Get to know the ocean
The seafloors of British Columbia behold amazing mysteries. But how well do we really understand their significance? What can we learn from underwater volcanoes, bubbling vents, the large patch of warm water three times the size of our province known as the Pacific “warm blob,” or even from an octopus defending its garden?
Wednesday, June 8, is World Oceans Day — a day all British Columbians, and indeed Canadians, should pause to think about and celebrate. Although the day’s title implies several oceans, in fact, they are all one world ocean.
Canada is surrounded by ocean on all three coasts, giving it the largest coastline in the world. In British Columbia, this translates to a whopping 27,000 kilometres of coastline. And, while we generally understand our deep reliance on our ocean, for generations now we have placed greater emphasis on exploring outer space than on unlocking mysteries of the deep, right here at home.
Fortunately, this is changing. We are comprehending the role the ocean plays in our daily lives, impacting everything from our weather to our health and the economy. A little over a decade ago, Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), then a fledgling national research centre seeking to increase understanding of our ocean, made history by installing the world’s first interactive, real-time portal into the Salish Sea. This little piece of big science allowed scientists, educators, policy-makers and the public to “enter” the ocean from anywhere, at any time, through the Internet.
A decade later, ONC is the hub behind the world’s largest and most advanced network of undersea observatories, with more than 1,000 kilometres of seafloor cabling supporting hundreds of sensors. Every day, data are pouring in from locations pivotal to British Columbians: from the Salish Sea to the Georgia Strait, and from Barkley Canyon to Juan de Fuca Ridge. These data are accessible to scientists and students across Canada and the world, and are helping to unlock centuries of mysteries in ways that translate to everyday needs. This really is cool science, but why does it matter?
For one thing, we are learning more about the impact of warming waters right here at home, including the profound, weather-related economic impact. We already know the global ocean provides continuous protection from the worst impacts of climate change on the planet by capturing 50 per cent of the excess heat generated from greenhouse gas warming and over 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, even with the ocean’s help, planet Earth still has a fever, where 2015 was the warmest on record, and 2016 is on target to knock that record right out of the park.
Why did this occur? Could it be our ocean reached the threshold in the protection it has been providing? We believe we found some answers through the monitoring of a patch of water in our own backyard. Dubbed the warm blob, and located between B.C. and Alaska, it has grown to be more than three times the size of B.C. since it was identified in 2013.
At 200 metres deep, and with a temperature 2.5 degrees warmer than normal, the warm blob is linked to dramatic weather changes over the last 18 months that have contributed to draught in B.C. and California and raging wildfires across Western Canada, including the recent devastating fires in Fort McMurray and the Northwest Territories. We study events like the warm blob so that we can use this knowledge to better predict extreme events and their impact on weather. With this new knowledge, innovators, policy makers and managers can take action to mitigate negative impacts.
The ocean is one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, yet despite covering 70 per cent of our planet, there are still miles of the deep begging to be explored and understood. On this World Oceans Day, let’s work together to #knowtheocean so that it can continue to protect us for millennia to come.
Dr. Kate Moran is president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, a research initiative led by the University of Victoria.
Ocean Networks Canada invites the public to join them in in their upcoming expedition, Wiring the Abyss. Join live, June 12-26 at oceannetworks.ca/expeditions/2016.