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Imagine a Life with Clean Oceans

What is the compelling question or challenge?

Given the state of the oceans, the noise, heat, and chemical pollution, and that they are essential for life on earth, how do we preserve, reverse the damage, and utilize the resources of our oceans?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

Oceans cover over 70% of our planet, and the ocean environment is suffering, and we have contributed to their current state. The oceans need our help. We must unite to save our oceans because they support life on land and sea. How can we clean up our oceans, and sustainably develop the resources they provide?

Oceans have been impacted by chemical pollutants from the plastics that form garbage patches, plastic microbeads that ended up in the ocean, oil spills that contaminate the waters, fertilizer runoff, and acidification from CO2. Plastic pollution in the oceans weighs about 270,000 tons and is comprised of approximately 5.25 trillion plastic pieces. Larger pieces of plastic are found to be present in all bodies of water. The ocean currents move the plastic waste from one area to another creating great garbage patches, which become a reservoir for the plastic debris in the oceans. The plastics further endanger animals by entangling them and obstructing their habitats. Also, microbeads, usually manufactured for cosmetic and personal care products, can pass into wastewater, through the treatment screens and be discharged into the sea. Microbeads are usually composed of polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene. They are harmful to the oceans because they are ingested by the ocean life, killing the sea animals.

Oil pollution is created from the human activity of releasing hydrocarbons into the ocean. The residues left in the water negatively affect the marine ecosystem by reducing growth, enlarging livers, changing heart and respiration rates, eroding fins, and impairing reproduction. When runoff water from sewage, urban land use, and agriculture enters salt water areas, the excess nutrients in the runoff can create algae blooms. From this, dead zones are created leading to the absence of life in that specific area. With the fertilizer, the algae grow uncontrollably, uses all the oxygen in the area, dies, and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. Once all the oxygen has disappeared, the waters become a dead zone.

Ocean acidification occurs when CO2 is absorbed by the water forming carbonic acid and decreasing the pH of the oceans, affecting carbonate ion concentrations and calcium carbonate mineralization. Carbonate ions and calcium minerals are essential to ocean life, especially shellfish and coral reefs. CO2 in the atmosphere has increased due burning fossil fuels, and some of the excess is being absorbed by the oceans.

Climate change impacts the oceans adversely because the rising temperature causes the water levels to rise, coral reefs to bleach, and hurricanes to be more forceful. According to the EPA, the sea surface temperature has been on the rise. Oceans have become warmer since 1955 and will continue to increase. With climate change, the ice packs are melting, sea levels are rising, and the oceans are less salty. Also, the higher the temperature of seawater, the stronger the hurricane. As the water vapor from the oceans condense into water droplets, energy is released, fueling the storm. In addition, due to the rise in water temperature, coral reefs release algae that live inside them and turn the coral white, and this bleaching kills the coral.

Noise pollution created by humans also affects marine life. Animals such as dolphins and whales communicate with their own sounds and use echolocation. The introduction of human noise pollution causes marine life to move away from their natural habitats and keep a distance from the boats. Noises underwater travel farther than on land and since marine life depends on sound, the noise pollution disturbs them. The noise pollution causes hemorrhages and damage to marine life ears, increases sensitivity in the embryonic stage, increases mortality at birth and affects the development of the growing species.

The key research questions are 1) How can we reduce the noise, heat, and chemical pollution? and 2) How can we sustainably use the resources from the ocean?

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