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Oceans in Deep

Steve Hovan and Katie Farnsworth

Steve Hovan and Katie Farnsworth. Photo: Keith Boyer

When Deepwater Horizon, an oil-drilling platform off the coast of Louisiana, exploded in April, the world followed media coverage of the initial deaths and the ongoing damage caused by up to sixty thousand barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day.

Oil-coated marine life, idled fisheries, and scared business owners whose livelihoods depended on tourism to the coast were familiar scenes in the news.

After months of cleanup and soon after operator BP’s capping of the wellhead in July (the well was declared dead in September), some reports stated that only a quarter of the oil was left on the water’s surface. But many scientists who study the ocean remain concerned about the effects that have yet to be seen—in parts of the ocean we know little about.

As part of the cleanup, BP released, by its own reports, well over a million gallons of chemical dispersants into the water to break down the oil into small droplets that could be more easily consumed by bacteria. The move was controversial, as the long-term effects of the dispersants on aquatic life are unknown and the dispersants sent much of the oil to deeper levels of the ocean.

“We have underwater plumes of oil and disaggregated droplets of oil that are going to remain in the ecosystem for a number of years,” said Steve Hovan, professor of Geoscience at IUP. “We don’t really know the impact of that yet.”

Chart of ocean depths: Click for full-size image.

Chart of ocean depths. Click for full-size mage.

Depending on the time it takes these substances to degrade, generations of organisms could be affected. “All the chemicals in the water, either directly associated with the oil or dumped in the water to disperse the oil, are likely to be incorporated in body tissue and likely to be concentrated as the food chain feeds higher up,” Hovan said.

Adding to the uncertainty is the lack of knowledge about the ecology and environment of the deep ocean itself, Geoscience professor Katie Farnsworth said. “We know more about the moon than we know about the deep parts of the ocean.”

Hovan and Farnsworth do, in fact, know quite a bit about the ocean. Hovan’s research has been mainly in the equatorial Pacific, where he has been part of expeditions that collect sediment from the ocean floor to improve understanding of the climate system on Earth and better predict future climate changes.

resolution honolulu

The U.S. component of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, the JOIDES Resolution as it departed Honolulu in May 2009 for an expedition in the equatorial Pacific.

Farnsworth, who has done most of her research just off the West Coast, has a special interest in the connection between land and ocean. She studies both where the sediment from rivers ends up in the ocean and what toxins, pollutants, and other substances it carries with it.

“We know more about the moon than we know about the deep parts of the ocean.”

The contrast in their research has led to quipping between them about how she is shallow (she works in shallow water) and he is deep. She is young, studying sediment dating back 15,000 years at most, and he is old, collecting dust that is hundreds of millions of years old. Call it oceanographer humor, but their research has the serious mission of unraveling the history of the planet.

A serious matter made worse by the Gulf oil spill is the stability of Louisiana’s coastline. Farnsworth, who became familiar with the area while studying the Mississippi delta as a graduate student, thinks the state may be fighting a losing battle.

Stave Hovan

IUP Geoscience professor Steve Hovan examines the components of a sediment sample onboard ship.

The part of Louisiana extending into the Gulf, Farnsworth explained, was created by sediment from the flooding of the Mississippi River. Historically, natural compacting of the delta was offset by the addition of new sediment.

In the late 1800s to early 1900s, as levees, dams, and reservoirs were added to control flooding and facilitate traffic on the Mississippi, the delta was no longer accumulating new sediment, but it was still compacting. Because sea level is rising naturally, parts of Louisiana are being inundated by the ocean.

Louisiana’s only hope for avoiding coastal erosion had been its marshes, or bayous, Farnsworth said, but the oil spill has since compromised the health of those marshes. “It’s like plants in the backyard holding a hill in place: If the plants die, there’s nothing to hold the hill anymore,” she said. “Sea level is changing faster than the marsh can recover. The shoreline was in danger before the spill, and this, I think, may have tipped it over the edge.”

“From a resource standpoint, the ocean is an important component of what we are as humans.”

One realization that may have been sparked by the Gulf spill is the role of the ocean in our lives. Nearly half of the Earth’s inhabitants live within 150 miles of a coastline, largely because of the history of transportation and trade. The ocean is also a crucial supplier of food, rocks and minerals, recreation, and energy.

