World Ocean Weekly

It's a Good Time to Be a Citizen Scientist!

Citizen Science is a term used to describe non-specialist research and data collection carried out by private individuals, foundations and organizations utilizing the power of the internet to collaborate around the globe. There are many innovative projects and ways that anyone can collect data and conduct research. Interest in citizen science among curious students young and old not only builds awareness of key ocean issues but also promotes greater commitment by the general public to commit to creating positive change for the future of the ocean.

Citizen Science supports oceanographic research projects that help expand the understanding of the world’s oceans through technological advancements, intelligent observation and analysis, and open sharing of information.

The phenomenon of Citizen Science has two excellent outcomes: first, it provides information that cannot be collected by the traditional methods of field research, transcending the challenges of time and cost; and, second, it enlists non-scientists — students at many levels and curious individuals — in the exploration of a challenging question, its solution, and the expansion of public awareness and action from the project derived. Add to this innovation easy access via the Internet and social media to reach other similar citizens worldwide and you have a powerful tool for study and education.

This value is especially true for ocean science wherein the need for observation and data collection is distributed across a vast horizon of geographical, physical, and biological inquiry, none of which is easily or cheaply accessible. The cost to build, maintain, and operate research vessels is enormous and is mostly provided through government funding and some dedicated private philanthropy. New remote, technologically advanced observation systems are proliferating ocean wide; similar autonomous vehicles and technologies for access to the water column and sea floor are also in place. These amplify the collection of data for the most focused experiments, but are exclusive to very precise experiments and data collection and are not available to a large majority of scientists eager to investigate an almost infinite number of questions — a stunning measure of our ignorance about the ocean — how it is, how it works, and what is at risk due to change in critical environmental conditions.

Let me offer some examples:

Let’s say you love penguins, and want to study their behavior and count population numbers over a period of years in places you can never visit? To do so otherwise would be prohibitively time-consuming, physically demanding, and very expensive. Enter Penguin Watch, established by Oxford University in England, which enlists over 4000 volunteers to monitor aerial and time lapse images from rookeries in the southern ocean, taken by remote cameras, to record size and structure of populations from year to year, and to observe molting cycles, predation, and novel behaviors otherwise unobserved. It’s penguins 24/7.

Penguin Watch is comprised of a community of more than 4,000 volunteers who monitor aerial and time lapse images from rookeries in the southern ocean

Whale lover? Go to Happy Whale, created by the Cascadia Research Collective, Olympia, Washington, and Allied Whale, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, where you can track whales all over the world by their unique tail markings as documented by algorithm analysis of photographs taken by individual photographers, whale watching companies, and eco-tourist ships in the most remote whale breeding habitats, migration paths, and feeding grounds. You can locate and follow, even name, a particular whale from place to place, year after year; you can learn, and share, everything you want to know about whales.

“Charlotte’s Hope” was tagged and observed by scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and filmed by BBC ONE for Blue Planet Live, in Charlotte Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula on March 11, 2019. Charlotte’s Hope was then adopted and named by W2O's own Peter Neill as an expression of wonder and optimism for the survival of whales, wild animals and wild places in our ocean world.

Head in the clouds? Go to the International Cloud Atlas, sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a global reference system for observing and identifying clouds, including classifications, historical information, measurements, changing characteristics and other related meteorological phenomena such as halos, snow devils, and rainbows, and now publicly accessible in digital format, presenting thousands of examples of cloud formations in ten accepted categories. You can also join the Cloud Appreciation Society, created by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, where you will find cloud images and events, observation tools, information on clouds in art, music and poetry, a membership pin, a daily cloud fact emailed daily, and access for upload of your personal cloud- spotting efforts.

The Cloud Appreciation Society was launched in 2005 by Gavin Pretor-Pinney as a way to bring together people who love the sky. With members in 120 countries around the world, all are united in the belief that clouds are the most dynamic, evocative and poetic aspect of nature. Become a member today.

