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From the archives

Come hell or high water

How we’ve covered humans’ effect on the oceans over the decades.

December 23, 2021
TR covers
TR covers

November 1960

From “Climate Control and the Oceans”: Without a clear picture of how the ocean overturns and with no accurate time scale for interaction with the atmosphere, oceanographers and meteorologists alike are at a loss to explain adequately the general mechanism of the earth’s climate. Now man, with his carbon-dioxide-producing industry, has become yet another unknown modifying factor. The influence of this new and geologically unique factor may be operating in any of several directions. It could be tending toward a new ice age or could be producing another great tropical epoch like that prevailing when coal and oil deposits were laid down. The interactions are so involved that experts do not yet know how to sort them out. One thing they are sure of—this influence is at work on a scale to dwarf all previous changes man has made.

April 1969

From “A Sterile Sea”: The modification is beginning. “Man, a land organism, is influencing the chemical composition of sea water more than any of the species that live within the marine environment,” said Edward D. Goldberg, Professor of Chemistry at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. For example, some 3,000 tons of mercury reach the oceans each year from natural continental sources and 4,000 tons from fungicides and industrial processes; the lead input to the oceans from automobile fuel is “roughly equivalent” to that from sedimentary action; pesticides, “a recent and novel entry to the marine environment,” now are widespread, and so are radioactive species; and man has introduced two new elements: sewage outfalls and accidental pollutions from man’s commerce. Perhaps half of all these contaminants are introduced into the ocean by activities in the U.S.

August 1980

From “Coal and Climate Stoking the Fires of Research”: One thing to avoid is running around warning that the Antarctic ice cap is going to melt and flood a lot of real estate. Some scientists have suggested that this could happen quickly—a highly speculative conclusion. As J. H. Mercer of the Institute of Polar Studies at Ohio State University pointed out, the projected warming could melt enough ice to raise global sea levels some five meters, but this would likely take several centuries. More sophisticated computer models should be developed, and it would be prudent to monitor the Antarctic ice by satellite regularly. Meanwhile, there’s little merit in the “scare-the-hell-out-of-them” approach typified by one prominent geophysicist, who stood on the U.S. Capitol steps indicating where the water would come to dramatize his case for restricting the use of coal.

Deep Dive

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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