Sea Change

My dad navigated merchant ships across the high seas long before his profession became dependent on satellites and GPS. All Karel Houtman needed to know his location was a clear sky, a sextant and a chart. He always felt more comfortable at sea than on land and would steer his way unerringly across the nearly 5,000 water-to-the-horizon miles from Oakland, California, to Yokohama, Japan. For him, driving from home to the grocery store along streets crowded with cars and traffic signs was a journey through a strange land.

Stranger still might be the notion that he could sail on an ice-free Arctic Ocean. As the summer ice pack thins and shrinks, scientists suggest that may be possible in a few decades. Some think it will take less than 10 years.

Karel grew up in The Netherlands and liked to watch ships steaming out to sea. He was less than a block from his California home when he died of a heart attack in 1990. If I could talk to him today, I would tell him of other changes to our oceans: more than half of the world’s monitored coral reefs dead or in decline; coastal regions beset by low-oxygen and increasingly acidic water; legendary fisheries that pale against their former abundance; rising wave heights and sea levels that threaten the foundations of coastal communities and ports.

Because I work at a university that focuses on solutions, I would also tell him about signs of hope: research partnerships among scientists, fishermen and government agencies; marine protected areas across the world; recovering whale, seal and sea lion populations; visionary national leadership based in science and collaboration.

It takes a lot more than a sextant to navigate through these and other challenges. As stories in Terra demonstrate, ocean-observing technology has advanced beyond anything my dad could have imagined. With access to up-to-the-minute information about ocean conditions, fishermen will be able to make a living and avoid threatened fish populations. Shippers can save fuel by running with ocean currents and not against them. Engineers will be able to design structures that protect public safety.

If we had a GPS to show us the way, we would probably hear that familiar refrain: “recalibrating route.”

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