Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the first steps off our home planet.
The “moonshot” was a unifying moment in human history, and it became a powerful symbol of what we can accomplish when we work toward a common goal. Today, humans live year-round in Earth orbit on the International Space Station and send probes well beyond the solar system to explore on our behalf. But while we navigate to distant worlds, we've neglected our own planet and our greatest shared resource — our ocean.
Earth is an ocean planet. The ocean covers more than 70% of Earth’s surface. It regulates Earth’s climate, absorbing almost a third of the carbon dioxide emissions that humans put into the atmosphere and shaping weather patterns worldwide. More than three billion people — an estimated 40 percent of the world's population — live within about 60 miles of coastlines today, and that number is climbing.
Saving our oceans is hard but worth it
While life on Earth depends on the ocean, we still know far too little about it. Federal funding for space exploration comes to about $20 billion annually, compared to en estimated $2 billion for ocean science — a factor of 10 to 1. We have better maps of the surface of the moon and Mars than we have of our own seafloor, and more people have walked on the surface of the moon than have visited the deepest depths of the ocean.
The problems that face the ocean may seem insurmountable: climate change, ocean acidification, plastics, overfishing, pollution, and sea-level rise. All of these things challenge us to transform our relationship with our ocean and our planet — not because they are easy, to borrow President Kennedy’s famous line, but because they are hard. And our lives depend on it.
Protecting the ocean's 'twilight zone'
Like our predecessors in the 1960s, we don’t have all the answers, but we do have the tools. For the moonshot, we had the scientific and engineering mastery of NASA and the many industries that grew to support space exploration. Today, the U.S. is a powerhouse of ocean science research and marine engineering, led by organizations such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, among others. These are the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Ames Research Center, and Goddard Space Flight Center of ocean exploration.
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The need to explore and understand the ocean has never been more urgent. With the collapse of once bountiful coastal fisheries, such as Atlantic cod, commercial interests are preparing to deepen their reach, with unknown implications for ocean ecosystems and our planet. Recent estimates of life in the ocean’s midwater, or twilight zone, are 10 or even 100 times what was initially thought to live there. The twilight zone is home to the largest animal migration on Earth — a daily passage of billions of organisms who travel to the surface to feed every night and return to the relative safety of deeper, darker waters by daybreak. Every day. Around the globe.
Realizing what we have
Not surprisingly, commercial interests are lining up to tap this newly identified bounty. But what if we could do things differently this time. What could we learn before we blindly trawl the waters of the twilight zone and potentially do irreparable damage? As the dominant force of change on Earth, how do we become true guardians of our ocean planet?
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Since the dawn of the Space Age, only 27 Apollo astronauts have traveled far enough from Earth to see our shining blue planet set against the stark lunar landscape and the vast emptiness that surrounds us. Jim Lovell on Apollo 8 was one of them. No one has put it better than he did when he saw that shimmering blue dot in a background of black and said, simply, “It makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”
We're overdue for a new moonshot — this time focused on our ocean, our most vital life support system, our own planet's last frontier.
James Cameron is a filmmaker, explorer and an adviser to both the Ocean Twilight Zone Audacious Project at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and to the OceanX media initiative. He is currently in production on “Avatar 2.” Follow him on Twitter: @JimCameron.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: James Cameron calls for exploration and protection of oceans