Science Interviews


Thu, 20th Dec 2012

Future ocean discoveries

Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy, John Bruno, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Considering the future of the oceans

Helen: Weíve taken a look at some of the likely problems the oceans will continue to face in the future. And while things clearly arenít going to get any easier for the oceans, on a more positive note there are other ways in which progress continues in leaps and bounds Ė and thatís our understanding of the lives and processes that drive ocean ecosystems. Incredible discoveries are still being made and weíve come such a long way since the days when the ocean was an unseen realm filled with terrifying, mythical monstersÖ But thereís still masses that we donít know about the marine realm. And that is truly exciting.


NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, deep sea subJohn Bruno is currently updating a major text book about marine ecology and heís taken on the task of compiling all the new science thatís been pouring out of the oceans in the last decade:


John: And it is just blowing our minds how much weíve learned in a decade, since I graduated with my PhD. And even then I had the sense itís all learned, itís all in text books, thereís a few rough edges we need to sort out. The field has completely overturned. We can practically throw out everything we learned before 2000. So much new knowledge has come in. I find that so exciting and so important to get across to undergraduates. Itís incredible how much we donít know.


Mark: The ocean is hugely mysterious still in a way that is quite hard for land lubbers to really grasp. Stories of how recently we discovered things, whether itís the volcanic vents off the Galapagos which were in the 70s. I think it wasnít until the 80s that we really started understanding about picoplankton, the smallest forms of productivity in the ocean which werenít being caught in the filters because the filters were too big. This stuff is tiny but it makes maybe up to 50% of the productivity of the surface of the ocean, which affects the entire climate of the planet. We didnít even know they were there and weíre just beginning to work out how important they are.


John: One thing I really want to know, I still donít think we understand how coral reefs work. Even basic things that weíve been studying for decades. I donít think we understand the energy flow, where the energy comes from, what the role of the plankton is in coral reef food webs. I donít think we really have any idea how much of the energy being produced by coral reefs comes from the plankton, the external sources versus benthos macroalgae, zooxanthellae in the corals. We donít know about the energy flow, I donít even think we have a good handle on what determines coral reef fish communities. Where thereís lots of reef fish or very few. We all know fishing is a really big driver in loosing coral reef fish. But I go to places where thereís still fishing where thereís lots of fish and some places where thereís no fishing whereís thereís not many fish. That not to deny the role of fishing but thereís a lot of other big things going on, things like currents, and upwelling, and local productivity that attract fish. No bodyís even looking at that. We think of it as minor background noise and I think first of all its super interesting, we need to understand it and itís really hard to detect the role of fishing when we donít ever account for all this background stuff. There are all these big unknowns.


Mark: So itís a place of wonder. Thereís going to be lots more exciting things coming up along the way. I hope some of the exciting things weíll learn will be also some of the messages of hope for things like these threats, that actually things will be more robust than we expect because we just donít even know enough about the physiology of anything to know really whether itís going to be able to cope with acidification or there may be some genetic or physiological mechanism in these organisms that makes them more robust and buys us a bit more time to sort out our intervention.


So thereís so much still to be discovered. And on a much more local, almost personal level you always see something that amazes or takes your breath away.


Helen: Well, I guess weíll just have to wait and see what lies in store for the future of the oceans.


So thatís it. That was last episode of Naked Oceans. If you havenít already listened to all the others, then you can find them in a permanent online archive Ė including heaps of information about ocean science and conservation. Thatís at


It just leaves me to say a big thank you to John Bruno, Mark Spalding, Paul Rose, and Enric Sala, and to all our other wonderful contributors Ė way too many to mention - whoíve leant us their voices and ideas to Naked Oceans over the last two years.


And of course thanks to you for listening. Goodbye.


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