Humans are leaving a heavy footprint on the Earth, but when did we become the main driver of change in the planet's ecosystems? Many scientists point to the 1950s, when all kinds of socioeconomic trends began accelerating. Since then, >the world population has tripled. Fertiliser and water use expanded as >more food was grown than ever before. The construction of motorways sped up to accommodate rising car ownership while international flights took off to satisfy a growing taste for tourism.
The scale of human demands on Earth grew beyond historic proportions. This post-war period became known as the ">Great Acceleration", and many believe it gave birth to the Anthropocene " the geological epoch during which human activity surpassed natural forces as the biggest influence on the functioning of Earth's living systems.
The ocean is vast, but it's not limitless. This saturation of ocean space is not unique to Norway, and a densely populated ocean space runs the risk of conflict across industries. Escapee salmon from aquaculture have >spread sea lice in wild populations, creating tensions with Norwegian fisheries. An industrial accident in the oil and gas industry could cause significant damage to local seafood and tourism as well as the seafood export market.
More fundamentally, the burden on ocean ecosystems is growing, and we simply don't know as much about these ecosystems as we would like. An ecologist once quipped that fisheries management is the same as forestry management. Instead of trees you're counting fish, except you can't see the fish, and they move.
Exploitation of the ocean has tended to precede exploration. One iconic example is >the scaly-foot snail. This deep sea mollusc was discovered in 1999 and was on the IUCN Red List of endangered species by 2019. Why? As far as scientists can tell, the species is only found in three hydrothermal vent systems more than 2,400 metres below the Indian Ocean, covering less than 0.02 square kilometres. Today, two of the three vent systems fall within exploratory mining leases.
Billionaires dreaming of space colonies can dream a little closer to home. Even as the Blue Acceleration consumes more of the ocean's resources, this vast area is every bit as mysterious as outer space. The surfaces of Mars and the Moon have been mapped in> higher resolution than the seafloor. Life in the ocean has existed for two billion years longer than on land and an estimated >91 percent of marine species have not been described by science. Their genetic adaptations could help scientists develop the >antibiotics and medicines of tomorrow, but they may disappear long before that's possible.
The timing is right for guiding the Blue Acceleration towards more sustainable and equitable trajectories. The >UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development is about to begin, a new >international treaty on ocean biodiversity is in its final stages of negotiation, and in June 2020, governments, businesses, academics and civil society will assemble for the >UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon.
Yet many simple questions remain. Who is driving the Blue Acceleration? Who is benefiting from it? And who is being left out or forgotten? These are all urgent questions, but perhaps the most important and hardest to answer of all is how to create connections and engagement across all these groups. Otherwise, the drivers of the Blue Acceleration will be like the fish in the ecologist's analogy: constantly moving, invisible and impossible to manage " before it is too late.
Robert Blasiak, Research Fellow in Ocean Management, Stockholm University