We’ve been reading alarming news about disappearing Arctic sea ice for years. But each time it hits a low, it’s lower than before, and our planet’s natural systems enter new territory. We’re still finding amazing new things there, like unpredicted massive algae blooms under the thinning ice, in this incredibly rich marine ecosystem. While we’re concerned about the impact of climate change on polar bears, seals and many other species, the coming certainty of an ice-free Arctic Ocean carries an even broader set of implications. Shell Oil Co. got the greenlight for Arctic oil drilling, even as its safety gear and procedures failed, and deep sea corals were found at its drill site, and Arctic nations are intently jockeying for position at the top of the world, interested in everything from mineral extraction rights to shipping routes, to a trans-Arctic internet cable to military issues. In addition to all of this, the first attempt to row across the Arctic Ocean was painfully close to making the entire crossing. It’s safe to say the Arctic is going to be a hotbed of change and human activity for the foreseeable future.
Measure Sandy by whatever metrics you choose. Economic damages: $71 billion. Magnitude: 5.8 on NOAA’s 0-6 scale for kinetic energy, the highest ever recorded, and a barometric pressure that was the lowest ever recorded in the Northeast. Deaths: 253, over 110 in New York area alone. Size: the area of wind over 40 mph was 900 miles across. From every angle, this storm was historic, and revealed nature’s power. Perhaps most poignant though, is the glimpse it provided of sea level rise, bringing water levels twice as high as models projected would happen over the next 100 years, in a single day.
James Cameron plants a flag for ocean exploration
It’s easy to think everything on the earth and moon has been explored, and that Mars is the only remaining frontier. The deepest point in the ocean, at 35,775 feet down, Challenger Deep, in the Mariana Trench, might as well be as far away as Mars, however. If something goes wrong there, no one can help you, and no one was sure exactly what they’d find if they went there. It’s deeper than Everest is tall. By 9,000 feet. James Cameron made the trip — only the second time a human had been there since the first visitors in 1960 – showing the world there is still plenty of adventuring to be done in our own back yard.
Ps. As a sign of increasing interest in deep sea exploration, Groupon sold a travel package including a submarine tour of the Titanic wreck site.
Shark finning gets attention, and results
Whether because of Chinese NBA star Yao Ming’s spokesmanship, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey’s powerful mini-doc (actually of 2011), or bans of the practice by California, Oregon, Illinois, the European Union and Costa Rica, this was the year shark finning got the spotlight. Major hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong banned the delicacy there. Cathay Pacific, the world’s largest airfreight company, has banned the shipping of shark products. The Honduran president even publicly burned confiscated shark fins caught in his country’s waters. While these are all good developments, new forms of the harmful and wasteful practice, like killing rays for their gill rakers, showed there is still work to be done. New York came close to a ban, but indecision postponed a ruling, and a proposed ban there will have to be reintroduced in 2013.
A Wave Glider robot made a trip across the planet’s largest ocean unaided, almost purely on wave power, providing an affordable means to collect important data over vast areas of ocean. A design student at French International School of Design, designed a silent, autonomous robotic unit to suck in ocean garbage, while avoiding marine animals, and scientists created a robotic fish that swims with real fish to research how schools do what they do.
The ocean has barely been explored. We have mapped mars and the dark side of the moon better than the sea floor. When we do explore the ocean, we find astonishing discoveries: organisms that can live without the sun’s energy, cures for cancer, and numerous previously unknown species. Yet budgets are being cut, and the pending closure of one of our greatest ocean exploration assets, an undersea research base named Aquarius, which has been hailed as a one of a kind national treasure and invaluable tool for researchers, revitalized the discussion of how important exploration is to humankind.
For years we’ve been focused on the impact of overfishing, habitat loss, pollution and other factors on the big name fish like tuna, salmon, sharks, and swordfish that occupy the top of the food web. But they have to eat something, as does everything else that lives in the ocean. That’s where small fish like anchovies and sardines come in. They’re being overfished too, with little public notice. That changed this year however, with new legislation to protect them, in a positive sign that we’re starting to consider whole ecosystems instead of just the more glmaorous species. Catch limits were placed on river herring and shad, as they were on Menhaden and other forage fish, in what should be a boon for the future of many marine species.
Ocean Health Index
All too often, conservation efforts are focused on a single variable: saving a whale species, or turtle species, or this fish, or that bird. But ecosystem health is for more complex, and a single species or factor rarely reflects the wider picture. In a big step toward manging our planet in a more comprehensive, holistic way, The Ocean Health Index evaluated the health of the ocean through 15 criteria, using four dimensions, and many thousands of data points. Scores were calculated partly in terms of the ocean’s benefit to humans, which alarmed some scientists and conservationists, but this was done in an effort to bridge the gap between scientists and policy makers. Worldwide score: an underwhelming 60. The US came in just above average with 63.
This was a big year for our oceans being protected by law. Australia created the world’s largest network of marine protected areas, covering a total of 1.2 million square miles of ocean, including the entire Coral Sea. The world’s largest single marine park, covering just shy of a million square miles, was created in the Cook Islands, in the South Pacific. The bitterly debated, 12 year long MLPA process came to a conclusion with a network of marine protected areas enacted across the entire coast of California. With expansions of marine parks in places as disparate as Chile and Mozambique, there was a 10-fold increase in MPAs over last decade, and 2.3% of the ocean worldwide is now protected, though measuring success in sheer area of protection is misleading; the importance of various habitats, and enforcement of protections remain key issues. High profile conservationists like Richard Branson, Ed Norton, Sylvia Earle, Sam Neil, Ted Danson got behind the launch of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance raising the visibility of the Southern Ocean’s importance. While a deal to enact broad protections has failed for now, the importance of the Antarctic ecosystem in the public eye went from a relative unknown to a given.
Discoveries in sea life
One thing was made clear this year: we’ve barely touched the surface of ocean exploration when it comes to sealife. Researchers observed a white orca near Russia, a white humpback off Norway, the first photo of humpback whales mating, a new kind of hammerhead shark, a super giant deep sea crustacean, a deep sea catshark, a strange new purple crab, eight new fish in Bali and microbial life in the earth’s crust below the sea floor. And I’m pretty sure this isn’t everything that was found in 2012.
Plastic remains an issue.
Not only did scientists find it in unexpectedly high amounts of plastic in the stomachs of seabirds in the Pacific Northwest, plastic showed up in places heretofore untouched by humans, like the Antarctic deep sea.The stuff has become so ubiquitous that open ocean sea bugs that formerly used bits of floating wood and plant matter to land and lay eggs on, now use pieces of plastic. And a conservation group tried to get the North Pacific Gyre designated as a Superfund cleanup site. There is hope however: plastic bag bans gained momentum, more companies are using recycled materials for packaging, and some companies have even harvested ocean plastic to upcycle it into product packaging.