Sean Fleming: The Necessity of Water

Changes across the globe are placing unprecedented pressure on our water resources. Today, according to a United Nations report, more than one billion people do not have access to clean water, and 1.4 billion live in river basins where water use exceeds recharge rates. Another two billion or so water users will be added to the world’s population by midcentury. This population growth, together with expansion of agricultural and industrial production as poorer nations develop, is expected to increase global water demand by a stunning 55% by 2050.

Not only do these factors increase water demand, they also signify greater global exposure to water-related hazards, including pollution and flood risk, as more people settle on floodplains, for instance, and more municipal, industrial, and agricultural effluent is discharged into the environment. At the same time, there is a strong scientific consensus that the net increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is large enough to detectably alter global climate. This can be attributed to activities like massive fossil fuel combustion, industrial livestock production, and widespread deforestation. Current projections suggest that the main hydrological effect for most basins will be to amplify the water cycle, which may increase runoff in many regions but reduce supplies in others. More importantly, it may widely increase the intensity of both the yearly rainy and dry seasons, further increasing flood and drought risks. And river channelization, damming, contamination, and upstream water withdrawals have so degraded aquatic habitat that many freshwater biological populations have collapsed, some species have been entirely extirpated from parts of their home ranges, and others are at risk of extinction altogether. We are facing a dark constellation of regional water resource disasters, growing and coalescing into what appears to be an emerging global catastrophe of human welfare and the environment.

To mitigate the impacts of these changes, we need to invest deeply in a coordinated, broad-based, and large-scale drive to create new science and technology that addresses the needs and aspirations of the current and future global populations in a healthy and sustainable way. Only time will tell which specific directions these innovations will take, but there are a few obvious paths. This includes:

  • Lower-energy, lower-cost, and cleaner desalinization technologies to sustainably extract fresh water from deep aquifers and the ocean
  • Further technology- and policy-driven improvements in the efficiency of water use and, in particular, water distribution systems
  • Public health steps to curb population growth in ways that are new and ambitious, yet fully respectful of individual rights and freedoms
  • And perhaps most importantly of all, improved environmental monitoring and prediction technologies, so we know what’s happening with our water resources today and what to plan for in the future.

There is justification for having faith that we can get real traction on water scarcity. The development of more water-efficient technologies for homes, farms, and factories is an obvious example. Indeed, water use in the United States has leveled off near 1970 rates in spite of both population and economic growth. Granted, unsustainable water practices during regional droughts, such as groundwater mining in California, revealed a chink in the armor. Furthermore, stabilization of water demand seems restricted, at best, to a handful of rich nations. Nevertheless, the overall statistic must be acknowledged as the stunning success, cause for optimism, and clear template for emulation that it is—a shining citadel on the hill, as it were.

Improvements in water quality are another example. Admittedly, over much of the world, rapid agricultural and industrial expansion are making water quality worse, not better. Shortages of potable water due to fecal contamination remains a huge issue globally; in fact, another UN report indicates that inadequate access to clean water kills more people through the associated disease alone than are killed by guns in war. And emerging contaminants, like pharmaceuticals and plastic breakdown products, are an increasingly worrisome threat. Yet improved awareness, legislation, and technology have yielded tremendous gains. The days of rivers ablaze— this happened to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio, which was so polluted with flammable contaminants that in 1969 it actually caught fire—seem to be over. Overall, water quality across the industrialized regions of the developed world is largely much better now than it was, say, forty or fifty years ago.

Another broad reason for optimism is the seeming paradox of water conflict. Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank vice president, famously warned that the wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water. It turns out, though, that water resource conflict and cooperation are surprisingly nuanced. While squabbles abound, actual shooting wars solely over water, even in regions that are both arid and troubled, are virtually nonexistent. And cooperation might be at least as common as conflict.

But with exploding global demand, this all might change.

As water resource pressures mount, our efforts to manage these changes must grow commensurately. And at the heart of these efforts must be good hydrologic science, because without that, everything else will merely be a shot in the dark. Advances are required in two directions. First and foremost is improved ability to monitor water, and associated variables like land use and climate. This will be accomplished by growing our networks of ground observation stations, and by expanding the scope, accessibility, and accuracy of airborne and satellite remote sensing data. The second is to further develop our mathematical modeling and prediction technologies for watershed systems. Data analytics, statistical and machine learning-based prediction, and physical process simulation techniques – rivers in silicon, as it were – are how we test our understanding of watersheds and transform observational data and theoretical knowledge into a scientifically defensible and socially responsible basis for informed predictions and sound advice.

Water isn’t optional. Water is necessary for our very existence, for our continued economic development, and for the health of the web of life that supports us. It’s also limited in its availability, and there are no substitutes for it. Whatever path humanity chooses to follow, it will be up to hydrologists to present society with the options available, and the corresponding pros and cons, for the management of our water resources. And to do that, water resource scientists and engineers need to understand watershed systems in detail, and to accurately, precisely, consistently, and quantitatively predict the impacts on those systems from both natural phenomena and human interventions. Viewed from this perspective, it is perhaps not too dramatic to assert that the future of the world will depend, in a small but real way, on a quantum leap forward in our understanding of the physics of rivers.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University.

