For something twice as big as all the continents, the ocean doesn't get much respect. A survey of college students starting an "intro to oceanography" course at North Carolina State University polled the kids on what they knew and how they knew it. Only a few had been exposed to any serious education about the ocean before college, and about half the students said that their knowledge of the ocean came from personal experience—going to the beach. These people have already reached voting age, and that oceanography course is their last chance to be taught about the ocean.
Citizens need to be involved in good decisions about the ocean—they need ocean literacy. COSEE, the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, says the goal of ocean literacy is threefold: to understand the science of the ocean, to communicate about the ocean, and to make informed decisions about ocean policy. Fortunately, in 2004 a group of marine scientists and educators determined that what you need to know about the ocean can be summarized in seven sentences. Here are those seven Essential Principles of ocean literacy, courtesy of COSEE.
1. The Earth has one big ocean with many features.
Earth has seven continents, but one ocean. The sea is not a simple thing: it hides mountain ranges with more volcanoes than all those on land, and it is stirred by a system of currents and complex tides. In plate tectonics, the oceanic plates of the lithosphere mix the cold crust with the hot mantle over millions of years. The ocean's water is integral with the freshwater we use, connected to it through the world's water cycle. Yet large as it is, the ocean is finite and its resources have limits.
2. The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.
Over geologic time, the sea dominates the land. Most of the rocks exposed on land were laid down underwater when sea level was higher than today. Limestone and chert are biological products, created from the bodies of microscopic sea life. And the sea shapes the coast, not just in hurricanes but in the persistent work of erosion and deposition by waves and tides.
3. The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
Indeed, the ocean dominates the world's climate, driving three global cycles: water, carbon and energy. Rain comes from evaporated seawater, transferring not just water but the solar energy that took it from the sea. Sea plants produce most of the world's oxygen; seawater takes up half the carbon dioxide put into the air. And the currents of the sea carry warmth from the tropics toward the poles—as the currents shift, the climate shifts as well.
4. The ocean makes the Earth habitable.
Life in the ocean gave the atmosphere all of its oxygen, starting in the Proterozoic Eon billions of years ago. Life itself arose in the ocean. Geochemically speaking, the ocean has allowed Earth to keep its precious supply of hydrogen locked up in the form of water, not lost to outer space as it otherwise would be.
5. The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
The living space in the ocean is vastly greater than the habitats of the land. Likewise, there are more major groups of living things in the sea than on land. Ocean life includes floaters, swimmers and burrowers, and some deep ecosystems depend on chemical energy without any input from the sun. Yet much of the ocean is a desert while estuaries and reefs—both delicate environments—support the world's greatest abundances of life. And the coastlines boast a tremendous variety of life zones based on the tides, wave energies and water depths.
6. The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.
The ocean presents us with both resources and hazards. From it we extract foods, medicines and minerals; commerce relies on sea routes. Most of the population lives near it, and it is a major recreational attraction. Conversely ocean storms, tsunamis and sea-level change all threaten coastal lives. But in turn, humans affect the ocean in how we exploit, modify, pollute and regulate our activities in it. These are matters that concern all governments and all citizens.
7. The ocean is largely unexplored.
Not even 5 percent of the ocean has been explored, and it will be a frontier for centuries to come. As our reliance on the ocean continues to grow, marine science will be ever more important in maintaining the ocean's health and value, not just in satisfying our curiosity. Exploring the ocean takes many different talents—biologists, chemists, technicians, programmers, physicists, engineers and geologists. It takes new kinds of instruments and programs. It also takes new ideas—maybe yours, or your children's.