Or, are you one of those mesmerized by phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like creatures that drift in the ocean and are the foundation of the food system for marine species, play a critical role in the carbon cycle by drawing CO2 from the atmosphere to the deep ocean, and contribute over half of the Earth’s oxygen, more than the trees and plants combined? Yes, too there is a place for you: Fjord Phyto, a polar citizen science initiatives sponsored by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Here you can train to take water samples in Arctic and Antarctic fjords and submit them for comparative study of these key, ubiquitous, almost invisible exemplars of intense biodiversity.

Follow turtles? Count birds? Pick your interest. For the citizen scientist, there has never been a better time nor more prolific means to be curious about our ocean world.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Feeding Up and Down the Food Chain

Food webs describe who eats whom in an ecological community. In the aquatic food web, humans feed down the food chain, consuming lesser and lesser ocean predators and marine species without a consciousness of the consequences of our actions at the microscopic level. How do we persuade citizens to adopt a different perspective? How do we articulate an optimistic and realistic way of looking at who we are in relation to all the elements of the natural world? This week we look at the aquatic food chain from the bottom up, and ascribe value to the base elements and fundamentals of ocean life so that all life may thrive and provide and endure.

Phytoplankton (and algae), at the lowest trophic level, form the foundation of the aquatic food web. Credit: NOAA |

I once wrote a story about a wise man to whom people came to solve all the problems of the world. He sat on the beach, looked out to the ocean, and saw clearly the way forward for the benefit of everyone. One day, however, all was lost. His view became clouded, vision dimmed, perspective dissolved, until he found himself without wisdom for anyone. What to do? A child came along and asked him what was wrong. “I can’t see, I don’t know,” the wise man responded.” I despair.” The child instructed the man to stand up, turn around, and sit down again — one full, clear circle of movement by which all past assumptions were disrupted and upset, all old visions discarded and fresh ones evolved, to settle down into a new perspective, albeit from the same sandy place, one simple revolution by which the wise man’s ocean view was filled with fresh ideas, re-arrangements, and new counsels for the future.

On a recent lecture tour, I found myself challenged again and again by my inability to penetrate fixed thoughts and opinions about our ocean world, by my failure to find the right vocabulary by which to answer questions, to ignite attention, to attack a convention, to introduce a different way of thinking or response to frustrating circumstance, to persuade listeners to adopt a different perspective. At one point we were talking about the marine food chain and the dynamics of the ocean water column. We spoke of “feeding down the food chain,” the process by which we, the dominant human species, consumes marine species downward, harvesting without limit lesser predators who in turn are harvesting without limit lesser predators still until we reach the microscopic world of diatoms and other phytoplankton and the myriad other creatures that inhabit the bottom where the insidious consequences of our actions now reach.

At one point in that conversation, it occurred to me that there was a very different way of describing this phenomenon; it was as if an invisible small child had picked me up and turned me round. What if we look at this chain from the other end? What if we stop framing the argument by arranging the science to focus first on us, and on our fear of consequence as this structure of predation descends toward depletion, endangerment, indeed extinction of the species we so desperately need to survive? What if we started from the opposite point of view: from the bottom, from the base elements and fundamental value of ocean life, and described the process as an upward spiral of production, each piece adding value to the piece above, as an elegant, self-affirming cycle of increase, not decrease, of abundance not loss?

What would such a system look like? It would look exactly the same actually, but for the fundamental premise of its being, its conservation, its proliferation shifted from unlimited, indiscriminate harvest to manageable, sustainable growth. What if our policies and actions were re-focused on the total health of the water column as a place where every creature, providing protein up the ladder would be protected and nurtured and available for the next? If we could accept such a perspective, we would have a rationale for maintenance of water quality, the water cycle from mountain-top to coast to abyssal plain, at the highest level of purity and availability for every species from the bottom up to thrive and provide and endure. No more dumping of acid, pollutants, and waste, no more disruptions of the ocean floor by any form of extraction, no more plastic for every species to ingest through its invasion of this essential food chain into our bodies and health. By so doing, could not every level of our being on earth, energized by the sun, supported by an adequate, sustaining supply of water and food, be freed from the debilitating conditions we know now — starvation, drought, poverty, disease, insecurity, conflict — could not it all be reduced, even obliterated, and the world we live in improved by associated social outcomes — community, justice, and peace?

