and famine are often the results of natural, regular and probably predictable cycles lasting a decade or so.
They are infrequent, but not unusual - as are the years of plenty that do not make the front page. And, for once, the habitual "bad guy", global warming, is not the cause of these extreme events. But it may be upsetting the cycles, with the result that they are becoming much more frequent - and more severe. And what is controlling the whole process? The answer, to a large extent, seems to be the world's oceans, coupled with the atmosphere.
These are some of the findings presented in a new book, Oceans 2020: Science, Trends, and the Challenge of Sustainability, just published by Island Press, for UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the Scientific Committee of Oceanic Research (SCOR) and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE), to be launched on August 29 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg (Water Dome, Pavillion 4, at 2:00pm). The launch will take place at the venue of IOC exhibit, which will be open throughout the Summit.
In a series of specialized chapters written by internationally-renowned experts, the book builds a case for a concerted, world-wide research effort to deepen our understanding of the workings of the ocean, as well as an exploration of its still hidden secrets. And, casting their usual caution aside to peer into the future, the scientists try to draw up a "to-do list" of vital research, and to imagine the space-age hardware that will require. It is only by gathering massive quantities of data, over long periods of time and from strategic places all over the world's oceans, the book argues, that scientists will be able to predict the onset of these extreme, but recurring events long enough in advance to minimize the damage.
El Niņo, the anomalous appearance of warm sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, is now known to be one of these cycles. It typically disrupts fish stocks off the coast of Peru every two to10 years (average 4.5 years) and causes heavy rain and flooding in the usually dry western coastal region of South America. At the same time, it has the opposite effects - droughts and forest fires - in eastern Australia and Southeast Asia. The 1997-98 El Niņo caused global damage estimated at between US$32 billion and a staggering US$96 billion, despite a few months' warning by scientists. And (it is now confirmed) late 2002-2003 will be an El Niņo year. Some governments are already taking steps to offset the predicted effects, like buying grain options on the futures market - in anticipation of spoiled crops - or recommending that farmers plant drought- or flood-resistant varieties, according to whether El Niņo brings them dry or wet weather.
"But", says Colin Summerhayes, of UNESCO's IOC and one of the book's editors and authors, "do people know that every El Niņo (warm event) is followed by a La Niņa (cold event)?" After the droughts in Mozambique and Bangladesh triggered by El Niņo in 1997-98, La Niņa brought both countries severe flooding the following year. And, following almost 20 years of observations using permanent data-gathering buoys, measurements from shipping and satellite observations, ocean scientists now know that there are other regular, long-term (or 'decadal') cycles in other oceans. Says Summerhayes, "the North Atlantic Oscillation brings warm and wet or cold and dry conditions to Northwest Europe and the opposite to the Mediterranean. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation warms the central and eastern north Pacific, and caused a collapse of the sardine populations off the coast of California (USA). Remember John Steinbeck's book Cannery Row? Well the sardines are no longer there. Then there's the Indian Ocean Dipole, which brings warm and wet conditions alternately to Kenya and Australia in a roughly ten-year cycle. And the Tropical Atlantic Dipole controls rainfall in the Sahel. Ocean variability on these scales controls climate, therefore rainfall, and also fish populations. Food and water are the underpinnings of sustainable development."
Oceans 2020 shows the coming of age of ocean science over the past 25 years, largely as a result of new technology and international co-operation in major research programmes. "The ocean is such a remote and unforgiving place. It would be impossible to get out there and sample it all. We simply don't have the means. Ships are too slow, cover too small an area at one time, and can only carry a few people. There aren't enough oceanographers or ships to observe every square metre of the ocean's surface, let alone to plumb its depth constantly. We need machines to do it without us, and to communicate the results back to the shore via satellites, so that we can feed the numbers into super-computers."
But understanding how the ocean behaves - and affects so many aspects of our life - is only part of the list of what is left to do. The book also looks to the ocean to provide future solutions to the world's energy problems, whether in the form of fossil fuels currently too deep to be extracted, or frozen methane (gas hydrates) that contain more carbon-based energy than all known fossil reserves. There are controversial ideas, like "seeding" the coastal ocean with iron to make plankton grow. The lowest level of the marine food chain, these tiny organisms indirectly provide a massive source of protein. And certain forms also take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - the gas mainly responsible for global warming - and send it to the deep ocean in the form of the carcasses of fish that 'graze' on them.
In the 1960's, the French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau experimented with the first human underwater living spaces. The idea was never taken any further. But if life on land becomes more difficult, will the human race return where it is thought to have come from - the sea? Not, according to the book, in the next 20 years.
Launching of Oceans 2020
August 29, 2:00 to 3:00
Water Dome, Pavillion 4
Contact: Amy Otchet
Bureau of Public Information
In Johannesburg, cell phone: (+27) (0)828 580 718
Isabelle Le Fournis, Bureau of Public Information
In Johannesburg, cell phone: (+33) (0) 614 6953 72
Peter Coles, Bureau of Public Information
In Paris, telephone: (+33) (0) 1 45 68 17 10
SOME OCEAN FACTS AND FIGURES
There used to be four oceans, but now there are five. In the year 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) declared and demarcated the Southern Ocean, reclaiming bits of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans:
Pacific 155,557,000 kmē
Atlantic 76,762,000 kmē
Indian 65,556,000 kmē
Southern 20,327,000 kmē
Arctic 14,056,000 kmē
The land area of the planet is 148,647,000 kmē while the total ocean area is 335,258,000 kmē.
The ocean covers 71% of the planet.
All of the land on Earth could fit into the Pacific Ocean alone, with room to spare.
The deepest ocean trench is the Mariana Trench in the Pacific (10,924 m), which could swallow the tallest mountain, Everest (in the Himalaya in Nepal), which is 8,846 high.
El Niņo: Fact and Fiction by Bruno Voituriez and Guy Jaques. IOC Forum Series, UNESCO Publishing, Paris 2000 (available in French and English).
Once Burned Twice Shy? Lessons learned from the 1997-98 El Niņo. Edited by Michael H. Glantz, United Nations University, 2001.