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Marine futures

Address to the Foresight Marine Panel Workshop on Future Marine Risks and Opportunities. The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology, 16 March 2005.

I begin with a reminder: the oceans occupy over 70 percent of the surface of the Earth, and are in many respects less understood than the surface of the Moon. They are the source of all life, and in different ways all life depends on them. They are part of the single self-regulating system, comprised of physical, chemical, biological and even human elements, which makes up the Earth we know. In the most profound sense, their health is our health.

Your theme today is future marine risks and opportunities. I look forward to hearing the results of the work in the seven groups you have set up. For me, the risks are the obvious background to the opportunities. As one of millions of living species, we are adapted to a particular set of environmental circumstances, and these are under heavy human pressure. Indeed a periodical visitor from space would find more change in the surface of the Earth in the last 200 years than in the preceding 2000, and more change in the last 20 years than in the preceding 200. As was suggested in the title of a recent book, there is something new under the Sun.

All this is relevant to your work today. Briefly there are six main problems.

  1. Our success an as animal species has led to an incredible increase in human numbers with corresponding pressure on the global environment;
  2. There is clear deterioration of soils, depletion of resources, and accumulation of wastes;
  3. There is ever growing demand for fresh water, with increasing pollution of both salt and fresh water;
  4. We are destroying other species and the effects are still largely unknown;
  5. We are causing changes in atmospheric chemistry. The main changes are:
    • ozone depletion at high latitudes with more UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface;
    • climate change with devastating potential effects, including global dimming;
    • sea level rise.
  6. Finally there are the impacts of technology. As the Astronomer Royal has said recently, the chances of civilization surviving the century should only be rated at 50 percent due to: inadvertence; use of horrible weapons; criminality; nanotechnology; undue dependencies on technology, in particular ICT.

All these problems are interlinked. Because of the relative shortness of our lives, we are mostly unaware of them, and in particular of the connexions between them. Only recently have we acquired the tools to understand the processes of change, whether natural or human-driven. In such processes the role of the oceans is key.

First the natural processes.

The human-driven processes are notoriously difficult to distinguish. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its most recent report in 2001 that most of the observed climatic warming over the last 50 years was likely to have been due to the human-induced increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, from around 200 ppm in glacial periods to around 280 ppm in interglacials, and now to 375 ppm and still rising. Sea levels are predicted to rise between 9 cm and 88 cm by 2100 and the latest evidence is closer to the higher figure. Then there are the two jokers in the pack:

  1. There is a possibility that an increase in fresh water in the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, caused by melting ice and increased river flow, may weaken the powerful North Atlantic conveyor that brings warmth to Western Europe and further East. There are already indications that this process, which happened some 12,000 years ago, may already have started. Thus warming may paradoxically produce cooling.
  2. The other is represented by the possibility of a runaway greenhouse effect, as at earlier times in the Earth's history, such as at the Palaeocene/Eocene boundary 55 million years ago. Recent studies of ocean sediments have shown that 55 million years ago the Arctic sea had an average temperature of 20 degrees C. There was massive die back of marine creatures as carbon dioxide levels soared. In each case vast releases of methane, from melting tundra and the release of methyl hydrates from the ocean floor, may have been the cause.

In the last few months the science has advanced with ever greater precision not only about the risks, but also about the possible thresholds of change: we need to watch, for example

On the specific issues of climate change, there was the report of the International Task Force on the subject in January 2005, the Exeter Conference of last month, and the report the other day at the AAAS meeting on ocean temperatures and their effects.

So much for the global picture. Now for the content of the oceans, and the risks that change is bringing. Nearly all present risks are caused by human activity. Many of you will have seen the report of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans, published in 1998. It tells an alarming tale, most of it still up to date, and all of it relevant to the agenda of this Workshop. Let me go briefly through the two main aspects.

  1. First is the increasing pollution of the oceans, most of it in coastal areas and above the continental shelf. The toxic effluents from industry, cities and other coastal communities, in many cases made worse by offshore mineral extraction and dumping (as revealed last week as a result of the Sumatran tsunami) has changed the character of many coastal waters. Dams upstream of rivers (as in Egypt) have also had an effect, particularly on marine ecology. Pollution is also evident in the high seas caused by maritime transport, and oil spills.
  2. Next come the biological consequences, with destruction of habitats, ranging from mangroves and kelp to coral reefs. Ships carrying alien species have also caused ecological disruption. Then there is the gross over-exploitation of fisheries, and with it serious damage to the sea floor (as has been well said, a few hours of indiscriminate trawling can destroy a million years of coral growth and the assets required to support local fishing communities as well as tourism).

None of these problems is new. But all are exacerbated by the fundamental problem of responsibility for the oceans, and equitable use of their assets. There is a long and still inconclusive history of attempts to avoid the classic tragedy of the commons, to balance freedom of the seas against a regime of international law and governance, and to understand, value and thereby protect the immense complexities of marine ecology. Five key dates:

  1. 1960: creation of the UN Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) to promote Science and research;
  2. 1992: discussion at the Rio Conference on Environment and Development and the relevant clauses in Agenda 21;
  3. 1994: entry into effect of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the product of long years of negotiation and, for all its limitations, the bedrock of international management of the oceans;
  4. 1998: publication of the report of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans: and creation of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a joint project of the IOC, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Council for Science (ICSU). Its prime task is to bring together the widest range of scientific information and provide the framework within which national and international decisions can be taken.
  5. 1999: proposals from the UN Commission on Sustainable Development

Where do we go from here? It would be good to think that things are now under control, that the worst of the difficulties have been surmounted, and that the risks have been understood. But that is far from being the case. This is matter for your discussion today. Let me suggest where I think the priorities for action should be:

After these tales of woe about the risks, and what to do about them, you may wonder when I am to come to the opportunities. They are of course immense, and will constitute the more cheerful part of your agenda. They connect directly with the good health of society in general, and can contribute greatly to it. Let us assume that we begin to cope, however slowly and painfully, with the six main issues I referred to earlier: human population pressure; deterioration of soils, resource depletion and disposal of wastes; demand for clean fresh water; destruction of biodiversity; climate change; and technological hazards. What in all this is the role of the oceans?

For me there are three broad human priorities: supply of energy; supply of food; and application of scientific management to this enormous natural asset.

  1. Energy: it is as obvious as anything can be that we need to develop non fossil fuel sources of energy as soon as possible. There is never going to be a shortage of energy as such. Among the many possibilities is marine-driven power in various forms (wave, tidal, thermal, even biomass), including new technologies of transmission.
  2. Food: aqua culture, including in the open seas, is developing fast. There are well known problems which can be overcome. With over exploitation of natural fisheries, with the risks of further crashes of popular species, the opportunities for further commercial development are obvious. Here the need for better global regulation, with policing to match, is paramount.
  3. Scientific applications: the only question is how to take advantage of the new technologies relating for example to management of coastal areas, particularly in waste disposal; to transport questions, including tourism; to sequestration of carbon dioxide; and to coping with the hazards of ocean/ atmosphere interaction, including acidification of surface waters.

This is the point at which I hand over to you. I have raised many more issues than I can possibly cope with. I would like to have said more about the development of the Law of the Sea, and a new institutional framework for ocean management which I believe to be urgent and essential. Perhaps that should be for another occasion. In the meantime I wish you well, and look forward to seeing the results of your labours.


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