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40% of Oceans Are Significantly Affected by Human Activity Pollutants

Comprehensive marine map of human activity shows 41 percent of the world's ocean are heavily affected

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2008 Ocean Map Shows Ecosystem Degradation

Ocean map shows marine pollutants
Marine ecosystems worldwide have been widely affected by human activities.
Credit: NCEAS
What happens in the vast stretches of the world's oceans - both wondrous and worrisome - has too often been out of sight, out of mind.

The first comprehensive map of earth's marine environment shows that human activity has heavily affected 41 percent of the world's ocean-covered area, and few if any areas remain untouched.

The atlas was presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This ocean pollutants map was compiled by combining impact data for 17 different activities, ranging from fishing and commercial shipping to pollution and climate change. Impact Categories includes different kinds of fishing, inorganic pollution, invasive species, nutrient input, ocean acidification, oil rigs, organic pollution, ocean-based pollution, population pressure, shipping, and climate change.

Ecosystems included in the data included: beaches, coral reefs, rocky reefs, hard shelf, hard slope, deep hard bottom, intertidal mud, kelp, mangroves, surface waters, deep waters, rocky intertidal, sub-tidal soft bottom, soft shelf, soft slope, deep soft Benthic, salt marsh, seagrass, seamounts and suspension-feeder reefs.

Coral reefs, continental shelves and the deep ocean were the hardest-hit ecosystems.

The biggest human impact is in the North Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Caribbean and North America's East Coast. The least-affected areas were largely near the poles.

The scientists voiced particular concern about the seas of the Arctic and the Antarctic, which are currently the least-affected areas of the world's oceans. The least impacted areas are largely near the poles, but also appear along the north coast of Australia, and small, scattered locations along the coasts of South America, Africa, Indonesia and in the tropical Pacific.

"For the first time, we have produced a global map of all of these different activities, laid on top of each other, so that we can get the big picture of all the impacts humans are having," Ben Halpern, the study's lead author, told journalists Thursday.

That big picture looks considerably worse than previously thought, said Halpern, who is an assistant research scientist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, or NCEAS, based at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"This new picture of ocean warming reveals a far greater degree of local ... variation in temperature anomalies than previously recognized or even anticipated," Bruno said.

To gauge that varying effect, scientists broke the ocean into millions of square-kilometer cells. Then they calculated the combined impact for each cell, based on the formulas in the computer model. That produced a "human impact score" for every square kilometer of the ocean. Finally, they checked the predicted impact against previous studies to make sure their model was a close match for the actual data.

Halpren said the areas where humans were judged to have medium high, high or very high impact added up to 41 percent of the total.

They acknowledged that the computer model was incomplete: On one hand, the apparent impact on coastal areas could have been inflated because of the way separate impacts were added up. On the other hand, the model didn't account for impacts ranging from unreported fishing to atmospheric pollution. A member of the research team from Stanford University, said the model would be refined and updated as more readings become available.

Ocean's Dead-Zone Spreads into the California Current Ecosystem

Ocean degradation was documented by another study appearing in Science: Oregon State University zoologist Jane Lubchenko and her colleagues reported that an oxygen-poor "dead zone" off central Oregon's coast was spreading into the California Current ecosystem.

Updating previous studies of the dead zone, the researchers said oxygen levels had fallen to virtually nil, and they reported the "complete absence" of fish from rocky reefs. They said the zone's degradation seemed to be accelerating. Halpern and his colleagues said their database could be used to track further degradation — or improvement — in the global ocean environment over the years to come. NCEAS is making the maps of human impacts available via an the

NCEAS' Halpern said the news wasn't all bad. "Small patches of these low-impact areas exist around the planet," he said. "Almost every country has some of these in their backyard, providing real opportunities for effective management and conservation in these areas."

Second, the data summarized in the map provides critical information for evaluating where certain activities can continue with little effect on the oceans, where other activities might need to be stopped or moved to less sensitive areas, and where to focus efforts on protecting the last pristine areas. As management and conservation of the oceans turns toward marine protected areas (MPAs), ecosystem-based management (EBM) and ocean zoning to manage human influence, the researchers hope their study will be useful to managers, conservation groups and policymakers.

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Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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