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“We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean floor”

Dr Helen Czerski, research fellow in the Faculty of Engineering Science and science presenter for the BBC, is a physicist, oceanographer and writer.

Interviews Lucy Jolin Illustrations Chris Dickason


I don’t really understand why we spend so much time and effort exploring space, but so little exploring what’s on our own doorstep. We travelled all the way to the moon, and what did we do when we got there? We looked back at ourselves. And we saw the ocean. Our blue planet. If aliens were to look at our planet from space, they would identify it by the oceans – the vast blue that we barely think about.

Comparisons between our knowledge of the moon and the ocean are unfair because the two are simply not equivalent. Yes, the moon has been mapped and not all the ocean floors have been. But there’s much more of the oceans to find out about. We’re still learning the many subtle and not-so-subtle secrets of the ocean: how it interacts with the atmosphere, ecosystems, ice and rocks, and how the entire Earth system fits together. If you wrote down all the information that we know about the ocean, it’s loads more than we know about the moon, but it is still a small fraction of the total.

Weather, for example. It doesn’t just happen. The oceans absorb energy from the Sun, perhaps move it around, and then pass it on to the atmosphere. Water evaporates from the oceans, and then journeys across the skies before finding its way back, perhaps via rivers and reservoirs on land. About half of all food chains begin in the ocean. The ocean shapes our lives in so many ways. Its currents dictate trade routes. Its life sustains ours. It pushes science forward, and it changes history – the D-Day landing date was chosen as a result of groundbreaking work into wave modelling, and the operation succeeded in part because the scientists got that modelling right.

My own research team is studying how the oceans breathe: the gases they take from the atmosphere and the gases they give back. Finding out more about this process will help us understand more about our weather and our climate and how they might be changing. It’s a hugely complex, beautiful, flexible system. And the moon? Well, it’s very nice, but it just sits there. It hasn’t changed in thousands of years.


If aliens were to look at our planet from space, they would identify it by the oceans – the vast blue we barely think about

So why does the idea that we know more about the moon than the oceans persist? Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen pictures of Apollo astronauts standing on the moon – 12 people, still more than the number of people who have been to the deepest parts of the ocean. But standing on it isn’t the only way to find out about a place.

Studying the ocean is perceived as somehow being more difficult than travelling to the moon. Well, yes, it can be difficult. But space travel means getting in a rocket and going into orbit and landing safely. That’s difficult, but we did it. And modern ocean science still shows a huge variety of sophistication – sometimes you are still just dangling sensors over the sides of ships on bits of rope. But sometimes you’re using the latest underwater robots. Both are still needed. And there’s a lot to see down there. Put your head under water and you’re truly in an alien world. Who needs science fiction when we live on a planet that has octopuses? They change colour in three different ways. They’re intelligent problem-solvers. They have three separate brains. You don’t need to invent another planet – just go and look at a coral reef.

So if I could invent one thing, it would be a pair of binoculars that would allow you to see down into the ocean the same way that you can look up into the atmosphere. Up there, we can all see the clouds and birds, the colour of the sky and haze on the horizon. Down in the ocean, you’d see so much: great empty plains, massive rainforests of plants, rocks, canyons, mountains, deserts. You’d see currents flowing in different directions at different depths, some flowing fast, some slowly. You’d see those waters carrying tiny plants and animals drifting in huge underwater clouds, and you’d see all the extraordinary, diverse life living in, and on top of, that. And then, perhaps, you’d appreciate just how incredibly important the ocean is.

There’s an argument that we need to study the moon and places like it in case we need to leave Earth one day. I don’t buy that: why not study what we already have and learn what we can do and what we can’t? There is nothing more important than that. Humans used to think that we couldn’t affect the ocean because it was simply too big. We know now that’s not true. We are adding plastic pollution that turns up all over the oceans now. We are heating the oceans up, and making sea level rise. We are making the ocean less alkaline, which means that plants with calcium shells at the base of the food chain will find it harder to grow. Our planet is our life-support system, and understanding our oceans is vital to help us manage that system. That’s why the idea that space exploration is the be-all and end-all must die.

For more information on Dr Czerski’s academic work please visit: iris.ucl.ac.uk/iris/browse/profile?upi=HCZER87, or visit: www.helenczerski.net

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Portico Issue 3. 2016/17