Our Blue Planet: Preserving Our Largest Ecosystem
Tony Roth: Chief Investment Officer
Peter de Menocal, Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Tony Roth: This is Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer of Wilmington Trust, and you are listening to Capital Considerations. Today I'm joined by a very important guest, Dr. Peter de Menocal.
Peter is the president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, sometimes referred to as WHOI for its acronym. WHOI is the largest independent oceanographic research institution in the US, also in the world. Peter is a marine geologist and paleo oceanographer, and he studies deep sea sediments for clues of past climate change.
Peter was a professor and dean of Science at Columbia University's faculty of Arts and Science, and he was the founding director of Columbia Center for Climate and Life, which is an institution dedicated to the study of how climate impacts essential aspects of human life. Peter has published over 150 scientific papers that spanned his decades long career, and we're so excited to have you here today, Peter, to talk about what you study at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, so thank you for being here.
Dr. Peter de Menocal: Thank you for having me, Tony.
Tony Roth: What we're going to talk about today, and it will be the first of a two-part set of episodes, is we're going to talk about the oceans generally, the health of the oceans, how the oceans are both impacted by climate change, and how the oceans in turn themselves impact climate change.
And then the second episode will focus specifically on what the oceans may be able to provide potentially as a partial solution to the climate change phenomenon that we need to increasingly battle against as a race in order to preserve our civilization and our planet as we know it today. As with every episode, I want to remind everybody that Wilmington Trust is politically neutral and we take no side one way or the other on any of the issues that we are discussing from a political standpoint. So with that, let's get started.
This is really a treat for all of us, even though the subject is going to touch on a lot of things that are sort of scary and, and maybe even depressing, but probably just the place to start is just around the idea that, given that we interact with a tiny fraction of 1% of the ocean, which is that very superficial going to the beach, seeing just the very edge of the top of the ocean, why is the overall ocean just so important to us as a people to the creatures on the planet, to the planet itself?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: The answer to that question, why is the ocean important, can be best answered by anyone who's seen that enigmatic photograph of Earth from the surface of the moon that was taken now almost 50 years ago, that showed that we are indeed a blue planet. We're not a brown planet. We are an ocean planet, and as an ocean planet, everything that we care about comes from the ocean.
Every other breath of oxygen that we breathe comes from biologic activity in the ocean. Every drop of rainfall, it's the climate flywheel for the planet. So when we look at how the climate is changing, what we're really talking about is an ocean that's changing. 93% of the excess warming that's come from global warming has actually gone into warming the oceans.
It doesn't come as much of a surprise, but it's really something to level set our appreciation for just how profoundly the ocean, impacts, not only our life on the planet, but also the very sustainability of the planet as we use it.
Tony Roth: That means that when we think about our daily life becoming warmer because our atmosphere is warmer, because we don't get any snow any longer, for example, where I live in Pennsylvania, because when it precipitates in the wintertime, the air's not cold enough. So only 7% of that trapped energy is going into that air, and the other 93% actually finds its way into the ocean. Everyone talks about the one and a half or two degrees Celsius that we need to prevent the ocean from warming more than, or we'll reach, I don’t know if the word catastrophic is too strong, something like that. Do I have it right?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: We owe a huge debt of gratitude and thanks to the ocean for really mitigating the full impacts of global warming. But I just want to step back for a moment and just appreciate the fact that we do live on this blue marble.
And, the ocean sustains us for our fisheries, it sustains us in terms of climate regulation. And even if you're a farmer in Nebraska, you thank the ocean. Changes in ocean temperature and salinity are the number one reason that there are year to year variations in rainfall and crop yields.
Not only in the United States, but also in Europe and around the world. So it's this vagaries of the ocean changes that really lead much of the climate extremes that we experience as weather or extreme events like hurricanes and tornadoes and the like. And so it's really this dependence on the ocean and how it changes both naturally and due to human activities that is one of the main reasons why we come to study the ocean.
Tony Roth: Where are we today in terms of the health of the ocean? Whether you look at it through the lens of how much have we warmed relative to where that critical point is that we can't go beyond, or to what degree have we de have we depleted our fisheries?
Or is it the degree to which plastics are now infiltrating the ocean? Whatever measures you think are the right ones, what is the current state of our oceans?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: When I was actually in graduate school about 30 years ago, we learned that the, you know, the oceans were probably too big to fail and too massive to really affect over our lifetimes, that we wouldn't see large changes in the oceans and that turned out to be not correct.
The oceans are not only too big to fail, but they're too important to ignore. And so the the ways in which the ocean has changed, we talked about the ocean warming. The overall planet has warmed up about 1.2 degrees over the last century or so, and about half of the temperature change is expressed in the ocean, something like about 0.5 or 0.6 degrees centigrade is warming in the ocean, but that warming is distributed throughout, in some cases, kilometers or miles into the ocean.
