How Do We Better Understand the Ocean?

Ocean literacy and ocean education have the power to transform our understanding of the ocean’s contributions to human health and survival. Here we discuss the seven principles of Ocean Literacy and share some perspectives that we can use to expand those principles into a set of curricular approaches that pertain to science, climate impacts and solutions for our future.

Since the launch of the World Ocean Observatory in 2004, I have advocated for the ocean and the fresh water continuum as a means to build awareness, engagement, and support for ocean study, sustainability, and political will. Given the state of the ocean, the challenge remains. The job is clearly not yet done. I ask this question every day:

What will it take to transform our understanding of the ocean’s myriad contributions and its complex relationship to human health and survival?

We will never apply one strategy to successfully meet the strategic demands of so many challenges at so many levels of our ocean world. The problem remains that the ocean continues to decline, and adequate political will for solutions continues to be neutral at best. There is no time to be lost even as we research and investigate more.

What is missing? Education.

Ocean Literacy is a wide-ranging, collaborative and de-centralized effort by scientists and educators to create a more ocean literate society. Launched in 2009 by the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) at the University of California, Berkeley, and NOAA Office of Education, it’s a remarkable initiative which represents the necessary educational foundation for integrated ocean learning at all levels K through 12, to feed the universities and graduate programs, but also to create a global community of informed Citizens of the Ocean.

Those who are inventing and applying marine education curricula in their schools and mission areas are the solution. But consider the barriers to their success: national centralized educational programs that ignore ocean science; administrators frustrated by lack of financial resources; conventional resistance to new ideas; and silo-separation of scientific disciplines.

The hope is to be found in the energy and imagination of individual teachers who have realized that the ocean — the freshwater-ocean continuum — is a living place inside and outside the classroom, for formal or informal learning that represents change itself as an experiential dynamic that students can both study and feel. They can observe and experience the interactions with ocean systems; they can be shown and understand the inter-relationship between physics, chemistry, and biology as working processes before their very eyes.

The designers of Ocean Literacy have reduced the basic understandings to seven principles:

  • Earth has one big ocean with many features.
  • The ocean and life in the ocean shapes the features of Earth.
  • The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
  • The ocean makes Earth habitable.
  • The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
  • The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.
  • The ocean is largely unexplored.

If we can accept these premises, we could lay a solid foundation for any further exploration of ocean issues to come.

I have reduced these to a set of four perspectives by which to apply and expand the principles of Ocean Literacy into a set of curricular approaches that pertain to science, climate impacts, solutions, and a new paradigm for a future built on this knowledge.

  • How Water Works: The Global Water Cycle — Ocean Freshwater Continuum
  • Climate and the World Water Crisis: Water Security, Water Wars, Health Security
  • Water Use, Desalination, Net-Zero Water, Natural Capital, Equity
  • A Future Vision: A New Hydraulic Society — New Values, Structures, and Behaviors

Any build-out of these, whether scientifically or socio-politically realized, might form a basis for an entirely new way to study the ocean, while continuing to explore and learn and search for solutions. Why do we resist seeing it this way? Why not give it a try?

Finally, I have found utility, motivation, and inspiration in one further distillation: The Earth is an Ocean Planet, and every species and every development depends on sustainable water as the one natural resource we all to need, no matter who we are or what we strive to be, to survive. Civilization cannot endure without this source, and the ocean provides a preponderance and surfeit of value if we will only recognize it for what it is. There is a great arc of the ocean and its presence looms over the vulnerable, lesser arc of the land. Is it an inundating wave? Or is it a circle of solace, nurture, and protection? I consider this idea every day, to provide impetus and direction for advocacy and education and inclusion with my family of Citizens of the Ocean worldwide in sharing this astonishing Natural gift on which we must all depend.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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