Google maps the oceans

SCIENCE MATTERS by David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

WE HUMANS are air-breathing landlubbers and that shapes the way we see and treat the world. We don’t think much about what’s underwater or underground. So we’ve been dumping garbage into the oceans and taking what we want from them for years without considering the consequences. We’ve never had to look at any of it – until now.

We’re starting to see what lies below the surface and it’s not always a pretty picture. We see massive islands of plastic and other debris swirling in gyres around the world. We see 9,000-year-old, glass sponge reefs off the coast of BC that, until recently, were torn apart by trawl nets dragged across the ocean floor. We see the effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice and on the animals that live under the sea.

We’ll be able to see even more, thanks to a recent initiative by Google, along with National Geographic, the BBC and scientists and other partners from around the world. Google is adding the world’s oceans to its extensive Earth mapping. In a phone conversation with David Suzuki Foundation staff, John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps, admitted, “We had really overlooked two thirds of the planet.” Partly because of prodding from oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the company has embarked on a massive project as part of Google Earth 5.0 to map the oceans using sonar imaging, high-resolution and 3-D photography, video and a variety of other techniques and content.

Although the emerging picture is sometimes bleak, there’s a positive side. “If we can just see enough soon enough to pull back and give these areas a chance to recover, that’s my greatest hope,” Dr. Earle told us.

Mr. Hanke and Dr. Earle, who is explorer in residence at National Geographic and the founder of the Deep Search Foundation, said the project will allow us to learn more about human impacts on the Earth’s oceans. Dr. Earle noted that we have explored only about five percent of the ocean’s depths and protected less than one percent, yet the oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface.

“Some of these treasures are being destroyed before we even know what’s there,” Dr. Earle said, adding that often as soon as people find out about an ocean resource, they exploit it. Part of the idea behind Ocean in Google Earth is to show people what we have and what we stand to lose if we don’t smarten up. “People will be aware of not only what’s there but what’s been lost,” Dr. Earle said. “People don’t seem to widely appreciate how important it is to protect the systems that give us life.”

And the oceans do give us life. Half of the world’s oxygen comes from the ocean. In the process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming. And when phytoplankton die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean… The phytoplankton are also an important food source for ocean animals ranging from small fish to giant whales, which, in turn, feed other animals up the food chain, including humans.

That’s just one example of how important our oceans are and of how everything in nature is interconnected.

We can only hope this new endeavour will lead to more concern for the state of the oceans and of the need to protect them. The glass sponge reefs, for example, are being considered for formal protection, and public support could make the difference. As Dr. Earle noted, “You can’t care if you don’t know and this a new way of knowing.”

Part of what makes it exciting is that it’s not just a tool for scientists and academics. “It’s going to be a lot of fun for adults and kids to learn about the oceans,” Mr. Hanke said, noting that the free program, which includes multiple layers of content and information, will continue to expand as more data from scientists, explorers and others is added.

We can no longer afford to be blind to the state of our oceans. Let’s hope this will open our eyes before there’s nothing left to see but destruction.

Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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