Planetary Check-Up Starts with Oceans

If continents are the Earth’s sturdy bones and the atmosphere its thin skin, then the oceans are its heart, circulatory system and blood. And despite the crucial role played by the oceans in the health of the planet, and to our own health and well-being, there is little monitoring of ocean health.

Once the oceans were too big and too deep to probe, measure and observe, but between satellites, undersea robots, electronically tagged fish and deep sea sensors, scientists now have the tools.

On Tuesday, high-level officials began meeting in Cape Town, South Africa to see if governments have the will to create a Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) — a 10-year project to create a comprehensive monitoring system of what has been described as the last frontier.

“We have pathetically few measurements of the oceans relative to their importance to life on Earth and the extent to which we rely on them for energy, weather, food and recreation,” said D. James Baker, former administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Humans are creatures of the land and do not fully understand that the seas create the conditions that make life possible. Seawater covers 71 percent of the planet, and we often think of oceans only in terms of beaches and fish, said Howard Roe, director emeritus of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, England, and past POGO chair.

“The oceans control the global climate and our weather,” Roe told IPS.

Direct ocean temperature measurements from an array of 3,000 free-drifting “Argo buoys” provides crucial information that enables weather forecasters to make long range predictions, he said.

“Every successful El Nino prediction saves at least a billion dollars by allowing people to react in time,” he noted.

Advance warnings of the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 would have saved thousands of lives and billions of dollars.

A new system of 32 additional Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami stations are to be deployed in the Indian, Caribbean and Atlantic Oceans and would be part of POGO.

“A system for ocean observing and forecasting that covers the world’s oceans and their major uses can reduce growing risks, protect human interests and monitor the health of our precious oceans,” said Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego and chair of POGO