The State of the Oceans: Past, Present, and Future

In celebration of Earth Day, Saving Ocean Wildlife is hosting a webinar on The State of the Oceans, April 22, 2021 from 7-8 PM PDT. Click here to learn more and to register for this event.

Satellite imagery from Google Earth

The oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface, hold 97% of all the water, are the source of 86% of all evaporation, and receive 76% of all the precipitation on Earth. As a result, the oceans play a key role in the biogeochemical cycling of water, carbon, and other essential elements and molecules around the world and through the biosphere. They mitigate climate extremes and serve as a sink to greenhouse gases while producing more than 50% of Earth’s oxygen today. In other words, the oceans are our life support system. But climate change and other human activities are affecting biogeochemical cycles and the overall health of the oceans themselves, which in turn is affecting the oceans ability to support life.

For 3.5 billion years Earth’s oceans have been teeming with a diversity of life forms, from the earliest single-celled microorganisms that produced all the oxygen in our primordial atmosphere to the largest animal ever known, the blue whale. For nearly all of that time the oceans were relatively pristine, allowing life to thrive and evolve into a myriad of amazing creatures throughout the oceans from the surface to the deepest trench. 

Photograph by Mark Conlin/Alamy

The biodiversity of life in the oceans has intrinsic value, beyond any economic value or price tag people attempt to assign it. Diverse ecosystems are healthy ecosystems, and healthy ocean ecosystems are essential to human health as well. Biodiversity also helps us understand how life and species evolve on Earth, and how species survive and adapt to significant global changes, including mass extinction events. Higher biodiversity means there are more types of living organisms available to survive profound environmental disruptions when they occur.

By looking at past states of the ocean—including biodiversity, extinctions, and evolution—we can better understand the context and dynamics of changes occuring in the present and make more accurate predictions and models about potential future states of the oceans as well. There is a near universal consensus among scientific studies over the last 50 years that human activity has done significant damage to the oceans and its inhabitants in a relatively short amount of time. We are currently in an accelerating mass extinction event that could wipe out more than 75% of all extant species on Earth, possibly even humans. Ocean animals are going extinct at a rate about twice that of land animals. Scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm that we all must act now to reverse course before it is too late.

Cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild by the IUCN (2012). Graphs show the percentage of the number of species evaluated among mammals (5513; 100% of those described), birds (10,425; 100%), reptiles (4414; 44%), amphibians (6414; 88%), fishes (12,457; 38%), and all vertebrates combined (39,223; 59%). Dashed black curve represents the number of extinctions expected under a constant standard background rate of 2 E/MSY. (A) Highly conservative estimate. (B) Conservative estimate. Graph from IUCN data.

A March 2021 scientific article in Nature suggests establishing 30% Marine Protected Areas (MPA’s) as “an effective tool for restoring ocean biodiversity and ecosystem services.” There are increasing calls by marine scientists to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 (30×30). Informed citizens can help push legislative actions through state and federal hurdles. There are also ways in which individuals can make a significant difference by taking action in their personal lives to reverse the damage we are collectively doing. While scientific findings may seem scary and fatalistic, this is not the time to surrender to what feels inevitable. There is much we all can do now to save ocean wildlife. At Saving Ocean Wildlife, we are creating awareness around key environmental issues threatening ocean wildlife, the science behind these issues, and ways in which we can tackle some of these issues together through personal, collective, and legislative actions.

Please join us for our special Earth Day presentation on The State of the Oceans: Past Present, and Future to learn more about how you can get involved to save ocean wildlife. Click here to learn more and to register for this event.

FREE Ocean wildlife guide!

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Ten Personal Actions You Can Take
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