Oceans, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea… Part III

Kate Chopin

 

“The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation. The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.” These lines, with the sea as a symbol, are from Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” a famous classic novel of last century. Modern woman’s independence, solitude, self-discovery, intellectual maturation and sexual desire and fulfillment – almost all concepts, the story tries to delve into are contained in this one small passage and symbolized so profoundly by sea.

Throughout literary history, authors have used the symbolism of ocean to create desired effects. Starting from Samudra Manthan written by Vyasa in Bhagavad Purana from Indian mythology to Homer in Ancient Greek poetry, to Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling and Rabindranath Tagore and even Harivansh Rai Bachchan, every littérateur is inspired by this charisma of oceans. Human responses to the sea can be found not only in literature but also in other art forms like art, painting, poetry, film, theatre, and classical and contemporary music.

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In earlier articles, I had mentioned that marine pollution had reached unprecedented heights and shipping industry is one of the partners in this crime. We, therefore, need to understand this issue well. As said then, we will dwell more on Marine Pollution in forthcoming articles, but before diving deep into it, we will see details of a plethora of ecosystem resources and services offered by oceans and how our survival entirely depends on them. We often take these services for granted because of our ignorance about their importance.

For example, oceans’ functioning as a biological pump, a process that has been going on for millions of years and continually cycling nutrients between atmosphere and sea-water. The biological pump, simply put, is the ocean’s biologically driven process of absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), transforming it partly into oxygen and depositing rest to the deep sea, which is also called as carbon sequestration. To clarify this further, minute marine organisms called phytoplankton closer to sea surface absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. With the help of sunlight, by photosynthesis, they convert absorbed carbon dioxide into oxygen and simple sugars. Oxygen is released into the atmosphere for us to breathe and tiny marine plankton consumes sugar, a form of carbon. These infinite number of plankton, fall o deep ocean floors and also become food for smaller fish (and other sea organisms) to start oceanic food chain. Living organisms on land do not have gills like fish but have lungs to breathe oxygen. Ever since life evolved on land millions of years ago, the oceanic biological pump is supporting it by producing sufficient oxygen for this life to breathe and survive.

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piechart oxygen producers

This same process also creates food for smaller fish and small sea animals, which are eaten by larger fish and which are further consumed by even bigger predator fish like whales or by human beings. This process is an oceanic food chain. Similar to carbon sequestration, other types of phytoplankton and algae process nitrogen and sulfur (nasty greenhouse gases also contributed by shipping vessels). They use sulfur to the order of 20 to 50 million tons a year to produce dimethyl sulfide, which helps seed clouds (essential for rainfall) and cool the atmosphere – one more critical service of the oceans to humanity.

There is a study which shows, around half of all carbon dioxide produced by humans since the industrial revolution is dissolved into the world’s oceans. The researchers say the oceans’ service of removal of the carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere, has slowed global warming considerably. Oceans service of supply of fresh oxygen is also of paramount importance. Without any doubt, removal of carbon dioxide and supply of oxygen is a great service to humankind. But with increasing human activities, increasing use of fossil fuels and increasing global warming, oceans’ chemistry is changing. Ocean waters are acidifying. These phenomena are impacting their capacity to function as biological pump adversely.

Biological pump is a global oceanic process. For us in India, we have another regional marine process called monsoon, a tropical phenomenon. Weather pattern of monsoon involves moisture-laden winds blowing from the southwest, from the Indian Ocean onto the Indian landmass, from May through September. These winds bring rain to most parts of the Indian subcontinent. Oceanic features, especially of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea influence behaviors of monsoons. And therefore, the well-being of these waters around us, take care of the well-being of Monsoon. Because of its effect on agriculture, on flora and fauna, and on the climates, monsoon’s economic, social, and environmental impacts are most significant. It is, therefore, well tracked and studied weather phenomena in our region. With increasing pressures on oceans, changing climates, warming of Indian Ocean region, we are observing changing patterns in monsoons. This variability is further expected to intensify in coming years and may influence our economy adversely.

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As stated before, oceans offer us a super abundance of resources and services. Oxygen production, nutrient cycling, water transport, climate regulation, maintaining a comfortable atmosphere, providing a medium for world trade, beach tourism, provision of raw materials for food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries, provision of fossil fuels, sand, gravel, coral, and mineral… this list is unending. Without oceans, life, as we know, would cease to exist.

Oceans’ health is not in excellent condition. From plastic bags to pesticides – most of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches oceans, either through deliberate dumping or from run-off through drains and rivers. We need to understand this in far more details.

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To mitigate this curse, we now will have to dive much deeper into this topic… or as Harivansh Rai Bachchan has said in Hindi in his poem

तीर पर कैसे रुकूँ मैं, आज लहरों में निमंत्रण
प्राप्त हो युग की उषा चाहे लुटाती नव किरन-धन
तीर पर कैसे रुकूँ मैं, आज लहरों में निमंत्रण!

How can I wait on the shore when waves themselves have invited me? Let me have a new dawn of the era, spreading around the new wealth of light…

Milind Joshi

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