A 100% recyclable interview with Oceanographer Sylvia Earle – Part III

(…continues from Part II).

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, in the Gulf of Mexico. (April 2010 photo by US Coast Guard).

Dr. Earle, regarding the BP oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the dispersants that have been used to control it, you’ve said: “If the beaches are the focus of your concern, that’s a good thing. But if you’re looking at the state and the health of the ocean, it’s not a good thing”. Can you expand on that? Are there, at present time, alternative techniques that may be used to control oil spills?

The main thing is to not let it escape in the first place, contain it as close to the source as possible. More attention is given once it has escaped and traveled over many miles than focusing attention right there, using the booms and creating better booms, instead of ones that are low on the water have some that are high enough and deep enough in this case. There’s no precedent for a spill that starts a mile underwater, this is the first ever and it’s not exactly a spill, it’s a gusher. We don’t even have the language in place to define the nature of what has happened here. So that’s the first thing: capture the oil, do not let it get away. At first the focus on the part of BP was stopping the oil but while they were doing that they should have mobilized all the help they could get to contain oil, not to disperse it. It’s specially insidious to put the dispersant five-thousand feet under water, there’s no precedent for that. We’re experimenting with the life of the Gulf of Mexico, a big, deadly experiment. I think that’s inexcusable.

Beyond that, I think with a targeted, almost surgical application of the dispersants when oil is approaching a really sensitive area, you make the trade-off: some things die so other things can live. It’s a judgement call but if your objective is to save the marsh you can in a very specific way apply the dispersants to keep the heavy load of oil from going to the beach or the marsh, or the nesting areas for birds. But to do it in a broadcast way, we’re talking two million gallons of dispersant applied both broadcast at the surface over wide areas of the Gulf and down at the source, that’s hardly surgical application, that’s just wholesale broadcast spreading of toxic material that enhances the toxicity of the oil. By itself oil is toxic, by itself the dispersants are toxic. Together they are even more toxic.

Areas in yellow show full reach of the Gulf’s BP oil spill. (Image by Google Earth and SKYTRUTH).

Oil fields were burned in Kuwait by retreating Iraqui forces during the Gulf War. As Chief  Scientist at NOAA, you were involved in a study to assess the environmental consequences of those actions. Could you share with us some of what you learned from that experience?

It was preparation for what we’ve just experienced in the Gulf of Mexico and for the Exxon-Valdez, another event that I had some experience with when I was the Chief Scientist at NOAA. In fact, in a relatively short period of time about half of the oil typically goes into the atmosphere, the volatile elements. It doesn’t go away, it goes into the atmosphere, it’s relocated. It means that what remains is less liquid, it gets thicker and more dense, and some of those materials survive a very long time, there remains tar-like residue that did not go off into the atmosphere or got broken down by microbes. It’s still there, it’s also true of the Exxon Valdez, if you dig among the pebbles and the rocks in those beaches, deep down you still find raw oil that’s not exposed to the air. In the Persian Gulf, deep down in the sand you can still find oil and it still has an effect on whatever’s there, you can’t just add ingredients of that sort and not have an effect on the chemistry of life.

A Kuwaiti oil field set afire by retreating Iraqi troops burns in the distance beyond an abandoned Iraqi T-55A tank following Operation Desert Storm. (1991 image taken by U.S. Navy personnel, now in the public domain).

So these are not short-term phenomena, they have a long-term signature. And I expect after many decades we will still find evidence of oil in the Gulf of Mexico from this big spill. It’s unthinkable that we would not. Even if we can’t see 75 percent of it any more, 25 percent of it is in the dispersed category, it’s in small droplets, in the food chain, or still moving around in the water column. Some has made its way to the bottom, some is still in the marshes. And that’s still a huge amount of oil, it’s enormous. When you think of the size of it overall, a quarter or half of that is a very big number. We shouldn’t say, “oh well, back to business, nothing to worry about anymore”.

