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Wonderful Water World

By (September 1, 2008) No Comment
Ocean: Our Water, Our World
By Deborah Cramer
Smithsonian Books, 2008

It’s an oddly scientific assertion: there are miracles all around us. When harried people complain about the various famines gripping parts of the world, science can remind them of the world’s fecundity. When sympathetic people bring up killer earthquakes and mudslides, science points out regions of picturesque topography. When worriers warn about ozone depletion, science counters with ozone protection. And the best of these reminders are made in tones of wonder, rather than scolding, and their gist would sound like this:
“What you all have to understand is how beautiful a world this is. It’s got the perfect spot in what is turning out to be a fairly commonplace solar system (smaller, denser planets closer in, larger gas giants and inert rocks further out, plus lots of orbiting debris): it’s close enough to the sun to allow seasonal variations of very comfortable but not life-stripping warmth, it’s got a slow enough rotation and orbit to allow for climatological consistency, it’s protected from most debris impacts not only by its layer of upper atmosphere but also by its extremely large moon. Thus protected, this planet’s biosphere is explosive with life, life in every miniscule crevice of the planet. Even in the ocean’s deepest depths, which have never known sunlight, life has developed in the superheated toxins of ocean floor caldera. Life has been almost entirely exterminated by various catastrophes many times in this planet’s history, and it always springs back, in infinite variety. No, the only proper response to the unending wonders of this world is gratitude.”

Surely no modern-day organization has been more active or more vocal in expressing that gratitude than the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., and to coincide with their opening of Ocean Hall, a grand new Natural History Museum exhibit-space dedicated to the greatest of all Earth’s welcoming natural phenomena, Smithsonian Books has published Ocean, another in their oversized and gorgeously produced companion volumes. This one is written with an almost poetic power and simplicity by Deborah Cramer, and it’s replete with the most visually arresting array of photographs even the greediest reader could want. This is a big book to be put in the cabin of every sailing vessel in the world, to wile away the off-watch hours – and it will be just as spell-binding in landbound houses, propped open on coffee tables for every wanderer of the imagination to soak in. The large spread of maps in the rear of the book are produced by Collins Bartholomew Ltd, and the volume’s vast number of photos take the reader down to the sea’s deepest depths and along all of the estuaries and waterways of the surface, constantly displaying the glories of a water world that may be in danger of losing those glories to an uncertain future.

That uncertain future is a constant refrain in Ocean. Cramer has done her research, and she has many dire facts to relate about the damages being done to this most fundamental of all resources – in fact, it’s a measure of her essential optimism (and the optimism of the Institution) that the whole length of the work isn’t one long dolorous cautionary tale of human excesses and depredations. Mankind in the last two hundred years has depleted the ocean of its incredibly rich bio-diversity and poisoned large tracts of its expanse, and the process is only increasing in modern times. “We humans” Cramer writes, “measure our time in hours, days, months, and years – a span so short it has been difficult to grasp that we may be initiating earth’s sixth mass extinction.” The numbers are, as always, sobering:

Giant marsupials and giant monitor lizards (twice the size of Komodo dragons) vanished follow[ing] our earlier settlements in Australia. Mammoths and mastodons, giant bears, saber-toothed cats, and elephants once roamed America; their disappearance coincided with our arrival thirteen thousand years ago. In the eighteenth century, the Bering Sea was filled with herds of Stellar’s sea cows. European hunters extirpated them in twenty-seven years. One summer day in 1844, Icelandic hunters killed the last great auks, large, flightless seabirds that once numbered in the millions. When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he hunted the Caribbean monk seal, the sea’s only native seal. It was last seen in 1952.

The whole length of the book isn’t consumed with such dark warnings. Instead, the tone struck throughout is one of possibility, of rejuvenation. The Institution’s new Hall isn’t meant to be a mausoleum; nature’s capacity for renewal is virtually limitless:

When fishing is curtailed before a population completely collapses, fish can recover. Overfished seas refilled twice in the respite forced by two world wars. When a lawsuit forced the closure of parts of Georges Bank in 1994, scallop beds were rejuvenated, growing, within four years, to fourteen times their density before the closure. Haddock experienced an exceptional year on Georges Bank in 2003. Record numbers were born, and enough survived so that if they are allowed to spawn repeatedly, they can rebuild the population. On the Pacific Coast, strict management has returned once-depleted Alaskan wild salmon fisheries to health. Perhaps it is time, before the rest of the sea is emptied, to let it rest and renew itself. Our own health and prosperity depend upon it.

This note of interconnectedness is important to Cramer – the first lesson here, she insists, is that the world’s oceans are not some educational display cut off from their spectators but rather an integral part of their world, even in every landlocked corner:

Opening and closing ocean basins rebuild continents, and the remains of those that dwell in the ocean are recycled into seafloor, raised into mountains, and then washed back into the sea to nourish another generation of plants and animals. Flowing currents send rain to dry land and bring nutrients from the depths to build vast food webs and fertile fisheries. We are far removed from the invisible plants that constitute the sea’s primary producers, but we cannot live without them. The sea is our lifeline, and we are its partner.

