Every year on June 8 ocean enthusiasts celebrate World Oceans Day. Last year over 300 official events in 45 countries recognized how the Earth’s largest and most complex ecosystem affects not only the rest of the planet and its inhabitants, but how the seas touch upon the essence of being human and the connectivity of the human-sphere to the ocean-sphere.
The ocean is such a ubiquitous part of our world that we mostly take it for granted. Part of the disconnect between people and the ocean is explained by distance between people and the shore—even a mile can make us half-a-world away if we never make the effort to gaze out on the blue horizon.
Another part may be our lack of basic understanding of how the ocean affects every human being on the planet their entire lives. The ocean buffers our weather, provides us foods and many of modern medicines have been discovered from decades of relentless marine research. Another part of our disconnect may be that we just don’t know how to put into words and describe the emotions of how the ocean affects us.
The latter part is a difficult concept to encapsulate. While poets, song smiths and artists have described the ocean in ways ranging from fury and fear to calm and reflective there is little in historical and modern research that have tested the waters of the neurological basis of our connection to the ocean. Only very recently has this been explored.
The BLUEMIND initiative founded by marine conservation biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols with colleagues in art, marketing and technology seeks to define a new field bridging neuroscience and conservation biology – neuroconservation – designed for a "deeper understanding of the connection between the brain and the ocean". Such an effort is impressive, truly multidisciplinary and has fantastic potential to understand what motivates people to care about and act upon environmental issues.
"Marketers have long understood that the human brain responds best to simple messages, repeated often, shared through good stories," explains Nichols, who says he regularly reads the Harvard Business Review. "But the word "marketing" isn’t a favorite among scientists." Nichols is one of growing contingent of marine scientists who see the value in interdisciplinary approaches to tackling tough research problems.
This analogizes the message for World Oceans Day that I’d like to highlight. There are not seven seas or four oceans any more than there are separate, bounded fields of study in science. There is a world ocean, and it encompasses all the phenomena that encompasses the world. Marine science has always traditionally been a very interdisciplinary venture by its very nature. The watery world is a three dimensional environment at the whims of the laws of physics, as much as the laws of ecology and evolution, that help create the immense diversity of life that we’ve only feebly characterized through over 200 years of rigorous exploration.
A world ocean is a connected ocean. The iconic maps with distinct circulation patterns among ocean basins belies the fact that much deeper down the pace of flow lessens; the shifting of currents, waxing and waning of intensity and direction, and slow millennial-scale crawl of deep water masses. These water masses are created in the north Atlantic and off the tip of Antarctica where warm tropical water is shrouded by the colder polar waters and chilled by arctic winds, the surface water freezes leaving behind its salt to water below it. The cold, more dense water sinks here and begins its thousand year journey around the world.
The eminent oceanographer Dr. Wally Broecker dubbed this phenomenon the "Ocean Conveyor Belt." It is a simplification of a complex system that explains the net flow of heat in the ocean. This paradigm has dominated oceanography for nearly half a century, but this model may be too simplified. In particular, technological developments in the last decade have allowed scientists to peek into the ocean at higher and higher resolutions. Once overlooked processes, such as the ocean’s wind patterns and eddy fields, appear to be playing much larger roles in ocean overturning.
In a review published in Science last year challenging the conveyor belt model, Dr. Susan Lozier of Duke University weighed several distinct pieces of evidence that overturn our concepts of ocean overturning. While there is no doubt in scientists’ minds that overturning happens – this is a directly measurable property – the oversimplification is a little too simplistic. Most importantly, eddies, which are circulating bodies of water up to 100 km in diameter, have been recently observed to redistribute water masses off of the conveyor belt.
Does this change how the entire ocean is connected? Not in the least, it fine tunes the connection. Instead of deep water moving along the western boundaries of ocean basins, it moves more within the interior as it is driven by eddies from the pole towards the equator.
"Though appealing in its simplicity," writes Lozier, "the ocean conveyor-belt paradigm has lost luster over the years, precisely because it has overdistilled the complexity of the ocean’s overturning. This complexity has slowly been revealed as the ocean has increasingly been observed at finer scales in space and time and in places previously only sparsely sampled."
Revolutions in marine science are fought by better technology and better sampling efforts, both how much is sampled and where we sample. The azoic hypothesis, posited by Forbes in the 1800s that life couldn’t exist much deeper than 500 meters, was laid in Davy Jones’ locker through the improvement of dredging, depth measurement and water collection tools and the massive undertaking of the HMS Challenger expedition.
The revolutionary model itself, though, is a bit too simplistic and overstated. Very few are the papers written that instantly change a field of study upon publishing. Paradigms are shifted gradually. As Isaac Newton graciously noted, by "standing on the shoulders giants". Hypotheses are tested and evidence is gathered, conclusions are drawn and meanings are debated. The ebb and flow of newly collated evidence sways the theoretical tides in another direction. We are only able to even ask moment-defining questions because of a vast historical legacy of literature that provides a self-perpetuating "conveyor belt" of generating new questions.
The future of our world ocean is filled with excitement at the possibilities that lie ahead and terror of the magnitude of which we have already affected such a vital system. It is no secret how we are connected to the ocean. Seawater and our own bodily fluids are similarly composed. The person living farthest from coastline still carries their own inner ocean, there is no escaping it. We are drawn to coastal vistas, spend our hard-earned money for a weeks-worth slice of the beach and surf, and go to great lengths to bring seafood to the most landlocked cities. Perhaps a new frontier, a new revolution in marine science will be to understand how we all share a psychological connection with the sea.
The ocean is the glue that holds our planet together. Nearly three-quarters of our planet is defined by salty water, weaving its way around continents and circumscribing islands. The water never leaves us. It moves around the planet, it evaporates and get dumped over land and joins with rivers, but it always makes its way back home to the ocean. We are just like that water, no matter how we flow, we always end up near the ocean. Understanding the "mind-ocean connection", as Dr. Nichols calls it, could actually save own lives.
Whatever we do now to protect the ocean, to get its message out there, is not working – or, at least, not working quick enough. Many do not get the ocean. Though they may spend many hours of their lives entranced by it, they do not know why. And neither do scientists. To understand how to make conservation messages stick to people, we need to ask new questions about the neurological basis for conservation. We are included as components in the world ocean, just as vital to the ocean as the ocean is to us.
"It’s time to drop the old notions of separation between emotion and science," suggests Nichols. "Emotion is science.[…] It’s likely, maybe even certain, that the greatest unexplored mysteries of the sea are buried not under a blanket of blue, but deep in the human mind."
Lozier MS (2010) Deconstructing the Conveyor Belt. Science 328:1507 -1511.
Image Credits: Graphic used with permission, Wallace J. Nichols.
About the author: Kevin Zelnio is an independent scientist, science writer and communications strategist based in Wilmington, N.C. He received a MSc from Penn State studying the ecology of hydrothermal vents and deep sea biodiversity, and a BSc in Evolution and Ecology at University of California, Davis. Kevin is the assistant editor and Webmaster for Deep Sea News where he writes extensively about marine science. To learn more about him visit his homepage and follow him on Twitter: @kzelnio . [Image used with permission by Anna Linda Photography ]
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.