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‘The ocean touches you with every breath you take:’ Oceanographer Sylvia Earle receives UMSL award

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle will recieve the World Ecology Award from the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center on Oct. 16.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Oceanographer Sylvia Earle will recieve the World Ecology Award from the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center on Oct. 16.";

It took hundreds of millions of years to populate oceans with its vast array of wildlife from plankton up to Coral Reefs and blue whales. It only took a few decades for humans to extract 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean and cut the number of Coral Reefs in half, said Dr. Sylvia Earle, a famous oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence.

“It is amazing that one species is capable of unraveling these species and the systems they form in such a short time,” Earle told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh, explaining how humans have pushed the ocean to its limit. “How long before all of Coral Reefs are gone if we are capable of seeing decline by half in a half century. In the next half century, what will happen to these basic ecosystems that maintain the ocean?”

Earle is in town to receive the World Ecology Award from the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center on Oct. 16 at the center’s 21st World Ecology Award Gala at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Why do oceans matter?

“We do not have to accept the direction of things as they are currently moving,” Earle said, pointing out that the decline in ocean wildlife and the rise in ocean acidity is impacting our atmosphere. “We have the capacity to make a choice. There is plenty of reason for optimism. When you know you’ve got a problem, there is a good chance you can do something about it.”

Earle has spent decades studying the ocean and said that even people who have never seen the ocean should care greatly about its welfare.

“If you’ve never touched the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take,” Earle said. “More than half of that oxygen comes from the ocean. Every drop of water you drink, ultimately, it originates in the ocean and cycles back. It is the ocean: it is that crazy, massive, blue, mass of water that holds the planet steady, that keeps us alive. Most people have never seen their heart, but they are glad it exists. It keeps you alive. The ocean keeps life alive.”

Earle said she does not fault people for not understanding or crediting oceans for their own existence, but now humans have an ability no generations before them had the chance to know due to science and research.

“We are the most fortunate generation of people ever to occupy Earth because we have the gift of knowing,” Earle said. “I hope that will lead to caring. We can turn things around.”


What you can do to impact the ocean for the better

Oceans began to be greatly impacted by human activity starting around the year 1950, the start of what scientists now call the “Anthropocene Era.” Earle said that humans still have the chance to turn things around — that begins with individual human choices.

“Look in the mirror and ask ‘What am I good at? What do I care about?’” Earle said.  “Are you good with voice, numbers, way with kids, CEO, teacher, mom, dad, kid? You have the power. Figure out what you have the capacity to do that others are not good at doing. Write a song, take a kid to a wild place. Look at what you do every day, the trash you create. Be mindful of what you take from natural systems: know where your food comes from and what it takes to make a cow. Consider a lighter footprint. Restore in your own backyard systems that will attract birds and butterflies. Eating plants makes a lot of sense.”

Earle pleads that people rethink their use of one-use plastic materials, which are known to find a final resting place in ocean waters, changing the chemistry of the ocean and creating physical problems for animals there that think plastics are food for their young.

She wishes everyone could go 10,000 feet below the ocean’s surface to the see the kind of life that teams down there and understand how important it is to the livelihood of the Earth.

“Humans have an outsized impact, an opportunity, to be the heroes for the next 10,000 years by making decisions right now that will hold the planet steady for us and for them,” Earle said.

Related Event

What: UMSL’s World Ecology Award Gala honoring “Hero of the Planet” Dr. Sylvia Earle

When: Sunday, Oct. 16 at 6 p.m.

Where: Missouri Botanical Garden, Monsanto Hall, 4344 Shaw Ave, St. Louis, MO 63110

More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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