Plumbing the depths: the battle for the oceans

Saturday 17 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Conservatory, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

With the world’s population expected to reach nine billion in 2040, and perhaps as many as 11 billion by 2050, demand for resources will increase significantly. One of the possibilities being actively explored is how the world’s oceans, which cover 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface, could help meet the future demands of society.

For example, fish and other seafood are important sources of nutrition, providing one sixth of all the world’s protein. There are also minerals and metals extracted from the sea. At present, 60 per cent of the world’s magnesium is extracted from sea water. Phosphates, crucial to agriculture, could one day be extracted from deposits in shallow marine environments as land-based resources dwindle. Substantial supplies of energy could be provided from methane hydrates trapped beneath ocean sediments, with a Japanese project aiming to make these commercially viable by 2016. The oceans could also house offshore windfarms without disrupting the landscape, while the windier conditions at sea should provide more reliability of energy production if costs can be reduced. A major tidal power project has also been approved for Swansea Bay. Above all, the oceans are, in effect, a limitless source of water, which will be in short supply in many parts of the world in the future. If we can turn seawater into potable water in an economically viable way, it would be a major breakthrough.

There are challenges, however. According to the World Resources Institute, fish farm output will need to double to meet demand by 2050. How can this happen without the pollution and other problems currently associated with aquaculture? Plastic pollution has been the source of great concern, with an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic ending up in oceans each year, threatening wildlife and the food chain. Meanwhile, ocean acidification from greenhouse gas emissions are said to be threatening coral reefs and other sea organisms.

Given the difficulties of sustainably managing the Earth’s resources, should society ‘move to the ocean’, or would we just meet a new set of difficulties? Can states, industries and populations ensure the lessons of the past 50 years are applied responsibly when shaping the approach mankind takes in exploring for minerals, harnessing the oceans’ energy and drawing upon the oceans’ diversity? Have environmental concerns about the oceans been overstated or will a ‘move to the oceans’ threaten a relatively unspoilt part of our planet?

Listen to the debate

Helen Czerski
physicist, oceanographer and broadcaster

Alex Rogers
professor in conservation biology, Somerville College, University of Oxford; scientific director, International Programme on State of the Ocean (IPSO)

Dr Helen Scales
freelance writer and broadcaster; author, Spirals in Time: the secret life and curious afterlife of seashells

Dr Dominic Standish
author, Venice in Environmental Peril? Myth and Reality; lecturer, University of Iowa's CIMBA campus, Venice

Professor Ian Wright
director, Science and Technology Directorate, National Oceanography Centre

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?
Recommended readings
Barack Obama's apocalyptic warnings about our oceans betray the opportunities hidden in their depths

The president's apocalyptic warnings presented our changing relationship with the oceans as a huge threat, yet our oceans and changing climate present us with opportunities.

Dominic Standish, International Business Times, 13 October 2015

Dissolving Sea Stars Reveal a Damaged Ocean

Human health depends upon ocean health, and it may be that at least part of this complex story is written in the stars.

Lynn Wilson, Live Science, 6 June 2015

How we ruined the oceans

Over many decades, the human race has overfished key species to near extinction, and polluted them with carbon dioxide emissions, toxic chemicals, garbage, and discarded plastics.

The Week, 14 February 2015

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