So it's mixed into the full depths of the oceans, and that's really why all the excess heating has gone in there. But the oceans have also changed in other ways. So, for example, as the oceans warm, they can take up less dissolved gases. And so, in some cases, for example, off the coast of the United States, both east and west, there are places where deep oxygen levels have gone to zero.
This deoxygenation of the ocean. Sometimes people say the ocean is losing its breath. And it's in part due to the fact the oceans are warmer and therefore less oxygen can dissolve in the oceans.
Tony Roth: I’ve heard these refer to as dead zones, I think, right?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: That's right, yep. These dead zones. And they're not just off the US, they're all over the place. And in some cases, they're expanding and they're impacting fisheries. And some cases it's due to excess runoff of agricultural fertilizers into the oceans that are stimulating extra productivity in the oceans.
But the oceans are of course, changing most rapidly in the poles of the ocean. So, in the Arctic and in the Antarctic, but in particular with the Arctic, the warming there is occurring three to four times faster than the global average. So it's just rapidly changing. There's about half the amount of sea ice today than when I was born. Same thing for the Antarctic.
Tony Roth: Is there any way that you can describe it that we can understand in 30 seconds? What are we doing that's causing that heating to occur so greatly in those extremes?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: And so the reason why it's cold at the poles is because we’re a spherical earth and at the poles they receive less sunlight than you do on the equator.
And so that's naturally the reason why it's cold there. But the reason why the Arctic is cold in particular, the Antarctic is because it's covered with snow or ice. As that snow or ice melts expose open ocean, you have a bright white reflective surface that's now replaced by something that's dark and absorbing.
Basically, it's something called the Ice Albedo feedback. It's got a complicated name, but a really simple idea, which is you replace something that's white and shiny and reflective with something that's dark and deep and can really absorb a lot of heat.
Tony Roth: There are a number of consequences, right? There's rising of the sea level, there's the desalinity due to more fresh water, there’s the overall heating of the oceans. How do you get at all of this as an institution? I mean, where do you even start?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: We engage with the ocean, not only at the coastlines, but we go out onto the global ocean everywhere in the world, and it's only then that you really get an appreciation for the expansiveness of the ocean. I mean, it's just endless. And then of course, when you dive in the ocean or go in a submarine or do experiments in the ocean, I mean, it's on average three miles deep.
And so it's a massive space and inner space of the planet. And so it's really sort of hard to get your head around just how vast it is and then to realize that it's changing so much. I think that's one of the things that's really sobering, and indeed it's one of the main reasons that I left Columbia University to join the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution two and a half years ago, is that any solutions that we can provide for the planet, this planet in transition, have to begin with working with the oceans to start with.
Tony Roth: When I grew up, by the way, I would go out onto the National Seashore, all these beaches on Cape Cod that President Kennedy turned into National Seashore. And I would go in at eight, nine in the morning and I'd stay in there at 56 degree water until four o'clock in the afternoon. And I would be, you know, as happy as a clam. And now of course, you can't even go in because there's all the sharks, because the water is warmed. And now there's more seals and they brought the sharks. So everything's changed. So why do we care from a practical standpoint, and we're very economically focused here. Can you help us understand a little bit better? Why is it that the ocean is so important to us when we're not experiencing it?
Really, other than maybe if we have a house on the beach and we're worried about the sea level going up, maybe we'll have to eat more chicken and less fish or there'll be more rain or less rain in certain areas. But other than that, why does it matter?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: When one of our listeners goes to the store and tries to buy cod or tries buy fish, they'll notice that they're paying an increasingly higher price for it. The fisheries, the ecosystems are moving northward at a rate of about four miles a year. Because of this ocean warming. And basically, that means that these fisheries, not only are they being depleted, they're being over fished, but they're also quickly becoming Canadian. They're moving northward rapidly
Tony Roth: Do they get replaced with dead zones or something else?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: No, no. They get replaced with the next tier or the next ecosystem that's further south.
And so we begin to see southern species like albacore tuna for example. We see Amberjack, we see all different kinds of fish that are coming up that are normally much further south. 90% of the global economy travels on the ocean. 90% of the goods travel over the ocean. So the oceans are this tremendous economy. If the ocean were its own separate economy, it would rep, it would be the seventh largest economy on the planet. So much of what's changing in the ocean is also changing the fecundity, the productivity of the fisheries and the like.
And so as the oceans change, so does our economic relationship with it as well. We also care about it because as the oceans are warming, for every degree centigrade warming, that the ocean experiences, the atmosphere can take up another about 7% of moisture into the atmosphere.
And so these atmospheric rivers that are now pounding the west coast of the United States, these things are supercharged with rain because they're getting all this water that's evaporating off the Pacific Ocean, which is up wind. And so, these are just these atmospheric rivers that are charged with moisture driven from the oceans piling into the westerlies coming into the west coast.
