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1 September 2010 Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth
Steve Nash
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Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth is intended to alert or, better said, alarm the public about a host of grave assaults on the world's oceans. It joins other recent books whose titles also tread unsubtly. A sampler: The End of the Line: How Overfishing Is Changing the World and What We Eat; The Empty Ocean; The Unnatural History of the Sea; Ocean Bankruptcy: World Fisheries on the Brink of Disaster.


Scientists who write or become sources for such books feel an accelerating sense of urgency that overmasters what climatologist James Hansen has called the habit of “scientific reticence.” A few, such as Hansen or the redoubtable Scripps marine biologist Jeremy Jackson, pursue public advocacy. As conditions worsen, these scientists' numbers may swell, despite a long list of professional disincentives.

Many others feel enough confidence to at least hazard some candor about the significance of their results, one on one, when speaking to the right journalist. Seasick benefits from several such encounters. In symposia or other professional settings, as author Alanna Mitchell writes at one point, “There's a question no one wants to deal with: is all of this research too little, too late?” She asks it—frequently—and focuses sharply.

  • Ecosystem modeler Jerry Blackford's data augur that by 2050, for example, ocean acidity will be higher than it has been for 20 million years. Mitchell sums up: “The oceans' lifeforms will be disconnected from their own evolutionary heritage.”

  • Twenty percent of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and 50 percent are “in trouble.” Eighty percent of Caribbean corals are dead. For one international project out to collect genetic samples—Noah-like, lest they disappear—corals are the “most urgently endangered group of species known of in the world.”

  • There are now about 400 hypoxic “dead zones” in the oceans; this figure has doubled each decade since 1960, and a report by the United Nations Environment Programme says their number is “poised to escalate rapidly,” threatening the whole global fishery in this century.

  • Then there's global warming…

It may seem remarkable that oil spills did not make the list, given what's occurred in the Gulf since Seasick was published, but that is not a serious omission on the author's part. It is, rather, a reminder that the threats are probably too many to be treated in one book, and that some seemingly stable, back-burner ocean stressors can suddenly veer toward catastrophe.

That the oceans are threatened will not be news for conservation biologists. Nor can Seasick serve as a source of research data. Mitchell is a mainstream journalist, until recently a science reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the book is written for a general audience. So the question becomes: Does her book have value for scientists?

I think yes, for a couple of reasons. For some, who may be holed up within their research niches, it offers a wellintegrated interdisciplinarity, if at a general level. Mitchell uses a wealth of published research, her extensive interviews, and personal observations to lay out the dire synergies of global warming, ocean acidification, overfishing, and dead zones.

Another positive feature of the book may seem off-putting at first: This is a personal odyssey, deeply engaged. Mitchell recounts the tics and foibles of her scientist sources, often worldclass researchers in their fields. She may be a bit starstruck at times—too many sources are labeled “brilliant.” Far more important: She makes it obvious early on that she is struggling to keep her emotional balance under successive waves of terrifying—her word—research about the nearing fate of the world's oceans.

It becomes clear that this is not self-involved melodrama but an indispensable context for the research, and several of the scientists whom she accompanies show the same anxiety. The conservation agenda has moved with breathtaking speed, after all, from individual species, to ecosystems, to biomes, to global climate and the oceans. Depression has become for some scientists an occupational hazard as the subject matter of their research—coral, for example—is extinguished. An empath, Mitchell is able to draw out her sources' reactions to their own findings, and their implications for the future, in terms that engage the reader below the neck.

A sample: “Once they figured out how low the carbonate ion concentration would fall if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere kept rising, they realized they were looking at a marine Armageddon,” Mitchell recounts.

One researcher, Joan Kleypas, “ran into the bathroom outside the committee room and threw up.”

On global overfishing: “We don't realize how absolutely exceptional this time is…. We are at the stage of losing the ability of things to come back on their own,” Dalhousie University biostatistician Boris Worm tells Mitchell. “I'm absolutely hopeful,” he adds. “I would be suicidal if I weren't hopeful.”

Michael Kendall, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in England, trying to crack the bemused, detached ineffectuality at a marine management conference, tells his audience: “All these changes have happened before, but never, ever as rapidly. These are the fastest broadscale changes the marine system has ever experienced.” He is almost pleading with them at the end: “We can't just sit on our hands and wait.”

Mitchell also pursues the sources of hope, the researchers' “coping strategies” in the face of the accumulations of unnerving data. It is well for shellshocked scientists to defend their optimism; hopeless is useless.“The ocean contains the switch of life,” as Mitchell concludes, “and that the human hand is on that switch, is a concept on the frontier of scientific thought.”

Along with keeping her own hopes together, Mitchell has reportorial challenges that face all environmental journalists—how to recount credibilityenhancing but granular details of research without the narrative trailing off into the weeds; how to explore an issue by focusing on just a few researchers while doing justice to dissenting interpretations or contradictory research findings, and keeping them all in proportion.

These are handled adroitly. Though her conclusions are necessarily subjective at times, they're also frank in their indeterminacy—“We don't know what's going to happen” is a frequent refrain. The story's power, and urgency, are hyper-audible.

Steve Nash "Seasick: Ocean Change and the Extinction of Life on Earth," BioScience 60(8), 657-658, (1 September 2010).
Published: 1 September 2010

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