Eelco Rohling: A view from the ocean for Earth Day

On April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. Mostly, we use this holiday to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

The oceans cover some 72% of Earth’s surface; this is why we sometimes call the Earth the “Blue Planet.” Yet, in a time when people are talking about “the best deals,” the oceans are getting an extremely shoddy one.

Humanity is stretching the global oceanic ecosystem to its limits. Major impacts come from global overfishing, and from the physical destruction of critical pristine environments such as coral reefs and mangrove coasts. Combined, these reduce species diversity and richness, as well as breeding potential and resilience to disease. Our impacts on coastal systems are also strongly reducing the natural protection against wave- and storm-damage. We’d be wise to be more appreciative of, and careful with, our key food supplies and protection from the elements. After all, with 7 billion of us to feed, and with almost half of these people living within 100 miles from the sea, we have it all to lose.

Yet our deal with the oceans is even worse than that. That’s because the oceans also get to be the end-station for everything transported by water, which includes plastics as well as toxic chemicals. To boot, we have for many decades unceremoniously dumped vast quantities of society’s unwanted waste products directly into the oceans. Although legal frameworks have been introduced to limit dumping directly into the sea, illegal practices are still rife. In addition, indirect dumping via rivers—whether wittingly or unwittingly—remains a major headache.

As a result of our wasteful demeanour, we are leaving a legacy of oceans (and wildlife) that are visibly filling up with long-lived non-biodegradable plastics, which leads to graphic news coverage. In consequence, plastic pollution is now being billed by some as our oceans’ biggest threat today. It’s certainly a very visible one, with up to 240,000 tons of plastic floating in the oceans. And that amount is equal to only 1% or less of the amount of plastic that is available for entering the ocean every year. This illustrates the massive potential for the plastic problem to explode out of control.

Much less visible, but just as devastating, is the pollution of our oceans with highly toxic and long-lived chemicals—especially human-made PCBs and other organic compounds, along with concentrated heavy metals. PCBs are among the very worst threats because they are so long-lived and so toxic.

Some 10% of all 1.3 million tons of PCBs produced have made it into the oceans already (that is, about 130,000 tons). While this is alarming enough by itself, there’s up to 9 times as much waiting to be released and make its way into the oceans. All we can do to stop that from happening, is prevent any stored PCBs from making it into the open environment. So far, this has been done to 17% of the stores, while 83% have yet to be eliminated.

PCBs have become widespread in marine organisms, from coastal and estuarine waters to the greatest depths of the largest ocean: the Pacific. They cause an endless list of severe health problems, deformities, hormonal unbalance, immune-system weakening, cancer, and a decrease in fertility. Like most long-lived pollutants, PCBs accumulate into higher concentrations through the food web. Their accumulated impacts in whales already drive important infant mortality, as females pass lethal amounts of PCBs to unborn or suckling calves.

Nutrient-pollution is another big issue. This may sound like a strange type of pollution. After all, wouldn’t more nutrients just lead to more happy life in the ocean? When nutrients come in reasonable amounts, then the answer is yes. But when the nutrient flux is excessive—we then talk about eutrophication—all manner of problems develop. And the flux of artificial and human and animal waste-derived nutrients is excessive in many estuaries and coastal regions. Together with ocean warming, this has caused a rapid global expansion of regions where decomposition of massive algal blooms strips all oxygen from the waters, resulting in vast “dead zones” with completely collapsed ecosystems.

Finally, there is the sinister, lurking threat of global warming and ocean acidification. The current rate of warming has been successfully documented through scientific study, and is 10 to 100 times faster than ever before in the past 65 million years. Meanwhile, ocean acidification is caused by the oceans absorbing roughly a third of our carbon emissions. By now, the oceans have become about 0.1 pH unit more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution; that is an acidity increase of 25%. Projections for a business-as-usual emissions trajectory show a 0.3 to 0.4 pH unit change by 2100. In humans, a 0.2 pH unit change results in seizures, coma, and death. Fish, and most other vertebrates, are equally sensitive.

If the changes are slow enough, organisms can evolve to adapt. But researchers are very concerned about the extreme rate of acidification. For coral reefs, the combination of warming and acidification is certainly implicated in massive bleaching and die-off events that are going on around the world already. And let’s not forget that coral reefs house one third of all oceanic biodiversity, while oceans cover more than two thirds of the Earth surface.

The Oceans, by Eelco RohlingSo here’s my plea

We really need an Earth Day, but we need an Ocean Day as well—to build awareness about  this critical part of our planet.

At a passing glance, the oceans’ problems remain hidden under a mesmerising veil of waves and reflections. We need to remind ourselves to keep looking beneath the surface, and to keep taking this critical system’s pulse, lest it dies without us knowing about it. Maybe then we will realise how urgently we need to stop using it as a dumping ground and infinite food larder. That we instead should look for sustainable ways forward, not just for life on land, but also for life in the oceans.

Our attitude going forward will make or break society. Chances are very high that a marine mass extinction will drag us, the ultimate overpopulated top consumer, along with it.

Eelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Bird Fact Friday – Emperor Penguins

Adapted from pages 174-176 of Far From Land:

Diving to any sub-surface feast necessarily poses problems. An obvious problem is that, when underwater, the bird cannot breathe and must eke out those oxygen stores with which it submerges for as long as possible. The adaptations that help the diving bird overcome this difficulty has been most extensively studied in Emperor Penguins.

Given its size, and therefore predictable rate of oxygen consumption, an Emperor Penguin could remain underwater for about five minutes if its body processes continued to function as they do when it is breathing air. This ‘limit’ is comfortably exceeded by recorded dives lasting some 20 minutes. Just as a breathless athlete striving for the finishing line builds up lactic acid, so the underwater penguin builds up lactate, principally in the muscles. This is then flushed out when it returns eventually to the surface.

Another key adaptation to diving is a reduction in heart rate underwater, exactly as also occurs in diving seals and whales. Detected via attached electrocardiogram (ECG) recorders, the heart rate of a resting Emperor Penguin is around 70 beats/minute. This value roughly doubles immediately before the dive. If the dive is short, under five minutes, the underwater rate is about the same as when resting. If the dive is long, heart rate drops off dramatically, and may reach as low as three beats/minute. Just before the penguin surfaces, the rate accelerates. It can be around 200 beats/minute when the penguin surfaces and can breathe once more to replenish its oxygen stores.

Emperor Penguins are probably the deepest-diving of all seabirds, sometimes plumbing depths in excess of 500 m in pursuit of fish and squid. Illustration by: Bruce Pearson

Remembering that even in tropical seas, the water temperature below 200 m is probably no higher than 5°C, a further physiological problem faced by seabirds underwater is potentially that of cold. Penguins and auks have tight plumage that retains air close to the skin. This assists heat retention, albeit by creating buoyancy that hinders the downward dive. The situation is different in cormorants and shags. Their plumage is notoriously wettable. Think of the classic pose of a perched cormorant hanging out its wings to dry after a spell of swimming. If the water has reached the skin, the cormorant will have lost more heat than another seabird whose skin remains dry. How they retain heat became evident when European researchers looked at the plumage more closely. All four subspecies studied, living in sub-Arctic to subtropical climes, retained an insulating air layer in their plumage, which was, however, much thinner than for other species of diving birds. Detailed examination of the plumage showed that each cormorant body feather has a loose, instantaneously wet, outer section and a highly waterproof central portion.

Far From Land
Michael Brooke
With illustrations by Bruce Pearson

Seabirds evoke the spirit of the earth’s wildest places. They spend large portions of their lives at sea, often far from land, and nest on beautiful and remote islands that humans rarely visit. Thanks to the development of increasingly sophisticated and miniaturized devices that can track their every movement and behavior, it is now possible to observe the mysterious lives of these remarkable creatures as never before. This beautifully illustrated book takes you on a breathtaking journey around the globe to reveal where these birds actually go when they roam the sea, the tactics they employ to traverse vast tracts of ocean, the strategies they use to evade threats, and more.

Michael Brooke has visited every corner of the world in his lifelong pursuit of seabirds. Here, he draws on his own experiences and insights as well as the latest cutting-edge science to shed light on the elusive seafaring lives of albatrosses, frigatebirds, cormorants, and other ocean wanderers. Where do puffins go in the winter? How deep do penguins dive? From how far away can an albatross spot a fishing vessel worth following for its next meal? Brooke addresses these and other questions in this delightful book. Along the way, he reveals that seabirds are not the aimless wind-tossed creatures they may appear to be and explains the observational innovations that are driving this exciting area of research.

Featuring illustrations by renowned artist Bruce Pearson and packed with intriguing facts, Far from Land provides an extraordinary up-close look at the activities of seabirds.

Sean Fleming: The Water Year in Review

The top five water-related news stories of 2017—and what to expect for 2018

FlemingThe thing about water is that something’s always happening, and the implications of that fact are growing – fast.  What are the top five water-related news stories of 2017?  Read on to see, along with a little context and some implications for next year and beyond.

Oops!  (The Oroville Dam evacuation)

Possibly the most obvious water story of 2017 happened right after the New Year: nearly 200,000 Californians were evacuated beneath Oroville Dam as it threatened to fail under record flooding, which in turn ended a historic drought that had cost the state billions of dollars.  Previously of little note to most living outside the region, Oroville is in fact the tallest dam in the US.  It’s located on the Feather River, a headwater basin to the Sacramento River that drains the western slopes of the snow-laden Sierra Nevada and Cascades in the wet, northern part of California.  Oroville Dam is a key component the California State Water Project, shifting water into the California Aqueduct to help irrigate the Central Valley, which produces about 25% of the food consumed in the US, and to transport water to southern Californian urban centers.  Critics charge that in spite of its size and status as a cornerstone of the civil works in a heavily populated but largely arid state where water is everything, dam maintenance and upgrading lagged far behind, setting the stage for problems.  Record rains in February provided the trigger, and the main spillway failed – which might in turn have undermined the dam as a whole, sending the entirety of massive Lake Oroville downstream all at once in a wave of destruction and death.  Disaster was averted, but the costs were tremendous and the risks were real.  For thoughts on improving America’s river infrastructure, see my recent Scientific American post.

