Deep thinking

wild seaReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean | Joy McCann

We Australians are beach lovers. But in winter there is a stark difference between our idyllic, northern, Pacific beaches and the southern coastline pounded by icy waters travelling unhindered from Antarctica.

The Southern Ocean is an example of humans attempting to impose structure on the natural world. It shares literally fluid boundaries with the other oceans, but there is some delineation via the temperatures, the presence of icebergs and the distribution of animals attuned to niche environments. It is inhospitable to humans but rich in other life.

For a long time it was thought not to exist. Europeans proposed a Great Southern Land to balance the continents in the north. Captain Cook, one of the first Europeans to extensively steer through and chart the half-frozen waters – and commissioned to claim the land for Britain – found lots of ocean instead.

In the 1950s, pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote that the oceans were “inviolable”, so big that they were eternally wild, but the ecologically ruinous touch of humans reaches even to their depths. In the 20th century two million whales were slaughtered in the Southern Ocean. If that wasn’t bad enough, in the 1970s the Soviets started harvesting krill, the biggest biomass on the planet and an exclusive food source for whales.

The ecosystem is easily upset. Human-driven warming is causing Antarctic ice melt, potentially raising sea levels. The melting also reduces the numbers of microorganisms that rely on the ice for shelter, in turn reducing their ability to soak up carbon dioxide, further contributing to warming.

Although in previous decades the Southern Ocean was seen as a vast resource, we now understand its vulnerability. People are impacting it. We must understand that our own health is dependent on the health of this wild ocean.

Available from https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/wild-sea/

RRP: $32.99

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