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Planet Earth is Also Planet Ocean

February 07, 2013 | By Dina Buck

Here at The Pachamama Alliance, we talk a lot about terrestrial biodiversity, so we thought we'd switch gears and share this TED video about life within the vibrant salty water that covers 71% of our planet, and plays such a leading role in planetary ecological balance.

As TED Talk presenter Paul Snelgrove says, "Arthur C. Clarke probably had it right when he said that perhaps we ought to call our planet 'Planet Ocean'."

So Important, So Unknown

In addition to driving the hydrological cycle, and storing enormous close to half the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere, the single ocean (with its many named parts) harbors an enormous amount of the planet's biodiversity, yet we know embarrassingly little about it, and little about aspects of the ocean itself.

For example, Snelgrove notes that the deep-sea floor covers more of the surface of the Earth than all other habitats combined.  It's the largest habitat on Earth, yet we know less about it than we do the surfaces of the Moon and Mars. And Snelgrove estimates we know only around 9% of the species that live in the ocean.

Learning About the Ocean's Many Gifts and Treasures

To somewhat remedy this dearth of knowledge about ocean biodiversity, Snelgrove headed a decade-long Census of Marine Life aimed at better understanding he diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life. The project involved 2,700 scientists from 80 countries, 540 expeditions.

Their endeavors revealed over 6,000 potential new species, and helped identify "hot spots of diversity" that will be key to include in conservation efforts.

Among their findings was a yeti crab that lives near ocean floor vents in boiling temperatures; a Jurassic shrimp thought to have gone extinct 50 years ago; a seven-meter big fin squid; beautiful 3 meter tall golden V kelp that eluded scientists despite growing just below the low-water mark off the coast of Alaska; and a tiny creature that lives in oxygen-poor sediments in the deep Mediterranean, contradicting our belief that all life needs oxygen to live.

And did you know...?

  • Half of the oxygen we breathe is produced by the plankton in the ocean.
  • Phytoplankton strongly influence cloud formation.
  • One drop of sea water contains up to 160 different microbes, and it's estimated the ocean contains at least a billion different kinds. What they're all doing there, we don't yet understand.
  • We know fish species better than other species in the ocean but, extrapolating from current rates of discovery, there are between 1,000-4,000 more species we are unaware of.
  • Loss of certain species in the ocean ranges from 60-98%.

Changing the Game

Symbolizing our general treatment of the ocean, Snelgrove says that trawls used in a section of the deep sea, which is supposedly the most pristine environment left on Earth, collected more garbage than ocean dwellers. He says, "As the oceans go, so shall we." So here are some things we can do:

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