“The real richness of life beneath the ocean surface is in the microscopic world”

Chris Bowler is a renowned scientist and expert in marine biodiversity. Head of Research at CNRS and Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris, his active participation in the Tara Oceans expedition program (1) has made him one of the best-known scientists to the general public. His work addresses general issues of interest to society: the evolution of life, climate change, the functioning of the planet, pollution of the oceans and seas. For Ocean week, we asked him about our idea to launch a Dialogue on the Ocean to integrate the Oceans’ voice into international negotiations.

Missions Publiques. It is still unknown how many species call the Ocean their home. How did you come about studying life underwater that, to this day, remains largely unexplored?

Children often say they want to become an astronaut or go to the moon, I never said I wanted to be a micro marine biologist! It was serendipity really. I started off by studying plants on land, terrestrial plants, before moving on to working on plants in the ocean, which, rather than being plants you can see on land like trees or flowers, are invisible to the naked eye. They are just as beautiful, but you need a microscope to see them. I started appreciating this marine world in the oldest marine institute in the world, based in Napoli, and wanted to learn more about such organisms.

Missions Publiques. What role do the ocean microorganisms play in the future of our planet?

When you go into a forest, you see life everywhere. You see animals eating, trees growing, insects pollinating etc. When you look at the Ocean you don’t automatically see life. And even when we think of life beneath the ocean, we think of dolphins and fish but the real richness of life beneath the ocean surface is in the microscopic world. Even if we don’t see plants in the ocean, they are just as important in generating organic material from photosynthesis, producing oxygen as the plants on land. They recycle, they generate the material that we eat from sunlight and CO2, they regulate the climate, they ensure the energy passes up the food chains to the larger organisms, they ensure that the ocean stays healthy. We now know that half of the photosynthesis happening on our planet is in the ocean, while the other half is on land. Isn’t that astonishing!

But because these organisms are small and invisible and because we tend to think that something important must be big in size, we overlook them. How can a microbe be so crucial when so small? I think Covid has readjusted our appreciation of microbes. Now we understand that something infinitesimally small like a virus can completely disrupt our society and our lives. In a sense, Covid made us understand how powerful microscopic organisms can be. Yet most microscopic organisms are good, they ensure the wellbeing of our planet.

We must learn how to protect such life while exploiting it for the knowledge it can give us: it can tell us a lot about the origins of life on the planet. These organisms are the descendants of that early life on Earth whereas animals and terrestrial plants give us basic information on how life works on land but don’t go back to the origins of life. The plants in the ocean can be incredible bioresources (2) for finding new molecules to fight cancer, diabetes or even for industrial applications like providing materials currently derived from fossil fuels. If these organisms disappear, it will not only be a huge loss for the ocean but also for us as humans as well. So, it is not only altruistic to want to protect our oceans, but also egoistic!

"When you go into a forest, you see life everywhere. You see animals eating, trees growing, insects pollinating etc. When you look at the Ocean you don’t automatically see life. (...) The real richness of life beneath the ocean surface is in the microscopic world.

Chris Bowler

Head of Research at CNRS
and Ecole Normale Supérieure Paris

Missions Publiques. Planetary boundaries, put simply, are thresholds within which humanity can survive, develop and thrive for generations to come. These nine boundaries create a safe operating limit for survival. Six out of nine of these boundaries have been breached. What must be done to deviate from this trajectory regarding the ocean?

The only thing we must do is stop releasing CO2 into the atmosphere because it determines directly the temperature of our planet. All decisions that need to be taken revolve around one simple question: how to keep carbon out of the atmosphere? Besides the atmosphere, carbon can be in life, either in living organisms or buried in the Earth in the form of coal, oil or gas, or in the form of limestone, which was also created by life. So, the objective is very simple: we have to stop releasing carbon locked away inside the earth into the atmosphere.

All the fossil fuel that we burn was made by life; coal is from trees that once lived there, oil and gas are from plankton that sank to the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. We’re now burning around one million years’ worth of life every year and injecting this organic carbon into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Acidification, a planetary boundary regarding the ocean, is a simple chemical consequence of that: carbon dioxide becomes acidic when mixed with water and kills off its living system. Oceans will continue to acidify for the next 500 years even if we stop burning fossil fuels today. The only solution is to stop using fossil fuels completely, and to do it quickly.