So that matters, of course, if you're living there because it affects the, the availability of water, but more importantly, the sort of emergency floods and droughts that occur.
So as the ocean changes so much of our relationship with the ocean, its provision of water, its provision of food, its climate regulation, its ability to take up carbon. All of these things are in flux. And you know, the one thing that humans don't like is uncertainty. And so, as the oceans begin to change, it introduces tremendous uncertainty. Remember that great blue marble, that's what we live on.
Tony Roth: If I want to move to California, the only thing that certain is that I'm going to pay a lot of tax probably. But whether I'm going to be in a flood or drought condition, which are the two extremes that they seem to always vacillate between. That’s uncertain. and it's the ocean that will determine which one I'm in at any given period, it sounds like.
Dr. Peter de Menocal: I think that's one of the big takeaways from today is that if we're looking to gain greater certainty about our future, we need to know the ocean that much better.
Tony Roth: And you talked about 90% of the world's trade passing over the ocean and that's, I think, intuitive. Is that what the term blue economy refers to or is it something broader or different?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: The sort of generalizable term of the blue economy refers not only to trade, but also to our extraction of resources from the ocean. So, energy, also the fisheries, also now renewable energy.
It's really this really larger portfolio of sectors of the economy that intersect or come from the ocean and increasingly, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, envisions this what we call the new blue economy, which is really the information that's required to make really strategic use of the ocean and make strategic decisions about how the ocean and ocean processes can improve human existence around the world. And this is actually one of the big focus areas here at the Oceanographic.
Tony Roth: So when you look at the portfolio, Peter, of the many, many projects that you undertake at WHOI that are funded by grants from the government, et cetera, there’s a set of those that are directed at sort of measuring and calibrating, I would imagine how the oceans are doing. And then there are the, the projects that you've told me about in past conversations that are really directed at trying to help the oceans, trying to improve our lot with respect to the oceans. Where do you think the most important work is happening?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: One way to answer this is just again, taking that blue marble, image. It's just a vast area to monitor and to observe, and so our ability to observe these changes in the ocean is driven by our ability to lead new technologies, to develop new ways of observing this ocean in transition.
It's not just the temperatures and the salinity of the ocean that's changing. It's the fisheries and the productivity and the fundamental functioning of the ocean. Remember, it provides every other breath of oxygen we breathe. If some aspect of the ocean were to change, something fundamental such as the primary productivity in the ocean, we would notice it immediately. And so one of the main things that we're focusing on is how can we develop technologies to better observe and understand this ocean and transition. And in particular with regard to things that we really care about. So, for example, coral reefs, as the oceans are warming, the oceans have heat waves just like we have on the atmosphere.
And these heat waves will wash upon these coral islands in the Pacific and in the Atlantic, really everywhere in the tropics. And they cause this bleaching and this bleaching of coral reefs is, you know, one of the sadder things that's happening right now. Well, we have a team here at WHOI that is focusing on how we can restore these coral reefs so that they're more resilient to these heat waves.
Actually one of the things how scientists are doing, it's just fascinating, A healthy reef actually gives off a specific underwater sound. It’s a lot of clicking and chirping and fish songs. It's basically like a party going on down there. And if you listen to a healthy reef, it's a very noisy, cacophony of sounds.
In contrast, the dead reef is pretty quiet. And so one of the things our scientist is exploring is actually playing the sounds of a healthy reef in a degraded reef. And it turns out that this acts as a magnet for all the fish and the other coral species to start to establish a new outpost on this degraded reef.
And it appears to be working. Much of what we're doing is trying to get at this cutting edge of what are some of the ways in which we can apply novel science or innovative technology to address some of these really rapidly changing problems, such as the changes in the fisheries or changes in coral reefs, or understanding how rapidly the ice sheets are melting.
These are all things that, if you think about it, there are no eyes on these problems, right? They're happening in the oceans. We're not living there. We're not able to observe it except for the efforts of these amazing scientists.
Tony Roth: There's something that's very, I think, relatable and tangible about the idea of plastics in the ocean. We can all relate to the idea that plastics will find their way into the ocean. I think that historically, we thought about plastic bottles floating around in the ocean, and we all understand that they're sort of there forever and we've all heard about the big plastic debris field somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is the size of our country or even larger that's just full of plastic.
But then more recently we've been hearing about this microplastic problem. Can you just talk to us a little bit, Peter, about the whole plastics issue and what can we do to help?
Dr. Peter de Menocal: The number one thing is to reduce your utilization of single use plastics. We like to think of recycling and I think probably most people make an effort to recycle. I've, I've heard it referred to as wish cycling, in that we don't really know the fate of the material that does get recycled. Most of the plastics that are in the ocean now have actually come from countries other than the United States.
