There is very little about Harvey Mudd College that stirs up thoughts of the sea. The dry, hilly surroundings suggest we are much more than an hour from the ocean. But descending the staircase to Galileo Hall at nightfall, the first thing that catches your eye is a Romanesque fountain that calls to mind the presence of waves--it is the visual equivalent of putting your ear to a conch shell. The romantic feeling this evokes is all the more ironic because most oother places at the college have an ostensibly utilitarian atmosphere. It suggests that in spite of the complex science we have built around its study, the ocean still holds mystery.
Most of us have a very finite perspective on the sea. We think of it from above the surface. Our point of view sits on the beach or rolls tumultuously in a ship. Rarely do we experience the ocean from below, so it’s hardly surprising that the average person doesn’t worry about its health. It looks just fine from up here. But there are people who are looking harder, whose gaze is fixed far below the surface. These scientists, including Dr. Jeremy Jackson, know an entirely different story.
“This is a very scary time. A terrifyingly scary time,” Dr. Jackson said towards the beginning of his talk at Mudd.
The title of the talk, “Brave New Ocean,” makes it sound like the ocean has reached some new and fascinating evolutionary phase, but in fact, the title alludes to Huxley’s classic dystopian novel. Dr. Jackson is saying something that we don’t expect to hear from a scientist. It’s something we’d expect to hear from the likes of Al Gore: the ocean is dying, we’re killing it, and it would take a global overhaul of awareness and policy change to even just maintain it at its current damaged state.
Now sixty-five, Dr. Jackson began studying the ocean in his twenties. He’s one of the few people who has seen the large-scale changes in the global ecosystem with the expertise to explain them. He talks about estuaries in the Jakarta, San Francisco, and Chesapeake Bays, the green turtles of Central America, and the coastal fish population of Key West, Florida.
He tells us that the swaths of bleached coral are the only remains of once-vibrant and living parts of the sea. The ocean’s flora and fauna seem to have disappeared while we weren’t watching.
Meanwhile, the ocean depths are becoming a toxic wasteland. Eskimo women’s breast milk is considered toxic by the EPA and wild salmon have become a major source of land animal poisoning, but these are just small pieces of evidence. The point is not even about what we’ve already lost; it’s about everything we have left to lose. Overfishing, destruction of habitats, introduction of non-native species, warming and acidification by carbon dioxide, eutrophication, and slime buildup are all contributing, and most of us don’t even know what we are doing.
However, in an age where our egregious sins against the planet are becoming abundantly clear, this comes as little surprise.
One species that is doing well in spite of all of this is the jellyfish. In fact, Dr. Jackson predicts that this opportunistic species will be among the few that survive the final destruction of the ocean ecosystems. They are the “rats and cockroaches of the ocean.” This “brave new ocean” will be stratified like the Black Sea, and a dead zone will surround the coast. Jellyfish will be virtually all that is left.
Dr. Jackson tells us all this in the short span of an hour, and concludes with a tone of distinct remorse: “we tend to think that scientists are enough; that we will ride out on white horses and discover the truth and everyone will listen to us.” It seems as though he already knows that the cause is lost.
There is an inevitable sense of irony as one of the obscure scientific community’s most distinct ocean researchers reads what could amount to a eulogy of the sea, at a relatively unknown college. Afterwards dessert is served in the lobby, and only one or two Kuwaiti students stay behind to speak to Dr. Jackson. Even among a specialized and interested community, his message seems to fall on deaf ears.