These invisible plants would be invisible even if were right on top of them: they are the descendants of the ancient chlorophyll cyanobacteria whose processing of sunlight for hundreds of millions of years eventually gave Earth’s atmosphere its remarkably high oxygen content, thus making life as we know it possible. Venus, Mars, and (as far as we know) the larger moons of Jupiter and Saturn had no such bacteria (or lost them a long, long time ago), and as a result, are lifeless. Earth has had them almost from its fiery inception. Bacteria are incredibly hardy – although not immortal, like viruses – and were able to thrive under the worst conditions a newborn world could throw at them. And Earth has them still:

In today’s ocean, modern descendants of these bacteria, Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, are the smallest known marine microbes. Each a hundredth of the width of a strand of human hair, they are minimalists with the fewest genes of any organism that captures energy from sunlight. Small in size but great in number, they are the most abundant photosynthesizing organisms in the sea. Hundreds of thousands of them fit in a spoonful of seawater.

Cyanobacteria blooming in the Gulf of Finland

Cramer underscores their tenacity with illustrations from the very latest deep-sea explorations:

If deep-sea hot springs were the beginning, the dawn of life occurred in a dark inferno. Near the roots on the tree of life are ancient heat-loving bacteria, Archaea, whose descendants still thrive in the sea’s scalding hydrothermal vents. Medical instruments typically autoclaved at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius) are sterilized, killing all bacteria known to humans. Strain 121, a bacterium recently plucked from the fluid of a North Pacific black smoker [a deep-sea vent of superheated water] named Finn, is an exception. After twenty four hours in this hellishly hot water, Strain 121 doubles in number, its tenacity restructuring our understanding of the kind of extreme environments that harbor life.

The sheer abundance of the life that arose from primeval bacteria like Strain 121 is mind-blowing, and it’s here in particular that Ocean excels: its hundreds of photos are a stunning, unforgettable portrait of a world bursting with life in millions of shapes and sizes. The most delicate crustaceans and the greatest of the great whales drift before us almost as though we were actually with them, and since the cameras don’t shy away from images of mass-nettings and illegal slaughters, a reader can’t help but wonder how much of the astounding panoply before his eyes is assembled here for the last time. As Earth’s population grows, harvesting of the seas increases to such levels that even short-term sustainability begins to look impossible (and that’s not even taking into account the poisoning of many freshwater sources by runoff of agricultural fertilizer). The situation was bad enough when stocks were still plentiful, but they are no longer so, and humans regularly net and keep sea species they would once have discarded. If there are krill-burgers in mankind’s future, how can there also be baleen whales?

It’s a question of stewardship, as Cramer underscores throughout by stressing one fact again and again: by preserving the seas, we are preserving ourselves. Life on Earth is inextricably caught up in water, in the flow of water and its various states and gifts. The history of Earth’s water has therefore fundamentally shaped the history of Earth itself:

Before there were many continents, earth’s volcanoes erupted in the sea, spewing hydrogen and hydrogen sulfide that consumed oxygen produced by marine bacteria. As continents grew, the number of continental volcanoes increased. These volcanoes, erupting at higher temperatures, emitted gas that didn’t react with oxygen, allowing it to accumulate in earth’s atmosphere.

Kavachi Volcano, located off the coast of the Solomon Islands

Mankind has reached a point in its technological development (and its sheer numbers) where it can radically affect this most basic interchange, this ocean-pump that makes all life on the planet possible. Cramer emphasizes (and Ocean’s pictures illuminate repeatedly) the enormous – and enormously beautiful – complexity of that organic interchange. These are processes most of us never think about, and yet they have driven our planet’s bio-engine for billions of years, through upheavals and near-extinctions and countless permutations of life:

In the howling winds, bitter chill, and rough waves of Arctic and Antarctic waters, seawater begins to freeze. Thin icy slivers turn to a slurry that soon hardens into thick floes. Though the sea is salty, sea ice is fresh. As seawater crystallizes, the salt stays behind, turning the water below to brine. The brine, dense and cold, sinks and spreads throughout the world. The routes of deep currents are many and varied, and the distance they travel is thousands of miles. From their place of birth in remote polar seas, deep currents fill the world ocean, accounting for 90 percent of the sea’s flowing water.

Humans have always had an ambiguous relationship with the sea: it is both storehouse and catastrophe, both servant and divinity. For millennia, mankind has plundered the bounty of the oceans with no thought for the day when that bounty would eventually run out. Civilizations rose through their partnership with the ocean; trade flourished and cultures migrated along the sea-lanes between land masses. World wars have been fought (and are brewing in the present) in part over nations’ desire for access to the sea as avenue for war and commerce. But Cramer and the designers of Ocean want to supplant or rather deepen this traditional dichotomy; they want to alert their readers to the fact that the world’s oceans are neither infinite nor replaceable. And more than this, they want to show us all that there really is no dichotomy, that in fact the thing we’re despoiling and ransacking – and the thing we could ultimately save – is our own home:

We did not descend from ray-fins [in the Devonian Period]. Our lineage goes back not to them but to lobe-fins, fish with fleshy fins. These were the animals that walked from the sea and ultimately gave rise to mammals. Terrestrial lines of human evolution – from amphibians to tiny shrewlike mammals, to apes, and then to humans – did not begin at the edge of the sea. Our origins are oceanic, and we are highly specialized fish.

Ocean is a marvelously produced gift of a book, an eye-opening tribute in words and pictures to the greatest of all this planet’s many natural wonders. Its eventual effect is to reaffirm our opening statements: Earth is a place of miracles, where life abounds even on the sunless ice-cold bottoms of the seas, even on the slopes of blisteringly hot subsea vents – a place that seems to welcome life, in a way utterly foreign to every other planetary body we know of. The fundamental point here is one books like Ocean only further illustrate: we were never expelled; we are still living in Eden. What we choose to make of it is up to us.

Ben Soderquist lives in Lewiston, Maine. This is his first published work.

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