Obviously we do our fair share, but most of it is coming in through point vectors along the developing world, particularly, in Southeast Asia, and then along the central American coasts. But these plastics are coming in through these rivers, and then they are injected into the ocean.
And because the ocean has these gyral circulations, so there are seven big gyres on the planet. These gyres, the center of them have accumulations of plastic, both large macro plastic pieces, and also these micro plastics that are really microscopic. These are indeed continent sized accumulations of plastic.
They're little islands of plastic. The best way to reduce the flow of those plastics is really threefold. First is collecting the plastic in the rivers before they make their way to the oceans. There's an effort to do that. And then actually collecting plastic in the open ocean. There’s an effort that's focusing on that, that's led by a Dutch team, That's a very difficult job, but actually they're increasingly successful at it. But the third way, and actually a way that we're leading research here at the oceanographic is to develop new, marine organic based plastics that can act as containers that will actually degrade when they're exposed to water and ultraviolet radiation.
There are innovations that can happen on the chemistry side that are also promising as well. But the bottom line is use less plastic.
Tony Roth: At WHOI there are projects to figure out how can we, how can we build a water bottle that instead of lasting for a thousand years will last for a year or two and eventually it will just disappear, or not eventually, but fairly quickly before it does too much harm.
Dr. Peter de Menocal: That's correct. That's sort of the holy grail of the petrochemical industry is to find those plastics that have these multiple uses that can contain different kinds of liquid that will degrade in the natural environment.
But that's still some ways away. And just the volume of plastic, as we all know, is just so massive. So again, a lot of it comes down to our personal behavior. There are efforts to collect it at the places where it enters the ocean. And also once it's accumulated in the ocean, there are basically these large nets that are accumulating it and they’ve captured thousands upon thousands of tons of the plastic. But there's millions upon millions of tons to collect.
Tony Roth: Our second episode is going to focus on the relationship, the critical relationship between the oceans and the atmosphere and the role that the oceans can play in helping to circumscribe this global warming that's happening.
Or limit it or reverse it in some sense. And you talked about the ocean holding 93% of the energy, if you will, that comes down from the sun, that, that gets trapped in the earth. 7% going into the atmosphere. And it would seem like it would be what I think of as a zero-sum situation. In other words, it's going to go either in the atmosphere or it's going to go in the ocean. The ocean's going to heat up and that's going to heat up the atmosphere. It doesn't seem like it would make any difference. So, you're going to tell us that that's not the case, I think, and that there's potential ways to take that energy, and if I have it right, somehow turn it into a harmless form of carbon that then sits in the ocean.
But take us through what that's about. Just enough to get people intrigued for the second episode, which is going to be really about that.
Dr. Peter de Menocal: The single most, uh, surprising factoid that, I think engages people when we talk about is that you could take the entire carbon dioxide problem that is now in the atmosphere. In other words, the whole thing that we're worried about. And if you could magically take that carbon and mix it into the full depth of the ocean, not just the surface, but the full depth of the ocean, the ocean would barely notice it. It would represent about one to 2% of the carbon reservoir that exists in the ocean.
And this is because the ocean is like a gigantic natural, carbonated beverage. It's this fluid filled with life it has 50 times more carbon in the oceans than are in the atmosphere. And so the ocean is this tremendous reservoir for carbon, natural reservoir for carbon. One of the things we're looking at is the ways in which the ocean can intentionally take up carbon and stored at depth in the ocean where it’s durably stored for something like a century to a millennium.
The oceans are really the only mechanism on the planet that can take up carbon at the gigaton scale, at the billions of ton scale that we're putting it in the atmosphere. And there are technologies that are being explored to do this. Our number one position on this is not so much to be an advocate for what's called marine carbon dioxide removal or mcdr, but rather to lead the advance and understanding in technology that will inform whether this is a wise or an unwise course of action.
What I can say is that this is urgent. We have something like less than a decade to basically choose to do this or not. If we choose to do this, we can mitigate some of the worst impacts of climate change. If we don't do it, we own a future that is increasingly uncertain and increasingly actually physically dangerous for humans and for other ecosystems and plant and animal life on the planet.
Tony Roth: So that's a bleak, if you will, but realistic, I think clarion call to really become informed. And that's what we're going to do on our next episode. So, I think for this episode, if there's one takeaway, it is that the oceans present tremendous resource and opportunity, both in terms of what we've experienced are as participants on the planet, as citizens of the planet, to provide enjoyment and richness and sustenance, but they also provide potentially an opportunity to help fix this profound problem we've created.
So we're going to talk about that next. So stay tuned for our next episode.
Dr. Peter de Menocal: Thank you, Tony.
Tony Roth: I want to thank our listeners and I want to remind everybody that you can go to Wilmington Trust.com for a full roundup of all of our latest investment and planning ideas.
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