It should cause us to be extremely careful about our approach to fossil fuels. In the end we’re the cause, we who fly airplanes and drive cars and otherwise burn fossil fuels for a source of energy. We have come to a time when we have to think, just as those who were about to run out of whale oil and found, happily for all humankind for a while, oil and gas and coal were there to propel our societies to new levels of prosperity. But now it’s time to look for new ways to propel our societies to not just prosperity, but to a real compatibility with the natural systems that keep us alive. Our future is in jeopardy because of our appetite for fossil fuels. That’s the lesson I take away from the Persian Gulf, from the Gulf of Mexico, from the big spill in Alaska. I have been around long enough to witness the changes in my home, Earth. We don’t have any other places to go, we’ve gotta make our peace first of all with the planet.

Your relationship with technology has spanned your life and career. You were among the first users of the scuba equipment developed by Jacques Cousteau, participated with NASA on the Tektite II project as head of an all-female team, and went on to become a partner in several companies devoted to the development and deployment of deep sea submersibles. You have described the Deep Worker submersible as “the little sports car that I’ve had the pleasure of using during the Nat Geo Sustainable Seas project”. Please tell us, how much fun is it to play with all these great toys? Is having fun an important part of scientific exploration for you?

Ask any kid whether exploring is fun, because little kids are explorers. We’re born curious. Some of us never grow up. They call us scientists or explorers, but we just do what little kids do, keep asking questions and trying to find answers. The technology that is now available enables us to go high in the sky or deep in the sea, to go with ships or submersibles and use new methods. It’s part of the joy of coming along at this point in history. It’s getting better: new tools, new toys, new means of answering questions. And I would love to be able to live for a thousand years, so I can see how it’s all going to come out. But even the next decade or two is going to make a big difference in determining which way we’re going to go. We have the knowledge and the technology, what we need is the will to use it intelligently to ensure an enduring place for ourselves within the natural system that keeps us alive.

You hold the record  for having walked for two and a half hours at a depth of 1,250 feet using a JIM suit, which you have called your “favorite bathing suit”. Under such extreme conditions, that parallel those faced by astronauts during their space walks, are the technical and safety aspects of the mission so overwhelming that they overrule any other thoughts you may have, or is there space in your mind for contemplation, even perhaps for  philosophical insight?

When I use technology that’s new in our time, like the JIM Suit or the Deep Worker, or the russian Mir submarines we’ll be using in a few days to dive into the depths of the great Lake Baikal, I do mind worrying about whether the systems will work and whether it’s safe. I do that on the surface and I check everything out, like a pilot would on an aircraft. I want to go kick the tires, I want to know how you solve the problem if something goes wrong. I prepare in advance to understand all the things you need to do to come back alive and then, once I’m underwater, I just focus on the joy of being there. In the back of my mind I have the preparation and if something goes wrong I’m ready to respond with the necessary steps, just as a pilot would in an airplane. And whether I’m driving the submarine or whether I’m a passenger, it’s that preparation of knowing what to do that causes me not to worry. I just go down and have the best time in the world, enjoying the view and the opportunity to explore.

JIM suit being deployed. (Photo by NOAA)

Your achievements are so many that one may be tricked into forgetting to ask you about things still to be done. Could you please give us a peek into some of your future projects? 

I’m much happier talking about the future than the past because that’s what’s really exciting, the past is always building what’s coming next. Two major things: trying to be a voice for the ocean and to communicate to others what I’ve come to understand in my lifetime. I’ve had the chance to see things that not too many people have. Astronauts, when they come back from the sky, want to tell people what they’ve seen. I feel the same way having been down in the deep ocean, to share the view and the perspective. So to communicate that knowledge is part of this and to inspire people to go see for themselves. That leads naturally to wanting to take care of the natural world, land as well as the ocean, to find the ways and means to inspire individuals, communities, countries, and internationally to establish protected areas in the waters of the world and on land. We need to do everything we can to protect the systems that keep us alive. So that’s probably my number one goal.