“Just about all of the oil and natural gas comes from oceans directly or indirectly from ancient ocean deposits,” Hovan said. “From a resource standpoint, the ocean is an important component of what we are as humans.”

Based on his research, Hovan has another take on the ocean’s significance: its role in changing climates. “Not only does the ocean respond to climate change, there are many instances in the geologic past of how the oceans have caused climates to change. Studying the oceans and trying to understand ocean history is significant, because it has the potential to either magnify or minimize climate changes caused by humans and greenhouse effects.”

The JOIDES Resolution approached a storm at sunset.

The JOIDES Resolution approached a storm at sunset.

On a typical research expedition, Hovan may be at sea for seventy-two days and not see another soul aside from the people on his boat. Because of the vastness of the ocean, it’s hard for even Hovan to imagine that humans can have much effect on it.

But, there are observable changes to the global climate: for example, there is far less ice in the Arctic than there was twenty years ago. And marine life, too, has been affected: Manmade chemicals can be found in any wild salmon or tuna caught in the ocean, and some fish species have become commercially extinct due to overfishing. “That’s when you realize that humans have a huge impact on the oceans,” Hovan said.

That impact becomes even more obvious the closer one gets to land. Heading back from his expeditions in the Pacific, Hovan observes signs of approaching land, in this order: He smells the land. He sees more dust in the air. He smells vegetation and begins to see it in the water. He sees trash floating in the water.
The dumping of trash into the ocean has been a major contributor to assertions within the scientific community that the ocean is in danger.

For years, the mindset was “dilution is the solution,” Farnsworth said. “If you put something in the ocean, it gets dispersed by the wind and the waves.” But the problem is growing, she said, with trash, toxic materials, and sewage. Even the United States pumps sewage directly into the ocean.

Although dumping trash into the ocean is no longer legal in the U.S., many countries have no such regulations. “The great thing and the bad thing about the ocean is that it’s everybody’s,” Farnsworth said.

Countries own economic rights to two hundred nautical miles off their shorelines. Beyond that is the high sea, which the Law of the Sea suggests is controlled by the United Nations.

“In the deeper ocean, there’s very little real control that we have,” Hovan said. “One of the problems that needs to be addressed before you can deal with the health of the oceans is who has control over them.”

Regulations on fishing and dumping are critical to improving ocean health, Farnsworth said. “But, you need planetwide buy-in, and that’s an extremely hard thing to get.”

Effect of deep pressure on Styrofoam cup

When Styrofoam is lowered deep into the ocean, it shrinks under the water pressure and does not refill with air. For that reason, participants in research expeditions often decorate Styrofoam cups and send them down with the drilling equipment, so they have a souvenir from the trip. Steve Hovan, during an expedition in the Northeast Pacific in September, sent a cup for IUP Magazine to a depth of 1,379 meters, or 4,524 feet. Water pressure at this depth is about one ton per square inch. The larger cup in the photo had been identical in size and design. Photo: Bill Hamilton

Something as small as reducing personal trash could make a difference, she said. Anything dumped in a river anywhere in the United States, except for a small part of Nevada, could end up in the ocean. (Pennsylvania’s waters drain into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. A continental divide is located in northern Indiana County.)

Another problem, the depleting of fish species, could be offset by harvesting fish that reproduce more frequently, Farnsworth said, and avoiding species like Chilean seabass, for example, which doesn’t start to reproduce until nearly age twenty and would have more difficulty replenishing its stocks.

Improving the health of the oceans, even if we don’t have a right answer, can best be achieved through education, Hovan said. “Once we’re better educated, we make better decisions about uses, controls, and regulations.”

Education was, in fact, Hovan’s purpose on his most recent research expedition in September—his fifth aboard the JOIDES Resolution, the drill ship that is the U.S. component of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

Rather than spending his days analyzing kilometers of sediment cores, as he has in past expeditions, Hovan in September was one of four educators in a teacher-at-sea program in the Northeast Pacific, off the coast of Washington. While the expedition’s scientific mission was to study methane deposits, a potential energy source, Hovan was giving informal educators, such as museum directors, an overview of ocean drilling and why it is important.

Such strides in education, regulations, monitoring, and personal responsibility, Farnsworth believes, can save the world’s oceans. “Nature is amazing and resilient,” she said. “But, if we keep going on business as usual, they won’t be the same oceans we’ve come to expect. It will be a different world out there.”

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