Water goes bang on the India-China border

The most exciting, yet perhaps most under-reported water story of 2017 took place on the India-China border.  A military buildup and tense standoff over disputed ownership of a Himalayan frontier area shared by China, Nepal, Bhutan, and India this summer may have cooled off, but India charges that China followed up by using water as a weapon – withholding key data that India needs to manage lethal monsoon flooding on transboundary rivers.  Violent international conflict solely over water is extremely rare because it usually doesn’t work strategically, though it does happen from time to time.  For instance, in 1965, when Syria was building an upstream diversion of a tributary to the River Jordan that would deeply reduce Israel’s water supply – a catastrophe for a desert nation – Israel responded with air strikes against the facility.  And water has been used as a weapon in wars that were being fought for other reasons: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in China opened the dikes on the Yellow River in 1938 in an effort to hold back the invading Imperial Japanese army. The action was only partially successful and had a disastrous humanitarian cost.  The soaring mountain ranges wrapping around the Tibetan Plateau – including the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayas, spanning China, India, Pakistan, and  several other countries – host one of the world’s largest remaining icefields and are the source of the Indus, Yangtze, Yellow, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Mekong Rivers among others, and thus help provide water to a full quarter of the global human population.  Perhaps nowhere else on Earth is it more important for nations to cooperate over water.

Two inter-state water lawsuits go to the US Supreme Court

The volume was turned up in the country’s water wars, with SCOTUS announcing this fall it will hear both Texas’s lawsuit against New Mexico over Rio Grande water rights, and Florida’s lawsuit against Georgia over the Apalachicola.  Rivers and aquifers don’t respect borders.  The geophysics of where water comes from and how and where it flows is complex, fascinating, and full of surprises, such as flash floods, alternating drought and flood sequences, and abrupt and catastrophic changes in river channel location.  And those are just the natural aspects – the engineering and management part can be just as complicated for some basins, and a high ratio of demand to supply, as we have in the increasingly heavily populated deserts of the Southwest for instance, exacerbates these issues.  Originating from snowy headwaters in the mountains of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande flows south through increasingly arid country and then turns southeastward, forming the US-Mexico border until emptying in the Gulf of Mexico.  Water projects abound on the Rio Grande, and each influences the other in some way.  For example, the San Juan-Chama project diverts water from the Colorado River into the Rio Grande, municipal groundwater pumping in Albuquerque interacts with Rio Grande flows through subterranean geologic pathways, and a series of dams withdraws water from the river for agriculture, reducing what’s left for downstream users.  Water law is complicated.  Texas says New Mexico is taking more than its fair share of Rio Grande water; New Mexico says it isn’t.  The potential for disagreement over water will only continue to grow in the Southwest, though there are success stories as well: after some earlier missteps, Las Vegas has invented one of the most advanced and successful water conservation programs around, reportedly reducing its water consumption by almost a quarter over a ten-year period while its population grew by half a million.

Saying goodbye to the Paris Agreement on climate change

Why is climate change important to rivers?  Lots of natural processes and human activities affect how high rivers run and how much water arrives at your tap, and climate variables like precipitation and temperature rank high among these influences.  While the new administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was obviously a setback for action on climate change, it was also a democratic response to widespread sentiment.  And this fact suggests that explaining climate change may be turning into the greatest science communication failure in history.  As scientists, we clearly need to adjust course – but in what direction?  Consider a recent article by a multi-disciplinary team in the respected research journal, Global Environmental Change.  Applying complex network theory (kind of a mathematical formalization of the seven degrees of Kevin Bacon) to social media feeds about climate change, they demonstrated the dominance of so-called echo chambers, and that constructive progress is made only when groups with opposing views actually talk with each other.  Consider also that populism – which is by nature skeptical around the competence and integrity of designated experts – has been growing over the last decade on both the left and right, as evidenced by the mayoralties of Rob Ford in Toronto and Boris Johnson in London, the Tea Party and Occupy movements, Brexit, and Bernie and The Donald.  If there is a silver lining to withdrawal from the Paris accords, it’s that it may teach us valuable lessons around communicating about climate change: reach out to people who don’t believe us yet, treat them with respect, and focus on just explaining our science.

Houston, we have a problem

Hurricane Harvey hit Houston hard.  In late August, the fourth largest city in the US, with over 4 million residents counting Harris County, was at the epicenter of what some are saying will be the costliest natural disaster in US history.  Though no hurricane is to be trifled with, why was the flooding so intense in this case?  To be sure, the rainfall generated by this particular storm was unusually heavy.  But risk is, by definition, what you get when you take the probability that something bad will happen (like record rainfall under a hurricane) and multiply it by the impact it will have if it does happen (like flooding and the associated economic cost and human suffering).  In the case of Harvey’s visit to Houston, it had a lot to do with local-scale choices that affected the second part of that equation.  In fact, parts of the greater Houston metropolitan area have seen a spate of floods over the last few years, and they weren’t all associated with huge storms.  The region has experienced an explosion of population growth and urban sprawl.  Lots of residences were built in low-lying, flood-prone areas, which is the single best of way of increasing flood risk.  And urbanization – the conversion of wild or agricultural land to rooftops, parking lots, and roadways – is another powerful flood risk factor.  Soils and wetlands hold on to rainwater for a while, and then gently release it to natural drainage systems like aquifers and rivers.  If you pave and build over these things, their ability to attenuate flooding is removed.  While these effects are particularly noticeable in Houston, and especially so when the city gets hit by a major hurricane, they’re ubiquitous; increased flooding in the UK over the last decade has been attributed to exactly the same causes.

