Today is World Oceans Day, an annual event celebrating our oceans and raising awareness about their important role in our lives. This year’s theme is ‘Healthy oceans, healthy planet’, and a particular focus is being placed on the threat of plastic pollution to the world’s oceans.
The growing problem of plastic pollution was highlighted in a 2009 issue of Philosophical Transactions B, ‘Plastics, the environment and human health’. The issue, which was guest edited by Richard Thompson and colleagues, looked at the consequences of the increasing accumulation of waste plastic in all areas of the environment, including the ocean. A more recent review in Proceedings B focusses on the ecological impacts of plastic debris.
Other research from Thompson looks specifically at the problem of microplastics in the ocean. A considerable proportion of manufactured plastic appears to be unaccounted for in tracking surveys, and in a 2014 article published in Royal Society Open Science, he shows that substantial quantities of this missing plastic may have accumulated in the deep sea as small fibres, although the environmental impact of this is not yet known.
There are of course other threats facing the planet’s oceans, and climate change is one significant cause for concern. A recent Philosophical Transactions B theme issue on ‘Ocean acidification and climate change’ looks at the impact that rising temperatures and CO2 levels are having on marine biodiversity and ecosystems, while other research published in Royal Society journals focusses on the effects they are having on reef-building coral and phytoplankton.
The ocean is also an important regulator of the Earth’s climate. Last year, Philosophical Transactions A published an issue that investigates the role that the Southern Ocean plays in the Earth’s climate. Its large area and unique geometry make it a vital, yet poorly understood, component of the climate system, but rising CO2 levels could be affecting the way in which it helps to regulate climate.
Understanding the properties and dynamics of the ocean can require observations over years or even decades, as many changes take place over extended periods of time. Such sustained observations require long term commitment from both the scientists that do the work and the funders that pay for the work. The contribution that UK sustained observations of the ocean have made to science and society has been summarised in another issue of Philosophical Transactions A. The research includes long term observations of sea level, ocean circulation, biodiversity, ocean carbon and nutrient cycles, the sea and ice conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic and the importance of observations for climate predictions.
World Oceans Day also provides the opportunity to reflect on the diverse range of life that exists in the ocean, and a great deal of research is going into understanding the movement and migration of marine life around the ocean, as summarised in this editorial in Biology Letters. However, our favourite marine creature we’ve covered recently has to be these giant clams in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Their reflective cells act as a kind of sun-screen; protecting the animal’s tissues from damage from the intense solar irradiation which they are exposed to in the shallow tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean. They can also redirect solar photons deeper into the clam tissue, a discovery that might even provide a blueprint for improving the design of lightweight, flexible, low-cost plastic-based solar cells.
Our oceans are still full of surprises with new marine species being uncovered all the time. Earlier this year an article in Royal Society Open Science described a spectacular new seadragon species which the authors Josefin Stiller and colleagues, discovered off the remote Recherche Archipelago in Western Australia, in slightly deeper waters than the other two known seadragon species. Phyllopteryx dewysea n. sp., commonly known as the ruby seadragon due to its striking red colour, is named after Mary ‘Dewy’ Lowe. The authors cite “her love of the sea and her support of seadragon conservation and research, without which this new species would not have been discovered”.
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