By such a radical revolution, could we address and deny despair? Could we articulate an optimistic, and realistic, way of looking at who we are in relation to all elements of the natural world? Could we express such change by new applications of science and technology? By fresh conversations about social and financial issues? By innovative political arrangements and regulatory agreements? By renewed action to reverse our separations and to bring us together?

We are like the wise man on the beach who lost faith in what he knew. But a child stood him up and turned him around with a simple revolution from an exhausted worldview to a new idea.

Why don’t we give it a try?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Thoughts on Antarctica, part two

Reflections on experiences in the Last Wilderness


Some weeks ago I wrote about an upcoming trip to the far south, to nobody's land, from which I have now safely returned.

The encounter was limited only by the vastness of the continent and means of accessibility - by ship from Ushuaia, Argentina, down the Beagle Channel, across the notorious Drake Passage and on the Weddell Sea to the Eklund Island off the continental mainland. Conditions for transit were deceptively calm. Excitement was high.

What followed left me speechless, an unusual, anomalous condition. I have distilled the experience down to the idea of hallucination, a condition of mind transcended by the infinite stimulus before me. The dimensions were unlimited except for colored layers of dark or blue sky, streaks of red and yellow sunlight at dawn and dusk, bands of shifting grey fog, white levels and fragments of broken ice, lines of wind descending from the land to striate the water surface, and the ocean itself with its greens, blues, and blacks at its declining depths. There were also marks of color: turquoise slashed in the glacial faces, deeper in the eroded caves and along the edges of the icebergs. There were sometimes minute punctuations of red, yellow, and green, of algae, moss, and seaweeds. A single orange starfish lay submerged in the rocks alongshore.

What further surprised was the sound: the absence of the constant ambient noise of so-called civilization, supplanted by the aural presence of the sudden change of moving air aloft, the internal groans of the glaciers, the crack of calving ice breaking free from the edges, the gravel grinding at the tide line. There were also the calls of birds, the yawns of seals, the rush of penguins diving in and out of the sea, and the encircling expulsion of air by the humpbacks and other whales surrounding - a two-part blow: out then in, like a submarine bellows. Our shouts of joy were lost in the cacophony of pure, natural life.

I felt as if I was present, not so much at the end of the earth, but at its beginning - the volcanic thrusts of granite and ice, the elemental movement of atmosphere and ocean, the emptiness that was the first garden before the invasion of predators and invasive species as specious as we eco-tourists, playing at exploration, bringing with us, inevitably, bits and pieces of our bad habits, extracting value as direct witnesses and indirect subverts of this awesome wildness. One night we slept out on the ice, and I felt nothing but insignificance and emptiness.

Gerlach Strait. Credit Mary Barnes

And guilt. Yes, I felt guilty for the privilege of being there, for the invisible damage I had collectively caused that underlay this beauty - the plastic, the acid, the particles and particulates of poisons that were already there and microscopically measurable, even if unseen, for the insufficiency of response to problems known but left unsolved. It was a brutal confrontation with the inadequacy of our science, our politics, our sense of equity and justice, our human imagination. I confess an all-consuming anger that this place was subtly but inexorably being consumed by the likes of me, and that it was evermore my duty, my obligation, my obsession, to inform, educate, proselytize, and act relentlessly to change my ways and ask others to join in changing theirs at a scale that can not only protect and conserve Antarctica, but redress by acting and living differently as individuals, as citizens, and as advocates for solutions to the social crises we face through our ongoing indifference to the natural world.

Did I have to go so far away to learn his?

In the end, what remains as conclusion? Despite the vastness and the power of the Antarctic landscape, I can think only of the fragility of it all - the dangers for the place and for ourselves if we remain unmoved and unmoving in our place and time.

What will it take?

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

500 Episodes of World Ocean Radio

This week marks the 500th episode of World Ocean Radio. For more than 10 years, World Ocean Radio has been engaging in dialogue about ocean issues, suggesting solutions to today's problems, and championing for the change required to conserve and sustain all natural resources for the benefit of all mankind. Originally broadcast through WERU-FM in Blue Hill, Maine, World Ocean Radio is now heard via college and community radio stations, podcast and Internet radio on five continents around the world.

This week we broadcast our 500th edition of World Ocean Radio. Ten years. Weekly deadlines. Topics as diverse as the sea itself. To commemorate we’d like to offer a reprise of our very first episode of World Ocean Radio.

For many, the ocean is a place apart, a vast wilderness extending beyond our physical and psychological horizons, at once alien and indifferent, fascinating and compelling, about which we know very little.

But consider these facts:

  • The ocean covers 71% of the earth’s surface.
  • The ocean is a central element in the recycling and purification of fresh water.
  • The ocean provides 90% of the world’s protein, especially in developing nations.
  • 60% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of an ocean coast.


The reality is that the ocean is essential to human survival, a primary source of food, water, climate, and community — immediate, universal, and undeniable. In short, the ocean is the determinant ecology in which we live — the sea connects all things.

When we envision the ocean as a wilderness, we are ignoring the reality of the ocean as a place where humans have left their mark throughout history by exploration and exploitation, immigration and trade, and the exchange of custom and culture. To look today from a satellite, one can see that the ocean is marked constantly by the tracks of ships, the tools of globalization through marine transport as old as the ancient Han in the Pacific, the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean, and the Vikings in the Atlantic.

What has changed over time, however, is the impact of human population growth whereby the use of the ocean has increased exponentially so that today the ocean evinces a shift from abundance to scarcity and from accommodation to conflict.

This is well exemplified by the crisis in fisheries. Research has documented the collapse of certain species such as cod that once formed the staple diet of much of North America and Europe, a result of a complex of causes to include unrestricted catch, the advent of new, efficient gear and technology, and the unwillingness of fishers, both artisanal and industrial, to work cooperatively toward a sustainable harvest. This problem was further compounded by the difficulty of regulation, a result of lack of jurisdiction outside of national economic zones, the inability to monitor or enforce quotas, and the failure of governance to address the challenge.

There are many other examples. What underlies them all, however, is the understanding that just as there are social causes to these problems, there must also be social solutions. We can complain and accuse and litigate, but the true solution lies with our determination to deal with both the cause and effect of our need to domesticate Nature, terrestrial or marine, for human use and to engage in the dialogue and change required to conserve and sustain all natural resources for the benefit of all mankind.

To inform this understanding is the purpose of World Ocean Radio.

Looking back, I am grateful to so many for the acceptance, production, and distribution of these editions: to Matt Murphy, Station Manager at WERU Community Radio in Blue Hill, Maine, where the idea was welcomed with open arms, and where every edition to date has been originally broadcast; to World Ocean Observatory Managing Director, Trisha Badger, and before her, Amelia Poole, who have edited and clarified my mistakes and posted these editions to affiliated stations and other outlets worldwide; and to the many other scientists, ocean experts, innovators, activists, and global publications from which so much of the research and content has been derived; and to all of you, Citizens of the Ocean, who have heard, shared, and acted as a result of these personal thoughts made public through the miracle of radio and the Internet.

I have one anecdote that sums up my feelings about all this: one evening, leaving a restaurant in a town far from my own, I was talking with friends as we reached the street. Several strangers were just walking by the door, but then, one stopped and turned back toward me and exclaimed: “ I know that voice! World Ocean Radio!” And then we all walked on.

Thanks, strangers and friends, for listening and for reading episode transcripts here via our Medium blog. The Sea Connects All Things.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues. 500 episodes and counting!


