Scientists Map Ocean Damage A new map of the world's oceans shows that human activity has dramatically altered areas of Europe's North Sea and the U.S. Atlantic Coast, among other regions. Scientists say it has the potential to change the way we view the vast resource.
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Scientists Map Ocean Damage

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Scientists Map Ocean Damage

Scientists Map Ocean Damage

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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World maps can give us a good idea of how people have shaped the land by showing roads, canals and cities, but the same maps often leave the ocean nearly blank.

Now, a group of scientists has created a new global map that leaves the land blank and highlights how human beings are shaping the ocean.

NPR's John Nielsen has this report.

JOHN NIELSEN: Scientists like Ben Halpern think a lot about the ways in which mankind has changed the oceans of the world, for instance, by polluting them or by catching too many fish. But Halpern also knows that for a lot of people, this is a problem that is out of sight and out of mind.

BEN HALPERN: You fly across the ocean in a plane, and you're on the plane for 12-15 hours and all you see is ocean. And you're thinking, my goodness, this is huge. How can we possibly be having an impact on such a vast resource?

NIELSEN: Halpern works at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. In the journal Science, he a team of ocean experts have just published a dramatic-looking attempt to focus attention on what people are doing to the oceans.

Essentially, it's a colorful and complicated map that highlights everything from ocean dumping to warming waters linked to climate change. Pristine areas are shown in blue. Yellow and orange patches show parts of the ocean that are under stress.

HALPERN: And then some bright red hotspots which are the most impacted areas on the planet. And that's where a culmination of human activities, from shipping and fishing and climate change and land-based pollution, are all coming together in culmination to make things really bad.

NIELSEN: Halpern says the reddest of these red zones tend to be near big cities and crowded coastlines. These are the spots for fish that are hard to find and underwater landscapes tend to be mangled. Divers know these places when they see them, he says.

HALPERN: Things just start to look kind of gray because they're dying or they get overgrown by weedy algae that are generally not wanted or not healthy for the ecosystem. It starts to look unhealthy, basically, especially if you have a sense of what it's supposed to look like, which is lots of species.

NIELSEN: According to the map, the most disturbed ocean areas include Europe's North Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Persian Gulf, and the part of the Atlantic near the East Coast of the United States.

Big blue bands of healthy waters are found near the poles, smaller zones of healthy waters are found almost everywhere

HALPERN: Most countries have some of these little patches of very low impact that are probably not pristine but are getting close to be in a really good condition. And that gives us hope that we can try to focus on these areas to make sure they stay in good condition, and awfully give us the sense of what the ocean probably should look like if we want to try to restore some other areas that aren't in as good a shape.

NIELSEN: Halpern says his map is far from definitive. It was assembled data provided by the United Nations, the U.S. government and research who filled out Internet questionnaires. But it left a lot of gaps.

For instance, the team lacked key information on the amount of fish and other sea life killed and thrown away by fishing boats. To fill in some of those gaps, they use computer models to guess at what they'd find in some parts of the ocean.

But fisheries biologist like Larry Crowder of Duke University in North Carolina, say this map could change the way people see the oceans. He compares it to the famous photos of the Earth taken from space by Apollo astronauts in the late 1960s.

LARRY CROWDER: That put everybody on the same page. And now, we live on a little blue dot. What this global map does, even the bold attempt to put it together, says, you know what, the ocean isn't infinite, and we can take too much out and we can put too much in. We can damage this system on which we all depend.

NIELSEN: The team the drew this map is now attempting to develop much more detailed regional maps that might be used to help predict emerging threats to places like the waters off the coast of California.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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