American marine biologist Sylvia Earle once said: “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea.” And it’s true — that’s part of why oceans matter!
The oceans of the Earth provide us with our most immediate survival needs: oxygen and water. Many Americans tend to take air and water for granted because they’ve been abundant during our lifetimes. But that’s changing.
Pollution Is Getting Worse
It’s not just domestic smog in cities like Los Angeles, but worldwide pollution that concerns us today. Welcome to the third article in our ocean pollution series. So far, we’ve covered the oxygen created by our seas and the food sources oceans provide for billions of people. Today, we’ll take a different approach and think about our connections to the oceans in a past, present, future sort of way.
- Cover some interesting theories about oceans and human history
- Discuss the current economic issues related to oceans
- Attempt some predictions about maritime pollution and the future of our species.
First, let’s get started on discussing why oceans matter with a look back.
Returning to Our Past: Human History Is Connected to the Oceans
The Aquatic Ape Theory Resurfaces
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Elaine Morgan popularized the idea that early humans lived near seawater most of the time. The hypothesis was largely disregarded but has become a hot topic once again. It makes good sense!
Think about it. As a species, humans are:
- Highly dependent on large amounts of fresh drinking water for our size — the kind of freshwater that flows to the sea in rivers and tributaries.
- Dependent on iodine in our diets for proper thyroid function (iodine is a key nutrient primarily available via seafood), so much so that it’s added into table salt.
- Capable swimmers for a land animal.
- Lightly-furred, as mammals go, like dolphins and whales.
- Capable of giving birth in the water thanks to an umbilical cord.
- Comfortable living next to the ocean. More than 600 million people choose to live at the beach today, according to the UN, and about 40% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coast.
Furthermore, some scientists suggest that human body odors associated with female fertility indicate a seaside history.
Our upright stance might be due to marshy-foraging, which would explain why so many humans have lower back pain today. Our bodies are based on a modified skeleton that derives from a four-legged position. So our ancestors may have strained and stretched to wander into deeper waters, but we are no longer supported by water while we walk.
But finally, most of us enjoy our time at the beach. Even though oceans are vast and harbor many immediate dangers for a land species, we flock there by the millions every day to rejuvenate.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a Creationist or agree with theories of evolution. Nearly every ancient religion has a flood story, after all.
Try to Prove It Wrong
For a while, we thought humanity descended from a “Mitochondrial Eve” somewhere in Africa, but that hypothesis is now disproved. Like all other scientific concepts, we’ll think about it as if it’s valid until we can prove otherwise. Researchers are trying right now to disprove the Aquatic Ape ideas. But you must admit that we sure do look and act much differently from all the other primates on the planet.
Even if you choose to completely deny the notion that early humans were basically beach bums, we cannot deny that oceans have played a key role in populating the planet and spreading culture from one continent to the next.
From the Vikings of Scandinavia to the South African slave trade, every continent was reached and breached by the sea. Explorers, pirates, colonialism… the oceans remain the most prominent monument to human history we can imagine.
But all that is in the past. Let’s think about our dependence on the ocean right now.
Why Oceans Matter in the Present: We Rely on the Oceans
Earlier in this series, we described the amount of oxygen produced by marine life and the amount of seafood humans consume. We won’t repeat ourselves. For now, know that oceans provide at least half of our surface oxygen. They also feed 3,000,000,000 souls.
But our lives are affected by the oceans every day. Consider how they affect:
- Weather and climate
- Jobs, livelihoods, and economies of the world
- International trade
Oceans and Weather
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “The world’s oceans have a two-way relationship with weather and climate.” Oceans influence the weather on both local and global scales, and climate changes can significantly change many properties of our oceans.
Here’s what some scientists believe to be happening right now:
- Greenhouse gases (GHGs) trap more energy and heat from the sun than in the recent past.
- Our oceans absorb this heat, which results in higher surface temperatures and rising sea levels.
- These changes might affect our weather patterns soon.
