Mammoth New Marine Census Lays Out What We’ve Got to Lose
If you like statistics, you’ll love the new Census of Marine Life, announced yesterday at a press conference in London. As a “highlights” document explains, the census is the result of a ten-year program to try and understand, "What did live in the ocean, what does live in the ocean, and what will live in the ocean," as Ian Poiner, head of the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the director of the Census' Scientific Steering Committee, put it.
Here are a few of those statistics (deep breath, now): The Census cost $650 million, and involved 2,700 scientists from more than 80 nations and territories working at 670 institutions. They mounted more than 540 expeditions, comprising about 9,000 days at sea, where they studied organisms from the surface all the way down to more than six miles down and in environments that ranged from freezing cold to above the boiling point of water (at the great pressures at the bottom of the sea, water can become superheated near volcanic vents) and ultimately produced about 2,600 scientific papers.
A Hairy Lobster, one of the many species
identified in the Census of Marine Life.
Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/53904337@N00/3764809703/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_blank">MFS/Flickr.
What was in those papers? Glad you asked: the scientists collectively made 30 million observations of some 120,000 species, found more than 6,000 new ones, tracked the migratory patterns of thousands, and extrapolated from what they saw that the 250,000 known marine species (excluding microbes) are probably only a quarter of what's really out there. If you want to talk microbes, they say, there may be as many as a billion different kinds in the world's oceans.
That should satisfy the Guinness Book of Records crowd. This stunning online gallery will make the “ain’t Nature spectacular?” folks deliriously happy too. But those who are interested in science will want to understand what the point is — and there’s a crucial one. Humans are altering the oceans through pollution and overfishing. We’re also changing the Earth’s climate by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — and that warms the oceans; sends glacial meltwater into the seas to change salinity and alter currents, removes the coating of ice that has been a feature of Arctic waters for hundreds of thousands of years and gradually turns seawater more acidic.
All of these insults threaten to drive aquatic species extinct by the thousands — part of what biologists are calling the Sixth Mass Extinction. But unless we have an idea of what's already there, it will be impossible to figure out what's disappearing, how quickly, and why. That's the ultimate importance of surveys like this one. A couple of decades ago, the quirky and brilliant musician Joni Mitchell wrote a song titled "Big Yellow Taxi." It includes the lyric:
"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone"
But that’s only true if you knew what you had in the first place.
There's no way we can list all of the intriguing things the Census of Marine Life website has to offer — not just images, but also videos, maps and even a screensaver. Climate Central is not an advocacy organization, but I’m personally advocating that you go check out this extraordinary site.