As creatures of the land, humans are a bit biased toward good old terra firma when it comes to the attention we pay to our home planet. We even named our planet after the dirt parts—or maybe we linguistically evolved the non-proper noun “earth” as a synonym for soil because it’s what we called the space rock on which we all live (see also: the ongoing existential litigation in the case of Chicken v. Egg). But really, if we were allocating adoration based on sheer volume, we would all be citizens of planet Ocean.
The global ocean covers 71 percent of the surface of Earth. And yes, despite what you learned in elementary school our planet has just one interconnected ocean that we arbitrarily subdivide into the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, and Southern basins. Our ocean also contains 99 percent of the planet’s livable habitat by volume. It is by far our greatest and the first line of defense against climate change; it has absorbed approximately 90 percent of the excess heat and about half the excess carbon we have emitted since the dawn of the industrial age. In fact, were it not for the climate moderating and oxygen-producing functions of our massive ocean, this planet would not even be livable. It is a critical source of healthy food, global transport, cultural and spiritual value, and it holds 97 percent of global water resources. And, lest we forget, the ocean is the original source of all life.
In short, as a quick scan of any other planet in our solar system will tell you: no ocean, no life.
This year’s Earth Day is notable for two reasons: this is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day celebrated in 1970, and it is taking place amidst a pandemic that has brought the global economy to a virtual standstill. Amid the tragic loss of life and increase of hardship of all kinds for people around the world, we are also witnessing some remarkable snapshots of what a cleaner, more sustainable future could look like on the other side of this event.
Anecdotes from crowded urban areas have shown that in the absence of gridlocked traffic and other industrial activity, the air is cleaner and clearer than it has been in recent memory. People under the age of 30 who live in some areas of northern India are seeing the Himalayas from their hometowns for the first time in their lives. Los Angeles, notorious for its smog, currently has some of the cleanest urban air in the world as traffic has dwindled to nothing on its legendary freeways. And in Venice, Italy, while highly publicized photos of dolphins in the canals turned out to be a hoax, the water is clearer than it has been in decades.
The ocean is also benefiting from this hiatus in human impacts. The massive slowdown of industrial activity has affected every industry, including shipping and fisheries, two of the most significant components of the ocean economy. The price of oil has plummeted, first as a result of a price war between OPEC and non-OPEC producers that just predated the pandemic declaration and has been compounded by the utter collapse of demand.
It’s too soon to know what effect the coronavirus slowdown will have on the health of this blue two-thirds of our planet, but a look at similar slowdowns of industrial activity provides some clues. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when nearly all global shipping stopped, scientists studying whales in the North Atlantic found that the levels of stress hormones present in whale fecal samples dropped precipitously. They traced that cetacean de-stressing to the lack of chronic noise generated by ship traffic.
When the pandemic ends, and society returns to some degree of normalcy, shipping traffic and other marine industries inevitably will ramp back up. But today, on this 50th Earth Day, amidst the chaos and disruption of our daily lives, society has a unique opportunity to cultivate a deeper understanding of the effects human activity has on nature and the chance to consider how we can mitigate those effects going forward. How we can act differently, recognize the value of the natural world, and move forward in this new reality.
And next year, if not two-thirds, maybe we can spend at least half of our Earth Day energy on the one natural resource that makes our planet unique: our shared ocean.