Hidden wealth of data in the depths

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From Monsoons to Microbes: Understanding the Ocean's Role in Human Health

by the Committee on the Ocean's Role in Human Health, National Research Council National Academy Press: 1999. $34.95, £24.95,

Many years ago, a good friend came out of the sea after a swim and looked disoriented. Had he suffered Pfiesteria piscicida poisoning? In fact he had lost his spectacles, although nowadays you might pick up that toxic organism when you go swimming in some US estuaries. But on the other hand, the anti-cancer agent is collected from marine organisms. These and various other aspects of humankind's relation to the sea are explored in this kaleidoscopic text, which is suited for every interested reader with a background in natural sciences.

From Monsoons to Microbes ranges broadly from the ocean's threats — natural disasters, infectious diseases and toxic algal blooms — to its possible benefits for humankind as a source of new medical and pharmaceutical products, and of marine organisms which can be used as tools for biochemical research. But the extent of humanity's interactions with the oceans is immense: no book can cover more than a fraction of it.

This book makes you aware of the potential hazards, but also of the enormous impact the ocean has on our daily life. After all, our global climate is regulated by oceanic currents and the little-understood interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere. Climatic predictions depend on our knowledge of such interactions. Recent studies have documented that we do not have sufficient insight into the regulatory mechanisms of the oceans to predict potential alterations of ocean currents, which could lead to a new ice age within 10–50 years, an unexpected sea-level rise, a steady mean global temperature increase of 2 °C or maybe nothing at all. These uncertainties can only be overcome if interdisciplinary studies in ocean sciences continue and the cooperation of biological and physical oceanographers is reinforced.

The ocean's currents can also distribute infectious diseases to humans who eat infected shellfish, via pathogenic bacteria, viruses or toxic algal species. One wonders why these hazards do not cause more problems in coastal communities, especially in the tropics, which are by far the most vulnerable sites for health and climatic threats.

Public health problems arise most often in heavily urbanized coastal areas, where humans still tend to accumulate. This human behaviour enhances all potential hazards such as eutrophication effects, and concurrent toxic algal blooms. Without mitigation these problems may even prove to be synergistic.

New technologies within the framework of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) enable us to improve our environmental observations of the oceans, which have lagged far behind those on land. In turn, this will strongly improve the predictive capabilities of physical and biological operational models.

Furthermore, we know little as yet about the extent of oceanic biodiversity. A wealth of biological information still awaits us (as long as we control pollution) in the form of marine compounds, which may prove to be of medical and pharmaceutical use. Of course, we have to start new research programmes to deal with this information, but there is a fascinating invisible world below the ocean surface. We've already reached the Moon; now it's time to take a better look inside our oceans.

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Colijn, F., Lippemeier, S. Hidden wealth of data in the depths. Nature 402, 581 (1999) doi:10.1038/45076

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