- For instance, we might see more catastrophic storms in the tropics, more lost lives, and more damaged property.
These issues are most likely to affect coastal communities. But remember, about 40% of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coastline.
Another part of why oceans matter is that they can also help to mitigate pollution and GHGs by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. But the EPA says increasing levels of dissolved carbon might be changing the chemistry of seawater. High levels of ocean acidity make it difficult for shellfish and corals to build their shells and skeletons. The results could be decreased food productivity and altered marine biodiversity.
The Importance of Marine Diversity
Our oceans are home to an estimated 1,000,000 species right now. From adorable sea turtles to scrumptious salmon steaks, the average human might only come in contact with a few dozen or a few hundred of them in a lifetime.
But in addition to creating the food and air we need (and filtering away carbon emissions), part of why oceans matter is because the future of nutrition and medicine might lie in ocean species. Oceans are more than just saltwater habitats. They’re home to dozens of different zones and sub-sections. The species thriving in the tropics are quite different from those swimming near Antarctica, which differ again from the waters around the Galápagos Islands or Australian coral reefs.
There’s tremendous diversity, and the oceans already save lives.
Our Future: Medicine and Nutrition From the Sea
We’re already using products from the ocean to stay healthy. Remember that humans need iodine to be healthy. Iodine deficiency leads to painful goiter and hypothyroidism. That’s why most table salt has iodine: to ensure we get that key micronutrient into our body. It’s also the reason a reduced-sodium diet should include more seafood, by the way.
- Only 100 years ago, iodine deficiency was prevalent in the Great Lakes region of the US and the Appalachian mountains. We’ve solved that problem by adding iodine to table salt and other foods.
Some modern research suggests that red kelp supplements could be another nutritional boon. Kelp is a type of brownish-red seaweed, similar to the dark green stuff you find in sushi rolls. It is rich in:
- Vitamin K
- Vitamin A
- Folic acid
All of those are nutrients that humans need to reproduce and carry healthy pregnancies to term!
We can’t help but notice that kelp — so rich in nutrients we need for reproduction — grows all along the world’s coasts. We’re not saying it proves the Aquatic Ape Theory, but it supports it in a circumstantial way.
How much more nutrition and medicine can we get from the oceans? That journey has only just begun!
Marine Pharmacology Is Exploring Why Oceans Matter
The world population boom overburdened our existing resources for medicine. Some infectious diseases have even become resistant to the medications we do have on hand. That’s why pharmaceutical companies are always seeking new resources. They must develop new, effective, and safe drugs for an increasingly growing, demanding, and diseased population.
Roughly 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water. But research into the pharmacology of marine organisms is still minimal, and most of the deepest waters are still unexplored. No one knows how many species are down there, lurking in the deep, or what medical questions they might answer.
To date, we have marine-based medicines like:
- Antibacterial/antibiotic solutions to treat infections. One of them even treats a multi-drug-resistant variety of Staphylococcus aureus (Staph).
- Safer anti-inflammatory medicines that might not damage our kidneys as much as traditional NSAIDs like Tylenol or Ibuprofen.
- Antivirals that could prevent the next worldwide pandemic
- Antiparasitic treatments
And even anti-cancer drugs are in development. Imagine if we could prevent cancer.
Eribulin mesylate (E7389) or Halichondrin B, for instance, comes from marine sponges. It kills cells, causes irreversible damage to them, and has potent anti-cancer activity. Right now, it’s prescribed as HALAVEN for metastatic breast cancer. In the future, who knows which cancers it will treat?
Final Thoughts on Why Oceans Matter
In the end, the human experience continues to rely on our oceans as it has throughout our entire history. We will continue to rely on the sea for oxygen and nutrition. In the future, we may depend upon it for medicines. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for why oceans matter. New forms of clean energy are there, too. So take care to keep our oceans clean. Dispose of your plastics and PPE correctly, and pick up litter when you see it. The world’s population will thank you.
Stay tuned for the final article in this series. We’ll discuss new technologies and cleantech that might be in our future.