Let’s however give this dramatic landscape a positive spin: witnessing the unleashed creativity of young people is what gives me hope for the future. Solutions to the crisis we’re in are born everyday: from capturing carbon from the atmosphere in innovative ways and generating new energy by harvesting body heat or even a massive solar energy program floating above the planet are examples among thousands that may lead to making a new economy that isn’t based simply on growth.

Missions Publiques. Countless international negotiations aim to improve the state of the Ocean. But the Ocean doesn’t hold any place in these negotiations. We are launching the discussion around a global Dialogue on the Ocean, with the Ocean. We will engage citizens, stakeholders (NGOS, academia, research, institutions and elected officials…) and representatives of the Ocean, who will speak in its name, on an equal footing. If you were invited to engage on behalf of the ocean, what would you say?

I would stress the importance of the microscopic life that is the heart that ensures the wellbeing of the ocean. I would put the accent on this to make people understand that the ocean is essential for regulating the climate and that life in the ocean has its role to play just as the forests have in taking the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Everybody understands the importance of preserving biodiversity in the Amazon, but people get confused when speaking about biodiversity in the ocean. I would like this dialogue to lift that confusion. At least half of the wellbeing of our planet is thanks to the ocean in terms of generating oxygen, in removing CO2 from the atmosphere, in recycling minerals and so on. Our future depends on the good health of the Ocean and the microbes that live there.

Traditionally we think we can throw all our garbage into the ocean, that it will absorb it because it is so huge, so immense. But we actually are having huge impacts on it, we are making it sick and it needs help. We have become an incredible superpower with great influence on destabilizing the equilibria that assure Earth’s ecosystems and climate. This is the key message I would convey.

The question of whom is invited to engage in your dialogue is also an important point: some citizens may be more valuable to the conversation than others. Fishermen are strongly affected when fish migrate or when they are impacted by toxins. They appreciate the ocean and should be engaged, like people from the Maldives or Fiji who see the marine ecosystem disappearing around them. We need to see how they perceive the ocean, how they interact with it. At the same time, many people in the world live next to the sea. People living in cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco or even New York live beside the sea. Those people have a more direct contact than people living somewhere like Paris or Brussels, but it’s also important to engage people living far from the sea to make them understand that the ocean is part of their daily life too, and that if they throw something away on the street, the rain will wash it down into the sewers and that’s the beginning of the passage to the ocean.

From a climatic perspective, what happens in the Arctic and Antarctic, even if it’s at the other end of the planet, will impact our weather several weeks, months and years later. The climate system is all connected and even areas of the ocean that are far away should be understood by including people from the global south, people from cities in land and on the coast, and young people – I find that 15- to 17-year-olds are good indicators and understand where the world is going even better than we do sometimes.

When there were 3 or 4 billion people on the planet (back in the 1980s), we could have changed our future more easily. When we were setting the Montreal protocol for CFCs (3), if we had been brave enough back then to talk about emissions from fossil fuels, maybe we could have fixed it by now. But today, with over 7 billion people on the planet and the challenge to feed this global population without using fossil fuels is massive and I fear it will never reach priority in the 5-year mandate of a politician. No politician will stand up and say, “your children will have to accept not to own a car or a house and have to accept 20% less of daily food”. We all want our children to have a better life than we do, it’s a basic human instinct, but we have somehow to go against that instinct if we want to save their future.

(1) The TARA OCEANS expedition sailed the oceans of the world for two and a half years (2009-2013) on an unprecedented mission: a global study of marine plankton. More info: https://fondationtaraocean.org/en/home/
(2) “Bioresources” are laboratory animals, plants, cells, genes, and microorganisms used for research.
(3) The Montreal Protocol sets binding progressive phase out obligations for developed and developing countries for all the major ozone depleting substances, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons and less damaging transitional chemicals such as hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).
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