‘The ocean is more political than it ever has been’
A senior American marine expert is alarmed by misinformation about climate change and by weak leadership, but he refuses to give in to pessimism
A boy plays on rebar being used to build a new sea wall to replace one that failed during last year’s king tide in Betio, a town on the island of South Tarawa in Kiribati, whose fate in the face of climate change is so precarious that the government is effectively planning its own demise. Photograph: Josh Haner/New York Times
Craig McLean, deputy assistant administrator of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, at the Marine Institute’s Our Ocean Wealth Conference in Galway. Photograph: Andrew Downes
Planet Catastrophe is not always a good headspace to occupy for long. So when Massachusetts Institute of Technology atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon was able to confirm last month that the seasonal hole in Antarctica’s ozone layer had begun to shrink, it was the sort of news that put a spring in the step of Craig McLean, assistant administrator at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Even as international scientific comment rushed to caution that the positive results from the Montreal Protocol – phasing out the use of ozone-damaging chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs – would not solve the more complex issue of climate change, McLean agrees that Solomon’s research constituted a “bright spot” in collective international action.
The diver, zoologist, survey ship officer and, latterly, marine resource lawyer is an advocate of “bright spots” – small, but significant steps towards addressing global environmental issues.
“I can’t be a pessimist, because if you are a pessimist you give up,” McLean told me in Galway, where he was a keynote speaker at the the Marine Institute’s Harnessing our Ocean Wealth Conference and associated SeaFest, which attracted some 60,000 people.
“What I am optimistic about is human beings turning their attention to these problems, once fully informed of their scale and scope,” he says, acknowledging that the scale of misinformation is still disturbing, even in “progressive societies” such as his own.
“When you have the pope pronouncing – for some people that takes care of the God questions,” he says, but he is concerned about a lack of political leadership and “complete information”.
“Of course, in terms of the rates of change we are seeing on planet Earth, I am remarkably alarmed,” he says.
“The breakup of the Arctic and the migration of ecosystem components is remarkably destabilising,” he says. “And we are now only measuring the consequences – ocean acidification being one, measuring greenhouses gases being another,” he says.
“More answerable and immediate is where, and how much, ocean acidification is taking place, and what thermal changes are occurring as a result of moving boundary currents due to redistribution of heat on the planet,” he says.
“Once we understand those, we can be forecasting and predicting more accurately for society and make informed decisions as to where we rebuild the next flooded city, and where we invest in infrastructure to make our coastal and even inland communities more resilient,” he says.
He and his colleagues regard themselves as “being responsible for generating environmental intelligence effectively”.
“And from environmental intelligence comes the ability of society to make informed decisions – be they legislators or the reinsurers,” he says, the latter group ultimately influencing policy due to the high cost of climate degradation.
Key to that environmental intelligence is the need to map the world’s oceans, he says, and he cites Ireland’s national seabed survey as an international model.
“The reality is that the world is getting smaller and we are now, at UN level, talking about sustaining biodiversity at areas beyond national jurisdiction,” he says.
“We started off with three-mile limits and a general admonition not to bump ships into each other, then we got to setting 12-mile zones, and then the UN Law of the Sea agreement set 200-mile exclusive economic zone rights over resources,” he says.
“We now have the technology, and the means, to be involved in deep seabed mining, extracting from areas beyond any one jurisdiction, and we also have the potential to harvest biological components from deep sea areas for biomedicine,” he says. “This makes the deep blue ocean more political than it ever has been.”
Ocean change Closer to shore, mapping as part of marine spatial planning could avoid conflicts and “might make right” situations in coastal communities, he says.
“And it is not just a question of where we put aquaculture, renewable energy and suchlike, but what it could look like in 20 or 30 years, when we have ocean change faster than ever before.
“Much of our existing mapping is based on single-beam bathymetry, whereas we now have access to multibeam bathymetry, the cost of which is falling all the time,” he says. “In other words, it is the land equivalent of a tourist relying on a map of Dublin that doesn’t include the detail of Dublin Castle.”
“Mapping is not just physical lumps and bumps on bottom, but also the various attributes in the water column and seawater itself, the temperature and distribution of species, macro and micro, and understanding the total construction of this ecosystem,” he says.
“We are running to play catch-up as we haven’t a fully qualified inventory of the world’s oceans, and it is changing right under our feet.”
FLIGHT MH370: THE MYSTERIES OF THE SEAFLOOR
When the Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared shortly after taking off from Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in March 2014, few could have believed that the fate of its 239 passengers and crew could still be a mystery more than two years later – in spite of several sightings of debris.
Craig McLean of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, below, says that this crash serves as “a proxy for what we don’t know about the ocean environment”.
During the international search, a commercial company deployed “pretty sophisticated equipment in an area that was 5,000m-capable. But it turned out it was 7,000m depth of water in a very cavernous and rocky environment,” he says.
“No one had the reconnaissance survey of that area – no one had a base map – and so they even bumped some of the highly expensive equipment into a peak under the sea.”
Only 5 per cent of the seafloor has been surveyed to modern standards. Collaborative mapping of the Atlantic is one of the priorities of the Atlantic Ocean Research Alliance, which the US – through McLean and NOA – is involved in, along with Canada and the EU states. The Marine Institute, promoter of the 2013 Galway Statement, which formed the alliance, takes a lead co-ordinating role.
McLean is committed to data sharing within the public domain and counters claims that mapping is a prelude to “resource grabbing”.