What will 2018 have in store for us?  If we can be sure about one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected.  But the larger trends are clear.  Global water demand will increase 55% in the next few decades, urbanization will spread, tens of millions more will congregate in floodplain-located megacities, the climate will subtly but profoundly shift overhead, and cooperation and conflict over water will vie for supremacy.  We can, in short, expect that water stories will make the news with increasing frequency and force.

Sean W. Fleming has two decades of experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors in the United States, Canada, England, and Mexico, ranging from oil exploration to operational river forecasting to glacier science. He holds faculty positions in the geophysical sciences at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. He is the author of Where the River Flows: Scientific Reflections on Earth’s Waterways.

Browse Our Earth Science 2018 Catalog

Our new Earth Science 2018 catalog ranges from the northernmost reaches of the globe to the unfathomable depths of its oceans, while also covering essential techniques and concepts in the fields of complexity and predictive ecology. 

If you will be attending the American Geophysical Union 2017 meeting in New Orleans this weekend, please stop by booth 730, where you can pick up a copy of the catalog in person and see our full range of books in Earth Science.

In the forthcoming Brave New Arctic, Mark Serreze details the history and the science of the precipitous warming of the Arctic, and its potentially devastating consequences for the planet as a whole. Drawing on his own work, as well as that of pioneering climate scientists, Brave New Arctic is a fascinating account of the not-so-frozen North. 

Brave New Arctic, by Mark Serreze

Eelco Rohling’s The Oceans traces the history of the planet’s oceans from the Earth’s formation to the present day, demonstrating the critical role they play in the Earth’s climate system. Concise but comprehensive, The Oceans is an essential introduction to paleoceanography, from one of AGU’s newest fellows.  

The Oceans, by Eelco Rohling

Drawing on simple computational models, Natural Complexity by Paul Charbonneau analyzes the emergence of complex behaviors and structure in natural phenomena from forest fires to epidemic diseases. Including complete source code in Python, Natural Complexity is a straightforward introduction to complexity in all its forms.

Natural Complexity, by Paul Charbonneau

What is involved in making ecology a more predictive science? In Ecological Forecasting, Michael Dietze covers the cutting-edge techniques that are driving modern ecology, complete with case studies and hands-on examples using R.

Ecological Forecasting, by Michael C. Dietze


Eelco J. Rohling on The Oceans: A Deep History

It has often been said that we know more about the moon than we do about our own oceans. In fact, we know a great deal more about the oceans than many people realize. Scientists know that our actions today are shaping the oceans and climate of tomorrow—and that if we continue to act recklessly, the consequences will be dire. In this timely and accessible book, Eelco Rohling traces the 4.4 billion-year history of Earth’s oceans while also shedding light on the critical role they play in our planet’s climate system. An invaluable introduction to the cutting-edge science of paleoceanography, The Oceans enables you to make your own informed opinions about the environmental challenges we face as a result of humanity’s unrelenting drive to exploit the world ocean and its vital resources. Read on to learn more about the ideas in Eelco Rohling’s new book.

How/Why did you become a specialist in past ocean and climate change?
When I was a boy, I actually wanted to become a brain surgeon. But I did not pass the lottery to get into medical school when I went to university. So I thought about what else to study for a year before trying again. I ended up doing geology, and never looked back—I pushed on with that instead of trying medical school again. In geology, I developed a fascination with the past environments in which animals and plants lived that we now find as fossils. So after my BSc, I did an MSc with a major in microfossils and palaeo-oceanography/-climatology, supported by minors in sedimentary systems and physical oceanography/climatology. Things started to really come together when I started my PhD project, for which I started to truly integrate these streams in a research context. That’s when my interest in past ocean and climate change became much deeper and more specific.

Why did you choose to write a book about the history of the oceans?
I discussed a few ideas with my editor Eric Henney, and we gradually brought the various ideas together into this book concept. We strongly felt that the vast existing knowledge about the past oceans (and past climate) needed to be better articulated, and placed in context of modern changes in these systems, and in the life that they sustain.

Why do we need to understand the history of the oceans?
The oceans’ past holds many fascinating pieces of information about how the ocean/climate system works, and how it interacts with life and the planet itself. No other field can bring that information to the table. The oceans’ history also holds important clues about how Earth may recover from human impact, and on what timescales such a recovery may be expected. This brings important context to the discussion about modern human impact.

