Future ocean discoveries

We finish the final episode of Naked Oceans by pondering what great discoveries might lie ahead
20 December 2012

Interview with 

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


Helen: We've taken a look at some of the likely problems the oceans will continue to face in the future. And while things clearly aren't 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 - and that's our understanding of the lives and processes that drive ocean ecosystems. Incredible discoveries are still being made and we've come such a long way since the days when the ocean was an unseen realm filled with terrifying, mythical monsters... But there's still masses that we don't know about the marine realm. And that is truly exciting.

John Bruno is currently updating a major text book about marine ecology and he's taken on the task of compiling all the new science that's been pouring out of the oceans in the last decade:

John: And it is just blowing our minds how much we've learned in a decade, since I graduated with my PhD. And even then I had the sense it's all learned, it's all in text books, there's 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. It's incredible how much we don't 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 it's the volcanic vents off the Galapagos which were in the 70s. I think it wasn't until the 80s that we really started understanding about picoplankton, the smallest forms of productivity in the ocean which weren't 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 didn't even know they were there and we're just beginning to work out how important they are.

John: One thing I really want to know, I still don't think we understand how coral reefs work. Even basic things that we've been studying for decades. I don't think we understand the energy flow, where the energy comes from, what the role of the plankton is in coral reef food webs. I don't 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 don't know about the energy flow, I don't even think we have a good handle on what determines coral reef fish communities. Where there's 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 there's still fishing where there's lots of fish and some places where there's no fishing where's there's not many fish. That not to deny the role of fishing but there's a lot of other big things going on, things like currents, and upwelling, and local productivity that attract fish. No body's 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 it's really hard to detect the role of fishing when we don't ever account for all this background stuff. There are all these big unknowns.

Mark: So it's a place of wonder. There's going to be lots more exciting things coming up along the way. I hope some of the exciting things we'll 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 don't even know enough about the physiology of anything to know really whether it's 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 there's 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 we'll just have to wait and see what lies in store for the future of the oceans.

So that's it. That was last episode of Naked Oceans. If you haven't already listened to all the others, then you can find them in a permanent online archive - including heaps of information about ocean science and conservation. That's at thenakedscientists.com/oceans.

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 - way too many to mention - who've 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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