Considering the future of the oceans

In the final episode of Naked Oceans, Helen Scales takes a look ahead and contemplates the future of the oceans.
21 December 2012
Presented by Helen Scales


Gravity ocean map


In the concluding installment of our two-part season finale of Naked Oceans, we get a bit thoughtful and contemplate what might lie in store for the future of the oceans. Helen catches up with some of the marine experts we've heard from throughout the last two series and asks them about what they think the future might hold. Are they ocean optimists or pessimists? What solutions will be needed to protect the oceans of the future? And on a more positive note, we ponder what great ocean discoveries might lie ahead.

In this episode

Blue marble. Earth from space

01:07 - A litany of ocean threats

Which threats to the ocean will be greatest concern in the years to come?

A litany of ocean threats
with Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy, John Bruno, University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill, Enric Sala, National Geographic

Helen: Last time on Naked Oceans Sarah looked into the history of the oceans - and now I'm looking to the future, and what lies ahead. With unfolding exploration in the marine realm, scientists today understand more than ever before about what lives there and how this immense, complex system works. These are undoubtedly exciting times. But we also have a clearer picture than ever before about how much the oceans are threatened by human activities. Geologically speaking, life on earth comes and it goes, but in terms of the impacts we're having on the oceans, over time scales that matter to us, the next few decades could be crucial. I've been chatting with various people who've appeared on the Naked Oceans over the past 2 years, to find out what they think might lie ahead. I started by them which ocean threats they think will be of greatest concern in the years to come.

Mark: It's the litany of threats is huge in the marine environment, as it is everywhere I suppose. We try and summarise them into local threats, sediments and pollution, and the bigger picture threats of overfishing everywhere. And the biggest threat of all which is climate change and its ramifications. Those are the big ones for me. Certainly I think climate change is the spectre hanging over all of this, frightening us all.

Helen: Mark Spalding there, from the Nature Conservancy, raising the issue of climate change in the oceans - something that's on the minds of everyone I spoke to:

Here's National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Enric Sala:

Enric: Warming and acidification of marine water is something that is so huge and affects the entire food web from the microbes to the top predators to whale sharks, polar bears.

Helen: In one of the first episodes we made of Naked Oceans, we spoke to John Bruno from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, back when he'd just written a review paper in the journal science about the impacts of climate change on the oceans. When I caught up with him again recently, he had been looking at the latest projections for climate change and ocean warming from the upcoming fifth assessment report or AR5 from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. The report looks at how warm the oceans are likely to get by 2100 based on different future emissions scenarios:

John: And the projects are really frightening. So we are very plausibly looking at 2 to 3 maybe even 4 degrees Celsius of warming in tropical areas. I've known that but somehow I'd got it in my head that we were only going to see a half a degree or a degree Celsius. I think reefs could handle that. Four degrees, it's just so extreme. That's more than ten degrees Fahrenheit, that would absolutely devastate not just reefs but all kinds of tropical ecosystems, terrestrial and marine. And that is becoming a really plausible scenario just based on our recent greenhouse emissions rates and the fact that those emissions have actually been accelerating in the last few years. Climate change is something that I'm more and more concerned about, and of course not just the temperature but also the other side of that coin, the acidification problem.

Helen: And that acidification problem is looking to be a really big one. Already, the oceans have become 30% more acidic since the dawn of the industrial revolution because much of the co2 emitted by human activities has been absorbed into the oceans. Impacts on marine organisms that live inside calcium carbonate skeletons is already being detected most recently among sea butterflies - the flocks of tiny molluscs that flit through pelagic waters and are a vital food source for many other animals including fish and cetaceans. In parts of the southern ocean where natural upwelling exacerbates falling ph, the shells of sea butterflies are already starting to etch and corrode away. 

Warming seas and acidification aren't the only knock on affects of climate change that we are likely to see unfolding - there are a couple of other issues that don't get a lot of attention at the moment but could get much worse in the future:

John: There's two ancillary affects of climate change and gas emissions that a lot of people are arguing aren't getting considered. One is UV. We were making progress on UV and that seems to be stalling or reversing, so Carlos Duarte for example is arguing that UV is a big cause of invertebrate and vertebrate larvae mortality in the plankton. 