Does the history of the oceans give any relevant information about their future?
Oh, yes. It illustrates the key processes by which carbon-cycle changes have occurred over Earth history, and whet the timescales were for these changes. It also illustrates which processes we might try to accelerate to drive atmospheric carbon-removal on timescales useful to humankind. Moreover, the history of the oceans provides insight into the developments (and extinctions) of life on Earth, which again gives context about the severity and rapidity of current changes on Earth.

Why does a book about the oceans contain so much about climate?
The oceans are an integral part of the climate system. The climate system is a complex beast that spans the atmosphere, hydrosphere (all forms of water), cryosphere (all forms of ice), lithosphere (the rocks), and biosphere (all forms of life, be it living or dead). The oceans are a vital link in all this, and one cannot talk about ocean changes without touching upon climate changes, or the other way around.

The oceans appear to have gone through very large changes in the past. How do the changes cause by humanity compare?
The human-caused changes are large, but not among the largest that have ever happened. But the human-caused changes are unique with respect to the rates of change: modern changes are 10 to 100 times faster than the fastest-ever natural changes any time before humans appeared on the scene. And, also, human-made changes have significant impacts from many different sides: warming, ocean acidification, physical (e.g., plastic) pollution, chemical pollution, eutrophication, overfishing, etc. Natural changes were not that all-encompassing. So modern changes are very scary in relation to the natural changes that have occurred, even when including major extinction events.

Are humans really causing damage to the enormous oceans and the life they contain?
Yes, for sure.Humans have trouble imagining how their (often little) actions can add up over time, and across the massive population numbers. But we’re on this planet with well over 7 billion people, all of whom at least partly rely on the ocean as a key resource for such things as: dumping waste/pollution from plastics to oil and from radioactive materials to chemical waste and fertilizers; transportation (with spillages), food production/fisheries; war-mongering, exploration/mining, energy production, etc. Added up over our massive human population and increasing technical infrastructure, all of these aspects alone have devastating impacts already, but taken together they are heading down a particularly terminal route.

OceansEelco J. Rohling is professor of ocean and climate change in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

Big Pacific: The deep diving Marine Iguana

From pages 123-124 of Big Pacific:

With 97 percent of its reptiles and land mammals found nowhere else, the Galápagos archipelago has one of the highest levels of endemism — species unique to one place — on the planet. A prime example is the Marine iguana, a landliving reptile that forages underwater for marine algae and can dive more than 9 meters (30 feet) beneath the water’s surface to do so.

Unsurprisingly, this lizard has evolved adaptations to equip it for this amphibious lifestyle, including long claws and strong limbs that help it cling on to the rocks in coastal currents and wave wash.

The Marine iguana of the Galápagos is the only lizard in the world that dives for its food. The post-swim sunbathing they enjoy warms their reptilian bodies, which have been chilled by the cold Galápagos waters.

Although comfortable in the cool Pacific waters of the Galapagos, the iguanas cannot remain long in the water or their body temperature will drop too low. As reptiles they rely on external heat sources, so in between dips they warm themselves by sunbathing on the rocks, their dark skin helping them soak up the equatorial sun. This period of post-swimming lethargy is when they are most vulnerable to predation, but as the iguanas are characteristically aggressive their natural predators are few.

Their main threats appear to be introduced predators such as dogs and cats, and climatic events, such as El Niño, which increase the local water temperature and impact the growth of the algae on which the iguanas rely.

Big Pacific: Passionate, Voracious, Mysterious, Violent
By Rebecca Tansley

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before.

Illustrated in full color throughout, Big Pacific blends a wealth of stunning Ultra HD images with spellbinding storytelling to take you into a realm teeming with exotic life rarely witnessed up close—until now. The book is divided into four sections, each one focusing on an aspect of the Pacific. “Passionate Pacific” looks at the private lives of sea creatures, with topics ranging from the mating behaviors of great white sharks to the monogamy of wolf eels, while “Voracious Pacific” covers hunting and feeding. In “Mysterious Pacific,” you will be introduced to the Pacific’s more extraordinary creatures, like the pufferfish and firefly squid, and explore some of the region’s eerier locales, like the turtle tombs of Borneo and the skull caves of Papua New Guinea. “Violent Pacific” examines the effects of events like natural disasters on the development of the Pacific Ocean’s geography and the evolution of its marine life.

Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers.

Learn more by watching Big Pacific, airing Sundays on PBS Guam and CPTV Spirit. Watch the trailer below:


Big Pacific — The Blue Whale

From pages 77-79 of Big Pacific:

The open expanses of the Big Pacific are home to the largest animal ever known to have existed, the Blue whale. The weight-supporting qualities of water and the bounty of the sea have, together, enabled the evolution of this marine mammal into a gentle giant larger than any terrestrial animal could ever have grown. It is an evolutionary product of our ocean planet. At birth a blue whale can measure up to 8 meters (25 feet) in length and weigh up to 2.7 tonnes (3 tons). Nourished solely by its mother’s fat-rich milk for the first seven months of its life, it can grow up to 90 kilograms (200 pounds) a day so that, by adulthood, it stretches up to 30 meters (100 feet) in length, and weighs up to 200 tonnes (220 tons). Its heart is reputed to be the size of a small car — famously quipped to be a Volkswagen Beetle — although the comparison of such awe-inspiring natural creation with human invention does not, it can be argued, do this miraculous animal justice.