Are We Changing Our Collective Attitude on Climate Change?

The World Ocean Observatory advocates through communications, using every tool available to reach a growing international audience of Citizens of the Ocean to inform, unite, focus, and enable public engagement and response to global challenges to the sustainable ocean. Who do we reach? How many? What are the available means to measure the effect of such an endeavor?

Our team looks at web stats, program links, subscriber numbers and reactions to relentless messaging on social media. On Facebook alone, the World Ocean Observatory has more than 784,000 followers worldwide, a continuous measure of reach, growth, and reaction. Our weekly podcast, World Ocean Radio, is syndicated through 44 stations in the United States, additionally selected through the Public Radio Exchange and the Pacifica Network, delivered weekly to podcast subscribers, re-posted and shared through internet sites such as our own World Ocean Forum, Medium and via this platform. It is heard abroad in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and along both costs of Africa through internet stream. A reasonable calculation of the interconnected size of this audience potential could legitimately claim connection to hundreds of thousands of listeners, possibly millions.

But even so, does it make any difference?

I was heartened recently by a report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, the result of an annual survey taken in the United States, measuring the state of public awareness and political views on issues relating to climate reality, global warming, political bias, and the implication of measured opinion for the future. The Yale Program, directed by Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, has its own excellent website that features Yale E360, a daily distribution of climate news, plus other excellent features, analyses, and publications; I urge you to read and to subscribe.

Surveying results from 2008 though 2018, the Yale report (Climate Change in the American Mind, March 2018) notes in the last year a significant upward shift of 5 to 7 to 9% by registered voters in terms of understanding and concern over the existence and human causing of climate change, registered voters who are “somewhat” or “very” worried about global warming and the need take reactive measures. While the increases vary according to political party orientation, the numbers in support are at an all-time high.

The survey also addresses four different types of proposed national policies for the United States to reduce carbon pollution, decrease dependence on fossil fuels, and promote clean energy. Specifically, it sought opinion on 1) The Green New Deal, a ten-year plan to invest in green technology, energy efficiency, and infrastructure to make the nation 100% reliant on clean renewable resources; 2) The Clean Power Plan, the setting of strict carbon dioxide emission limits on coal-fired plants to reduce global warming and improve public health; 3) A Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax, requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax that would be directed to reduce other taxes, such as income, in equal amount; and 4) A Fee and Dividend Proposal, requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a fee on carbon pollution, the funds to be distributed as dividend to United States citizens in equal amounts.

These would seem controversial and unlikely given the survey just a year ago. But here are the 2018 results for support of the Green New Deal: 81% positive for all registered voters; 92 % of Democrats; 88% of Independents; and 64% of Republicans. Or how about these results for Fee and Dividend? 63% of registered voters; 78% of Democrats; 66% of Independents; and 39% of Republicans. The results for the other plans were similar.

Frankly, I found these numbers astonishing. Yes, you can quibble about methodology and all the rest when challenging the accuracy of such surveys, but consider the relative shift in favor of ideas that just a few years ago would have not even been considered by the public. I take heart from this response. It signals a serious shift in awareness and understanding of the need for new values, structures, and behaviors if we are to meet the critical challenge of changing climate, made more evident to us all everyday.

Let’s credit communications. Credit the press that has reported the climate-related consequences affecting people all over the world. Credit the scientists who have steadfastly promoted the data and the evidence in the face of irrational denial. Credit the authors of a library of important books on the environment predicting the impacts to come, even if not then yet apparent to us all. Credit the few, dedicated politicians who have spoken constantly to the legislature and the leadership, even if persistently ignored. Credit the citizens themselves who have seen the evidence, taken stock, and now intend to apply that understanding as political will.

It would appear we are not a minority to be dismissed after all. It would appear that we are substantial majority prepared to act. Through communications, we are now measurable numbers of informed citizens prepared to take control of our lives, our environment, our politics, and our future. There is hope after all.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.