In addition to that we need the new technologies. I find it very frustrating that only once in history have people been to the deepest part of the sea, and it’s only seven miles down. Only seven miles. We fly high in the sky, millions of people do that all the time. But only two people have gone to the deepest part of the ocean in 1960, that was fifty years ago. We’ve lagged behind, and it has cost us dearly that we have neglected the ocean. It’s paid off handsomely that we have invested in the skies above, in the technology to give us satellites and astronauts and space stations, but we’ve missed out on this part of the solar system, this part of the universe that just cries for attention.

The ocean is in trouble, the planet is in trouble, we’re in trouble, and we’re not really paying attention. So we need the technology to explore. We need submarines. We need people to grow up wanting to be aquanauts, not just astronauts, and then making it happen, and dedicating themselves to taking care of the world that takes care of us. So I’m working on trying to develop new submarines, new technologies, and then to inspire people to go out and use them.

You have logged over 6.500 hours of underwater activity, which is roughly equivalent to 9 months, the time it takes a human being to develop from conception to birth. It has taken you, a highly dedicated human being, an entire life of underwater exploration to log the hours it takes to bring a single human into this world, which in turn happens millions of times a year. Does this bring any thoughts into your mind?

Here’s the thing: we all live in what amounts to compressed time. I personally have witnessed geologic change in the decades I’ve been around. So children today are seeing this accelerated change. Anybody who was born anywhere in the 20th century has witnessed change that no generation before the present time has. And the pace is picking up. I think the ability to be a witness to this accelerated change is part of the reason for hope. You don’t have to read in books, or learn from your grandparents, “oh, you should have been here when there were birds darkening the skies, you should have seen the fish back when…”.  We, in just a few years, have seen the loss of so much, so fast. The melting of the ice on the Arctic and the Antarctic, the inability to find some of the creatures that once were common, that’s happening on our watch. Even youngsters today are seeing the change in coral reefs or places on land that they’ve known. You don’t have to do a lot of explaining, because we see it by living.

I think that’s reason for hope, it’s easier to convince people that the planet is in trouble than it would have been fifty years ago. And maybe it’s taken this incubation period for me over many years to put some of these ideas together, but it makes me even more emphatic and aware than those who haven’t seen quite the sweep of change that I have. But I feel it in my bones, having been a witness over a period of time when nobody thought that there were limits to what you could put in and take out of the ocean, to now when almost everybody gets it that there’s some problems, and maybe we need to do something. We’re at least that far along, and that’s cause for hope. And I’ll do whatever I can to use the experience I’ve had and convey it through what I write, and mainly to try to get others to go see for themselves, so they can feel what I feel, not just know what I know.

This stunning photograph shows the plumes trawlers leave behind as they get

This amazing image by Google Earth and SKYTRUTH shows the plumes of disturbed ocean floor left behind by shrimping trawlers.

Sometimes a simple image may have the strongest impact on a person’s mind, and I’m thinking of the satellite shots you project in your lectures, showing the huge plumes of sediment that trawlers leave behind as they plough the ocean floors for shrimp. If we had to cut this interview down to just one final thought, what concept would you leave us with?

I think it’s a common message: the planet is in trouble, therefore we’re in trouble. Our fate and the ocean, our fate and the natural world, are one. Everything we care about, our economy, our health, our security, life itself, is anchored in taking care of the natural world, and we should use all means at our disposal to make that happen. People come with different talents, people ask me, “what can I do, the problems are so big and I’m just one person“, and I say, hold up the mirror, look at what your talents are. Some people write, some people are teachers, some people are moms or dads that can take a kid and explain at the earliest possible age their connection to nature. Take them out and get wet somewhere, see the world through the eyes of a child.

What’s the world going to be like in twenty, thirty, forty years? It’s up to us to determine that. We write the script for the future of the world. We’re one species but we have a disproportionate power over everything else. Our real challenge should be to be empowered, and to realize that we could be the generation that future generations will salute and thank for being so smart, for keeping the options open, protecting what’s possible, restoring what we can while we can, while there’s still time. And I think there is still time, but we just have to hurry.


Please visit Sylvia Earle’s website, Mission Blue, to learn more about the condition of the world’s oceans and how you can make a difference.

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