The Ocean: The Importance Of Our Aquatic Neighbors

by Nathaniel Briggs

From T.S. Elliot’s Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Through the unknown, unremembered gate

When the last of earth left to discover

Is that which was the beginning

An invigorating affirmation of our innate curiosity. It leads us many places! For me, T.S. Elliot’s Little Gidding recalls a very specific locale. One that has been important in many capacities since the inception of our planet, making all life possible. Many engineers, biologists and geologists use it to their advantage and study it extensively. I am speaking of none other than our vast ocean. What does it have to offer and what can it teach us? Let’s dive in.

We are all familiar with the ocean. After all, it covers almost three-quarters of our planet! In spite of this known fact, we have only explored a meager portion—less than five percent—of its expanse. Graham Hawkes, a submarine inventor, prudently reminded us in his TED talk “A flight through the ocean” that over 94 percent of life on earth is contained within this unknown realm, meaning that terrestrials occupy only a small minority.

Perhaps we aren’t as familiar with the ocean as we think. Why, then, is the time we put into understanding it so disproportional to its overwhelming presence? Ryan Carlyle, a subsea hydraulics engineer, offers a rather blunt answer: “It’s expensive, difficult and uninspiring.”

Unfortunately, many people share Carlyle’s view, and support from the U.S. government hasn’t been very encouraging. Although Congress recently approved a $1 billion dollar budget increase for NASA to a seemingly large $18.01 billion, this only accounts for less than a half percent of the nation’s federal budget.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the nautical counterpart of NASA. Their budget from the federal government is abysmally low at only $5 billion a year. Is the ocean as insignificant as federal funding makes it seem? Not if you consider the ocean’s vast diversity and the benefits it offers.

The ocean is one of the planet’s richest ecosystems. It supports biodiversity ranging from the phytoplankton that produce at least half of the oxygen that humans (and other aerobic terrestrial organisms) breathe to the extremophiles that reside in the ocean’s dark depths.

And, yet, there is much to be discovered. It is estimated that between 700,000 and 1,000,000 species live in the ocean, and between one-third to two-thirds of them have yet to be named and described.

The known species and organisms are frequently subjects for fishing, cosmetic production, biomedical research and scores of other diverse fields. In biomedicine, the chemical diversity of ocean life—particularly coral reefs—has recently been utilized to aid in the development of new medicines. Some of the drugs already developed from marine life fight ailments such as cancer, inflammation, tuberculosis, HIV and malaria.

For millions of years, marine life has been a food source for thousands of terrestrial species, including humans. Today, consumption of fish from the ocean accounts for 20 percent of the world’s protein supply. In addition, algae and kelp are key ingredients in many food products, such as peanut butter, beer, frozen foods, and soymilk.

Furthermore, similar ingredients are used in the production of cosmetics. About 30 types of algae are utilized in skin care, hair care and other health and beauty products. The popular cosmetic and hair care company, Garnier, uses algae extract in a majority of its products to revitalize and strengthen skin and hair.

The ocean is also a viable energy source, as it is close to many concentrated populations. It possesses the ability to provide a hefty amount of renewable energy: 4.18 million metric tons of oil equivalents or about 1 x 10^15 joules of energy! In comparison, a standard light bulb uses a paltry 60 joules.

The ocean’s energy can be harnessed by taking advantage of the predictable and frequent patterns of the tides. The process works by trapping a wave at high tide, consequently capturing its energy as it changes to low tide. To illustrate, hydroelectric dams at the Hoover Dam work in a similar fashion, as they capture the back-and-forth and up-and-down movement of waves to force air out of a chamber and spin a turbine or drive a piston to generate electricity.

Yet another example of the ocean’s amazing potential as an energy source is Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC). This takes advantage of the temperature differences between water on the surface and in the deep ocean to extract the temperature flow between the two. While these forms of energy are still in experimental phases, the OTEC plant on the Japanese island of Okinawa is currently fully operational and is starting to show a lot of potential with island nations—such as the Chinese island of Hainan, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and parts of Japan—that possess sufficient differences in water temperature.

The expansive, diverse functionality of the ocean—what it already provides and what it could provide—is quite phenomenal! In addition to providing the necessities of life such as food, medicine, and energy, the ocean is also home to new discovery. In December 2014, a new species of snail fish was filmed at 8,145 meters below sea level in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world’s ocean. Imagine watching something fall from the Empire State Building, but instead of hitting the ground, it continued to fall another 17 times. That is how far you would have to go to find this little specimen.

“It's unlike any other snail fish ever seen,” said Alan Jamieson, a deep-sea biologist at Aberdeen University in the United Kingdom. The creature has to contend with pressures over 1000 times greater than those at sea level. As the scientists were unable to capture the fish, they could not give it a formal description. “Unfortunately, it’s going to remain nameless until someone can catch it,” said Jamieson.  

It’s discoveries like these that fuel curiosity of the vast and mysterious ocean that life depends on. With future exploration, not only will we be able to discover new species, but we may also be able to uncover some more of the tremendous benefits that the expansive body of water provides.