And the other big one of course is the affect of temperature on oxygen concentration. So the big thing that's going to happen when the oceans warm is that they hold very little oxygen, so the warmer the water is the less oxygen it holds, the higher the metabolism of animals, and therefore they need more oxygen and those tow things really coincide to kill animals above 31-32-33 degrees Celsius. And that's going to eb somple mortality not some kind of indirect process like coral bleaching or disease enhancement. So that's a really big concern that never gets talked about as well.


05:59 - Future solutions to ocean problems

What solutions will be needed to fix the future problems in the oceans?

Future solutions to ocean problems
with Mark Spalding - The Nature Conservancy, John Bruno - University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Enric Sala - National Geographic

Helen: And there's no doubt any more that tackling climate change is going to be a huge challenge:

Enric: We know what the solution is. We need to cut out greenhouse gas emissions. And the problem is that its very difficult to implement.

Helen: At the very earliest, a decision about a global treaty to bring down green house gas emissions will be made in 2015, with new targets to go into force by 2020 by which time, as many climate models predict, it may already be too late to avoid an average temperature increase of at least two degrees - and possibly a lot higher. And maybe by that stage the world will be forced to think about taking radical steps to deal with the problem. Here's Mark Spalding:

Mark: Climate change again is just too big. We know the problem we know the solution, but actually applying the solution is going to be huge. This maybe sticks my neck out a bit, but I think that climate change is going to keep advancing for some time to come and we're going to be forcing ourselves torwards thinking about geoengineering and that's not a solution we know yet. We've got some ideas which are quite frightening in themselves. But we're going to have to, I think things are moving so fast and by the time we turn things around temperatures are going to have changed, whole climate systems are going to have changed, the oceans are going to be changing. What will those solutions be? I don't know. Technology advances incredibly fast and so there's a sort of quiet optimist in me that thinks we might think of something, but that's a pretty tenuous thread to hang your hopes on.

Helen: So, climate change and all its scary ramifications, is looking to be the big problem the oceans will face in the coming decades.

Helen: You're listening to the last episode of Naked Oceans, as we take a look into what might lie in store for future of the oceans. As well as climate change other threats that we see in the oceans today will no doubt continue for some time to come - but at least or some of these, there are more tangible solutions already available. Mark Spalding.

Mark: We have many of the solutions in our tool kits particularly if you think about the local issues and the local threats, the issues of overfishing. Huge progress has been made in overfishing in some places. Really positive stories that are benefiting people as well as nature.

Helen: But as John Bruno points out, there's still a very long way to go.

John: I really still think overfishing is not recognized at the level of the problem that it is.

Helen: Recently, Jane Lubchenco stepped down as head of NOAA, the National Oceanic and atmospheric administration in the US, and when she left she wrote to her staff, discussing all the accomplishments they'd made over the last four years:

John: The first things she said was "ending overfishing". I had to laugh, ending overfishing? And what she meant was overfishing in the continuous US 48 states and buy the definition of NOAA's fisheries' manager, what overfishing is. Which to an ecologist or an ecosystems scientists or a conservationist is a ridiculous definition. Because you can have suppressed the population down to 10-20% of its initial size and declare it not overfished. Besides most species that are fished in US waters are not even considered by NOAA. You go to Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, they fish just about all the reef fish, so all the parrot fish, wrasses, a lot of things that are completely off NOAA's radar screen and those things are suppressed at least 50, 75, 90% below their baseline biomass. So I still don't think even our Federal administrators and fisheries managers really get the extent of the problem.

Helen: One thing that Mark Spalding, from the Nature Conservancy, brought up as we were chatting about the future problems of the oceans and what solutions may lie ahead, was that ultimately and perhaps quite surprisingly, he thinks saving the oceans may not come down to the work of conservationists like himself, but that a much more far-reaching change among people needs to take place:

Mark: I think the line I'm beginning to take is that we've almost got to get conservationists out of equation. The arguments we're beginning to make now are quite compelling on multiplied fronts. There are fishermen who will stand up in Belize and tell you they know what to do. They might have been taught it by conservationists, but they know the answer. And they're managing their own resources and there are systems like that around the world now where nature is holding its own int eh arguments. Actually we can say that nature is important for people. And if we can get people to grasp that and work is out and do the economics and believe then I think the whole things should start to snowball without nature conservationists. Of course we have a lot to contribute to the argument but we're such a tiny body of people. If you were to get all the marine conservationists in the world together we would probably make up the crew of one or two ocean cruise ships. That's it. We're tiny. And it's a david and goliath battle or worse. WE can't possibly win that on our own, we have to persuade people and one they've got the arguments they can persuade each other and we come out of the equation completely and I think that's the only way we'll really achieve traction and progress at the scale we need to.