Prized by commercial whalers in the twentieth century, the Blue whale was hunted to the brink of extinction — down to as few as several hundred individuals — until it was formally protected by the International Whaling Commission in 1966. It is still regarded as endangered and scientists are uncertain how well the blue whale populations around the world are recovering.

Blue whales exist in distinct subspecies in the northern and southern Pacific. Largely solitary, they come together in groups for feeding and breeding. They have the loudest, strongest vocalizations of any animal on the planet; their calls, which consist of a series of moans and pulses, can be heard up to 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) away. It is thought this communication helps them find each other across vast ocean expanses.

Big Pacific: Passionate, Voracious, Mysterious, Violent
By Rebecca Tansley

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before.

Illustrated in full color throughout, Big Pacific blends a wealth of stunning Ultra HD images with spellbinding storytelling to take you into a realm teeming with exotic life rarely witnessed up close—until now. The book is divided into four sections, each one focusing on an aspect of the Pacific. “Passionate Pacific” looks at the private lives of sea creatures, with topics ranging from the mating behaviors of great white sharks to the monogamy of wolf eels, while “Voracious Pacific” covers hunting and feeding. In “Mysterious Pacific,” you will be introduced to the Pacific’s more extraordinary creatures, like the pufferfish and firefly squid, and explore some of the region’s eerier locales, like the turtle tombs of Borneo and the skull caves of Papua New Guinea. “Violent Pacific” examines the effects of events like natural disasters on the development of the Pacific Ocean’s geography and the evolution of its marine life.

Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers.

Learn more by watching Big Pacific, airing Sundays on PBS Guam and CPTV Spirit. Watch the trailer below:

Rebecca Tansley & Craig Meade: The Pacific Ocean as you’ve never seen it before

The Pacific Ocean covers one-third of Earth’s surface—more than all of the planet’s landmasses combined. It contains half of the world’s water, hides its deepest places, and is home to some of the most dazzling creatures known to science. The companion book to the spectacular five-part series on PBS produced by Natural History New Zealand, Big Pacific breaks the boundaries between land and sea to present the Pacific Ocean and its inhabitants as you have never seen them before. Providing an unparalleled look at a diverse range of species, locations, and natural phenomena, Big Pacific is truly an epic excursion to one of the world’s last great frontiers. In our latest Q&A, author Rebecca Tansley and showrunner Craig Meade ask each other questions about the series, the book, and the majestic Pacific Ocean:

Questions from Rebecca to Craig

There have been a lot of documentaries made about the oceans and the animals that live in them. How did the Big Pacific idea come about and what new perspectives did you think this series could bring?
It started ten years ago in a late night conversation in France with some of Japan’s best wildlife filmmakers.  We realized that after a thousand years of humanity dominated by the Atlantic and its people that the next thousand years would probably be owned by the Pacific. We conjectured that if we inverted the paradigm and considered the Pacific Ocean a continent, it would already hold many of the world’s major cities: Seattle, LA, Tokyo, Shanghai, Sydney, Taipei.  So what are the natural values of this new continent, what does it say to us, and what does it mean to us? What are its emotional messages? Let’s put a flag in it, explore it and see what we discover about it. So that night we started looking for the defining stories that we should tell of the Pacific Ocean.

The book sections match the episodes of the Big Pacific show – Passionate, Voracious, Mysterious, Violent. How did you come up with these themes and decide to structure the series around them?

To matter, stories must move us, trill our emotional strings. Usually these kind of words are embedded in the undercurrent of the script. Hinted at. But the Pacific is big and bold and we thought our statements about it should be so too. It’s all those things: passionate, voracious, violent and mysterious, but it’s also many other things. So I don’t believe this journey to capture its multitude of faces is yet over. Please let me do the Ecstatic, Selfish and Uncertain shows one day as well!

I talked to crew members about some of the special moments in the series’ production, but which is the most special Big Pacific moment for you, on screen?

The Yellow eyed penguins in the Passionate episode. Less than 4000 adults remain. They are a species that may have just a decade or two left and the cinematographer captured their cold and lonely existence beautifully. It’s not a story of sorrow but one of the bird’s passionate relationship with its mate and family. Like a black and white waddling hobbit he comes home from work and wanders through the mossy forest to the cave they all share. It’s an idyllic glimpse of natural New Zealand and a rare and wonderful animal few people are ever going to see. If they disappear for good from the wild I’ve no doubt this story is the one they’ll play to teach kids what a Yellow eyed penguin once was like.

The Big Pacific series is highly entertaining but also packed with fascinating information – I learned a lot writing the book! In a world of increasing pressure on our natural environment, what is the role of natural history storytelling?

I think it’s increasingly important we do not sugar-coat the truth. We mustn’t be the blind purveyors of a dream while a nightmare plays out in the natural world. So as filmmakers there’s always a tension in what we do. I actually want to bring you a dream so you know why we must protect what we have left in the wild world – but I mustn’t let that dream lie to you and hypnotize you into believing the dream is entirely real. Because in some cases the dream is already over. Like the Yellow eyed penguin story I mentioned, I find myself handling a story as though I am preserving something already lost; instead of revealing something new I find myself working to faithfully capture the essence of what was.

