Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr.

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2003

Water covers more than 70 percent of our Earth, and without water there would be no life. One of the best ways to celebrate this Earth Day is to take better care of our oceans, and they are in your backyard no matter where you live.

Every one of us is intrinsically tied

to the sea. The streams in your neighborhood and the rivers flowing near your community are all linked to the sea. Even Americans who have never seen the sea benefit from the energy and food from waters off of our coasts. Throughout this nation’s heartland, crops respond to weather systems driven by the interaction of our oceans and atmosphere. Lifesaving pharmaceuticals come from the sea, and there is excellent promise of more new drugs for AIDS, arthritis and several forms of cancer. Our

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oceans and coastal areas are essential to public safety and national security.

As a bedrock of America’s economy, coastal and marine waters support over 28 million jobs, and weather and climate-sensitive industries account for about 30 percent of the GNP. Each day, the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration touches $2.7 trillion of the U.S. economy.

Yet it’s easy to take our oceans for granted. For centuries, oceans

have molded our culture, development and dreams. Still we are only beginning to understand them. Just a few years ago whole colonies of newly discovered life were found at great ocean depths, drawing energy not from the sun, as other known life forms, but from chemicals beneath the seafloor. We now know there is life in every drop of seawater and have refined our understanding of the way oceans drive climatic patterns, like El Nio, which shape weather around the globe. Exciting technological leaps are making it possible to probe deeper and open new frontiers. Submersibles now navigate underwater slopes. Global observing is allowing us to take the earth’s pulse at many more points around the globe. Underwater exploration has captured the spirit of a new generation of explorers who seek to answer basic questions about our oceans. While most of our planet’s life lives in the sea, 95 percent of it still hasn’t even been explored. The best mysteries lie ahead.

But while the sea’s promise may be boundless, its riches are not. Decades of pollution – 80 percent of it beginning on land – have hurt our oceans, and injured wetlands, reefs and other coastal areas where most fish and other sea creatures spend part of their life cycle. Soapy debris filling storm drains when cars are washed, reckless tossing of soda cans on the beach, and one-drop-at-a-time oil leaks along the nation’s highways add up, regardless of whether you are land-bound or within sight of the sea. Just about everything tossed on land ultimately ends up in the sea.

Individually and collectively, we can all make a positive difference. On this Earth Day, pledge to become more ocean literate, and help ensure that our seas and their fragile, finite treasures remain vital for future generations and the many discoveries that have yet to surface.

That life in each drop of seawater is life we cannot afford to waste. To learn more:

Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr. is Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.), Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.