Helen: And perhaps the most worrying thing about the changes taking place in the oceans, is that there is still a lot we don't yet fully comprehend:

Mark: The known unknowns. The sort of stuff that we're getting that may or may not be a problem, but if it is a problem god help us. Ocean acidification may not be quite as bad as it looks but if you read the worst predictions its really frightening. And there'll be other stories like that, deoxygenation of the deep oceans is another area that we're just beginning to start thinking about but it would turn into something massive that we just can't fathom. Declining productivity in the ocean surface waters seems to be already detectable, we don't really know what's driving it, that could turn into something that changes the entire atmospheric chemistry of the planet. Hopefully none of those things will come to fruition but if you start thinking about them, they can keep you awake at night.

Helen: Another worrying aspect to ocean threats is the fact that none of these problems occur in isolation. It's not the case of a bleached coral reef here and a depleted fish population there, but threats pile up, one of top of each other, often interacting in unexpected and complex ways, depleting the resilience and functioning ecosystems.

Blue sea

12:30 - Are you an ocean optimist or pessimist?

We ask a bunch of oceans experts if they are optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the oceans.

Are you an ocean optimist or pessimist?
with Mark Spalding, The Nature Conservancy, John Bruno, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Enric Sala, National Geographic, Paul Rose, Syvlia Earle.

Helen: So, given all we know about the impacts human lives are having on the oceans, and predictions that it could all get a lot worse, can we be optimistic about the future of the oceans? Or is it all doom and gloom?

Here's ocean explorer Paul Rose who we originally spoke to at the Reefs at Risk Revisited launch in 2011 - that was the latest report to document the global status of coral reefs and forecast what lies in store for them in the years to come. I caught up with Paul to find out how he's feeling about the oceans:

Paul: Most of us live in urban environments and its beginning to bite, it's beginning to tell and its beginning to hurt and what that's means it people have actually started to realize how important it is that we understand and protect our ecosystems and biodiversity. Now I've seen the next generation and they're flipping fantastic. They're bright people. So I think in the next 30 years we really are going to do some clever things. We're going to work out how we're going to control our population growth, we're going to make some sensible adaptations to climate change that's already occurring. And most importantly we're going to learn to understand and protect our ecosystem services and biodiversity and we can't do that without understanding the ocean.

We've had this historical view of us all living on land and the seas out there somewhere, but we're finally coming to the realization that the earth is 99% water and we're living on little bits of land so it's time to understand the greatest, most important ecosystem on the planet. So I'm incredible optimistic and I recon in 30 years I'm going to be having a glass of whisky and celebrating with the youngsters.

Helen: John Bruno shares Paul's optimism although for slightly different reasons:

John: People, especially my PhD supervisor, always called me a pathological optimist. And sometimes my grad students think that too in terms of optimism about what can be accomplished during a field season or field trip. And I tend to have an optimistic outlook about the oceans. I don't think I'm in denial about how much has changed and the threats to ocean ecosystems but I still have a lot of optimism.

I've been discussing this a lot with friends and colleagues and a lot of them point out that there's just no scientific basis to be optimistic about coral reefs or any other ecosystem. I kind of dispute that. But ultimately I think optimism comes more from a perception, a feeling, it's almost a philosophical outlook rather than scientific. We don't really form emotions based on scientific evidence for or against them. So I think that really just again come from my outlook.

Helen: Mark Spalding's outlook isn't quite as cheery, but, as he says, all is not yet lost:

Mark: Reflecting on it I'd probably describe myself as a gloomy optimist, or a pragmatist, something like that. The oceans have changed so much in the last decades, beyond recognition in many places. And I think we've got to live with that. We're not going to get everything back to pristine, there's too many people and we've got too many needs. That can make you very pessimistic. You can dive on a coral reef in the Caribbean and if you know what it used to be like you can be pretty depressed about it. But actually if you look at the eyes of a person who does their first dive on a coral reef today, they're totally thrilled by what they see. I think we have to keep that in balance. Nature is still fantastic. Maybe it was better once but we're still getting wonders out there, and enjoying them. And I guess that's optimistic.