Questions for Rebecca from Craig

The Pacific Ocean is many things to many people: a place, a home, a source of food, a gulf between land masses. How did writing the Big Pacific book change your sense of what the Pacific is to us?

I grew up with the Pacific literally at my front door and I’ve never been far from it for my entire life. It’s been my playground, my pastime and my place of solace. Because of this, for me as well as millions of other people like me, it’s hard to define just what the Pacific means – it just infuses our lives. This is one of the many reasons I was attracted to this project, because of the way it focuses not just on the Pacific’s natural history but on people’s relationship with it too. I hope that comes through in the book, because you can’t separate the animals or the people from the ocean they live in and around. We are, actually, in many ways defined by our place in or on the Pacific. Writing the book reinforced this view and gave me an opportunity to express it.

There are so many evocative images in the Big Pacific book, is there one that you keep on returning to?One animal that you want to meet?

Oh that’s a tough one, because I’m in love with so many of the animals and the images! I’ve always had a strong interest in whales so I find the images of the rare Blue whale captured by Big Pacific Director of Photography, the late and obviously very talented Bob Cranston, mesmerizing. But in the course of writing the book I discovered many other wonderful members of the Pacific community. Among them are the Wolf eels, whose dedication to their partner and to their brood is totally endearing. I love the images of the Firefly squid because they seem so ethereal and their lives are so fleeting, yet nature has nonetheless equipped them miraculously for their short, spectacular journey. Plus I can’t not mention the Chinese horseshoe crab, because they are such admirable survivors. I hope the whole world wakes up to the beauty and value of all the animals that live in and around not just the Pacific but all the planet’s oceans, and recognizes that they deserve their place in it for the future as much as we do.

Natural history stories at their heart are science stories – but with fur and scales. To be enjoyable and understandable they usually require simplification, but still need to be highly accurate. That sounds like a complicated dance to perform when writing, was it?

I’m a storyteller, not a scientist, but like a scientist I’m curious about the world. The process I used for Big Pacific worked well. First I read the (draft) series scripts and watched the Big Pacific footage. This meant I became intrigued with the animals first and foremost as characters, and was drawn into other aspects of the Pacific’s natural history – such as the Silver Dragon and the Ring of Fire – as stories. When I set about writing I drew on the science that was provided to me by Big Pacific researcher Nigel Dunstone. Then it was a matter of asking myself, what do I find interesting about that animal or story that others might also enjoy? What might people not know? What is dramatic about this story? Of course I also ensured I was covering off important information, such as environmental threats and conservation status, and everything I wrote was checked afterwards by Nigel and the Big Pacific team.

You’ve made some fantastic films between your writing jobs, is it hard to transition from the spoken word to the written?  Are they two different crafts?

Writing and filmmaking are related in terms of both entertaining and organizing information for an intended audience, but they do that in different ways and to a large extent employ different skill-sets. Obviously filmmaking is a collective pursuit that usually requires a team of people, whereas writing is a solitary craft. I enjoy both equally and writing/directing my own films enables me to do this. I was fortunate enough to spend time with the Big Pacific team when I selected the images for the book, and also interviewed others, so in this writing project I did get to collaborate. I would add that when I write I’m very conscious of rhythm – an aspect that’s also important to aspects of filmmaking, such as narration and editing. I’m not really musical, but I like to think that I have that sense of linguistic rhythm and flow. Perhaps that’s why I studied languages for many years!

TansleyA documentary filmmaker herself, Rebecca Tansley has previously worked at the production company that made the Big Pacific series, NHNZ. In addition to writing and directing films she has written two other internationally published books and been a contributor to national magazines and newspapers in her home country of New Zealand. Rebecca has degrees in languages, media production and law.

Craig Meade and the production team at NHNZ are some of the most successful and prolific producers of natural history programs on the planet—more than 50 wildlife shows completed in just the last four years. But after 30 years of writing and directing Craig still doesn’t class himself as a wildlife filmmaker—he’s a science guy that prefers mud, tents and mosquitoes to laboratories. When he’s not making films Craig is a deer hunter and an on-call fire fighter.

Join us from February 3 – 8 as we celebrate UnShark Week

What is UnShark Week, you ask?

A birthday held six months away from the real one, is an UnBirthday. So, for the thousands of ocean species that are just as interesting and sometimes more extreme than sharks, we propose the week of Feb 3-8, 2014 as UnSharkWeek.

UnSharkWeek will introduce fans of Shark Week to other extreme forms of life in the sea. There are all sorts of really cool things happening in the harshest environments on Earth, so join Steve Palumbi, one of the world’s leading marine biologists, as he celebrates some of the deepest, fastest, oldest, and just plain strangest creatures found in the ocean.

Follow along here:

For more information about The Extreme Life of the Sea by Steve and Anthony Palumbi or to read an excerpt from the book, please visit this web site: