BP oil spill: What we're learning about humans and the sea

For centuries, we have treated the sea as limitless resource and a bottomless dump. The BP oil spill may change that.

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    A shrimp boat with containment booms leaves Joshua Marina in Buras, Louisiana, to fight to spreading oil slick. The BP oil spill threatens to create vast submarine 'dead zones' in the Gulf of Mexico.
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“All at sea” is a British term from the era of the long ocean voyage. Once a ship steamed away from port, it was on its own. Who knew what would happen out on the great blue? A traveler lost contact with home for weeks. Clocks were set to ship time. To be all at sea was to be disconnected from the world.

Jet travel and global telecommunications have for the most part put an end to maritime disconnectedness. But the sea remains an alien environment to most of our land-loving species, a place where an old map bearing the legend “here be dragons” still approximates the general view of the ocean as vast and strange.

Whether it is a monster storm brewing in the tropics; a tsunami bearing down on a defenseless coastline; or a maritime drama involving pirates, commandos, or submarines – what happens on the 70 percent of the planet covered by water is rarely as well understood as what happens on land.

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Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad captured the mystery of the high seas in “Moby Dick” and “Lord Jim.” The truth about what occurred on the Pequod and Patna vanished in the inky depths along with the passengers. Far out at sea, people have been known to take the law into their own hands. Or nature can overwhelm them. And even the fiercest naval battle ends with the sea’s surface quietly closing over the fiery wreckage.

Mysterious as the sea can seem, however, we are abruptly learning that it is not a place apart. Complex problems like global climate change, huge floating garbage patches, and now the BP oil spill are affecting ocean ecosystems. Just as our fishing techniques have depleted aquatic life and our exhaust pipes may be warming global waters, our oil extraction methods now risk creating submarine dead zones.

The loss of the Titanic 98 years ago prompted widespread questioning of faith in technology, as did Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. Tragic as these were, however, only a limited number of people were affected. We don’t yet know the long-term effect of the runaway well in the Gulf. Deepwater Horizon may become a synonym for technology triggering large-scale ecological catastrophe.

So is this the moment we say goodbye to hydrocarbons? Probably not any more than we will walk away from nuclear fission or abandon the space program. Technology and safeguards will improve. Engineering will troubleshoot the problem with mile-deep blowout preventers and make them stronger. We will learn to be stewards of the sea as we have gradually learned to take better care of forests, wetlands, and prairies. Land itself once seemed an infinite resource. When a plot was depleted, farmers moved on to another. It took the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to prompt widespread adoption of conservation techniques like contour farming and crop rotation.

The spectacular failure of the Deepwater Horizon may finally produce a shift in our age-old view of the sea. Powerful and big as it is, it is not endless and all-forgiving. Waste dumped into water doesn’t dematerialize just because it sinks below the surface. Fish aren’t indifferent to pollution. With remote cameras and robotic submarines and other sensing devices, we can now see what we have been deep-sixing into the ocean all these years.

Hydrologists have calculated the volume of Earth’s ocean as 1.3 billion cubic kilometers. That is a huge amount of water and space but not an infinite amount. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing tragedy in the Gulf, our next step as a species may be that we realize that the sea cannot be endlessly exploited. The dragons out there are the ones we have created. It is up to us to tame them.

John Yemma is the editor of 
The Christian Science Monitor.

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