John: I do go to plenty of places in the world that are still obviously not pristine but are still wondrous and so full of life. There's big fish, living corals and other benthic invertebrates, and there's just so much left out there. We're so far still, luckily, from an ocean dominated just by jellyfish and slime although I understand we maybe be headed in that direction. I think we're many decades or many centuries from getting there. So I do think we have a lot of time to turn things around.

Helen: I also spoke with ocean explorer Sylvia Earle. WE first met at the Census of Marine Life. Her optimism comes form knowing about the impacts humans are having on the oceans and the fact that now is the time to do something about it.

Sylvia: There are a lot of smart creatures on the planet. Not just humans. Including squids and octopuses, and quite a few fish that are clearly intelligent. I think about stomatopods. Most people don't think about stomatopods, but I do because they're just amazing creatures in their ability to solve problems and figure things out in extraordinary ways. We think we're the only ones but we're not. But we are the only ones, in fact this is the only time in history that even humans have been able to look at the skies above and realize that we are within this universe of largely inhospitable places and that earth itself could be very inhospitable to us unless we take deliberate measures now on our watch. Because not only is this the first time that we have begun to connect the dots and see ourselves in perspective and see that our actions alter the nature of nature. And it's the last time perhaps that we'll have an opportunity to do something about it. The last little window of time. How long? Is it 10 years? Is it 20 or 50? Whatever it is the window is closing. But it isn't too late to reverse these trends that should have everyone's wrapped attention. We should be paying attention as if our lives depended on it because they do.

Helen: One reason that a lot of people are hopeful about the future of the oceans is the positive effect of protecting areas of the sea: Here's Enric Sala...

Enric: I'm a cautious optimist. There are things that we're not going to be able to bring back. But there are bright spots, success stories, like marine reserves that are protected from fishing where marine life comes back. And these success stories give me some hope.

Helen: But there are limitations to the protected areas we currently have in the sea:

John: I think we need more reserves, maybe 20-30% or more, but more importantly they have to be enforced. We rarely enforce the marine reserves that we designate. That's what we need to do. In fact I'm moving towards literally armed enforcement, the way we protect rhinos and African elephants. We need people out there protecting this invablable resource for all the people that depend on it economically. We protect banks with alarm system and weapons and people, and other valuable resources and a coral reef is worth millions and millions of dollars every years, even a small part of it. So I think we need to move forward in our enforcement of our marine reserves, so that's one big hope.

Helen: So it might strike you as a bit of a militant approach, but maybe what we'll need are heavily armed ocean patrols to protect valuable parts of the sea.

And while MPAs are no doubt vital for ocean conservation, as Mark Spalding points out, what about all the rest of the ocean that doesn't and never will lie within marine protected areas?

Mark: We're gradually heading towards 10% of the worlds oceans which will mean 90% isn't even thought about by those people who think marine protected areas are the answer. We've got to get beyond that. We've got to think about the entirety  of ocean space and that means working with everyone and trying to get them all to share a vision, to at least be willing to take a cut rather than try  and get everything for themselves all the time.

Helen: As well as efforts to protect remaining areas of healthy habitat, advances are also being made in our abilities to restore marine ecosystems.

Mark: We've known for quite a while that we can restore mangrove forests and of course there have been some pretty spectacular failures, but there's also been huge areas, about 3% of all the worlds mangroves are replanted by people. So we can put nature back and we can enhance and encourage recovery. We're doing lots of oyster reefs in North America and there's talk about doing that in Europe, that'll be really exciting. It's a habitat that's extinct, really, in Europe, but it could come back. It used to be incredibly important. And there's even talk now about being able to restore coral reefs at largish scales and that's a point of hope. This is in the Caribbean where the big reef building corals, two species only in the Caribbean, which used to grow the reefs, the structures on which so much depends, and are virtually extinct thanks to various combinations of threats. There's  now 30,000 of these little corals being growing up in nurseries across the Caribbean and they're starting to plant them out in the wild. It feels a little bit hopeless.

NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program, deep sea sub

21:44 - Future ocean discoveries

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

Future ocean discoveries
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

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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