Updated: Nov 2, 2020
With plastic-free July in full swing (and the ocean being increasingly affected by plastic pollution), I thought I would do a post about the importance of the ocean and the incredible things it does for the world (and us!).
It helps you breathe
Rainforests are often thought of as the lungs of the Earth as they produce 28% of the Earth's oxygen, but most of the Earth's oxygen is produced by the ocean which creates a whopping 70%!! This large amount of oxygen is produced by marine plants like phytoplankton, kelp and algal plankton. These marine plants, like all other plants, photosynthesis. Meaning they turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into food for themselves and produce oxygen as a byproduct (which is great for us!). Prochlorococcus (a type of phytoplankton) is thought to provide the oxygen for one in every five breaths we take - which is pretty impressive seeing as this phytoplankton is so tiny that millions of them can fit in just one drop of water.
Left is a microscope photo of Prochlorococcus (source), Right is seagrass an important marine plant
It regulates the climate
The ocean absorbs large amounts of solar energy that hits the earth's surface, once absorbed the ocean slowly releases the heat back into the atmosphere over many months and sometimes even years. The ocean can do this as water has a high heat capacity, meaning it takes more energy to raise the temperature of water than that of other substances. The top 3 meters of the ocean can store more heat than the entire atmosphere! The ocean then distributes this collected heat across the globe. One of the ways is through ocean currents. Currents act like a conveyor belt by transporting warm water from the equator towards the poles and then brings cold water from the poles back towards the equator. Without these currents, regional temperatures would become extreme, with the equator being super hot and towards the poles being freezing. Currents help to keep more areas of the planet habitable!
Diagram of the movement of warm and cool water across the globe through ocean currents (source)
It supports thousands of species
The ocean covers 71% of the Earth's surface and holds over 90% of habitable space, making it the largest ecosystem on the planet! You may think that the ocean is diverse due to its vast size and therefore its ability to fit a lot of different species in. However, coral reefs cover less than 1% of the Earth's surface, yet sustain around 25% of all marine species, that equates to around 1,000 species per m² - making coral reefs a biodiversity hotspot!
There could still be so much more to discover! The deep-sea occupies 60% of the planet, however, it is largely unexplored especially when compared to other coastal habitats. The deep-seas large area and stability in abiotic factors (sunlight, temperature, water currents etc.) suggest that it could be home to a huge amount of different species - some of which we may not have discovered yet!
Coral reefs are teeming with biodiversity and help to support thousands of different amazing species
It inspires new medicines
Many marine species have evolved to defend themselves and communicate with chemicals, these chemicals could possibly help create an array of new medicines. Marine invertebrates have been shown to produce more anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and antibiotic substances than any other group of terrestrial organisms! Cone snails produce a venomous toxin which they use to kill their prey and in some cases is potent enough to kill a human! A synthetic version of this conotoxin has been developed called Zinconotide and is used as a pain reliever. It is said to be 1,000 times more potent than morphine and can be used to treat chronic pain resulting from conditions like cancer and stage-3 HIV. This is just one example of how the ocean has inspired medicine, it could be used to inspire a plethora of new medicines in the future!
It feeds people across the globe
The ocean provides food for 3.1 billion people, with fisheries accounting for 15% of the world's protein intake. The ocean is especially integral to communities that live close by and rely nearly exclusively on the oceans for their food. Coral reefs alone estimate to feed 1 billion people. The commercialisation of fishing has caused a rapid increase in the demand for fish across the globe. This has contributed to 80% of the world's fish stocks being reported as fully or overexploited. This commercialisation has caused local fisherman to adopt a more invasive fishing style in order to compete, such as cyanide and dynamite fishing which not only decimate reefs but also result in accidental human deaths.
Local communities like the Bajau Laut (left) rely heavily on coral reefs for their food (Check out our blog post on their way of life here)
It transports goods around the world
The ocean is integral in the transportation of goods between countries, with over 50,000 merchant ships transporting cargo across the globe. Marine transportation in the U.S makes up 76% of all their trade and 90% of the World's trade! In 2015 this equated to over 10 billion tonnes of cargo being distributed globally across the ocean.
Marie transportation of goods is important to the connectivity of trade between international countries, however, the increased use of the ocean has caused negative effects on it. Cargos ships release oils and chemicals into the ocean, sometimes accidentally through oil spills or during operation discharges - these two actions are the cause of 46% of the oil entering the oceans. The ships also cause physical damage to the ocean through dropping anchors, hitting larger marine animals and disturbances to wave patterns.
It provides you with your holiday destinations
The ocean is beautiful, both above and below, making it top of the list for people when planning their holidays - with 50% of all tourists travelling to coastal areas! If you prefer diving into the ocean, sunbathing on the beach or even just the ocean breeze there is always something for you to enjoy near the ocean! Marine tourism can cause an influx of economic gain for local communities and create new jobs. Sadly, the negative effect humans have on these beautiful destinations is becoming more apparent. Especially by the increase in plastic pollution along the coasts and in the oceans, 300 million tons of plastic per year ends up in the ocean and 50% of that comes from plastic bags, bottles, plastic cutlery and straws!
It creates millions of jobs
So as you can see the ocean is used in many different ways to benefit us. Alongside these benefits comes the creation of various types of jobs. Marine and coastal environments help to create jobs from fisheries, tourism, travel industry, recreational activities and mariculture - to name a few! Fisheries and aquaculture create 260 million jobs and contribute to around US$100 billion/per year, while marine tourism creates over 200 million jobs and made US$852 billion in 2009. The economic gain from marine tourism trumps that of fisheries and aquaculture, which highlights the importance of protecting these marine habitats that people enjoy so much!
The scuba diving industry is a big part of the tourism industry and creates numerous jobs for people in coastal areas
The ocean provides for us in so many different ways. Sadly, the way we benefit from the ocean is also becoming the reason the ocean is suffering. Through increased populations, the demands in food, the shipment of goods and holiday builds are all increasing as well. It's important that we start to appreciate the ocean instead of taking advantage of it because the ocean can only handle so much and without it, we would be a lot worse off!
(If you want to help reduce your impact on the ocean by reducing the amount of plastic you use, check out our blog posts on none plastic alternatives here!)