Dr. Geoff Shester with his underwater robot "Gino." (Spectrum News/Tara Lynn Wagner)

Oceana researchers say protecting the ocean is key to combating climate change

MONTEREY, California – A little robot. An iPhone. A camera that looks almost strange. These are the tools Dr. Geoff Shester uses to explore an alien world.

“It’s just another world down there,” he said. “It’s basically how close we can really get to being on another planet.”

What you need to know

  • The ocean absorbs over 90% of the heat and CO2 captured in our atmosphere
  • Ocean’s Geoff Shester says that without this buffer, Earth’s temperatures would climb to inhospitable levels
  • Rising sea temperatures and acidity are damaging marine life
  • The 30 out of 30 project is a global effort to protect 30% of the ocean from human activity by 2030

Shester fell in love with the sea when he first started diving, a love that made him immerse himself in a career with Oceana where he spends his time studying life under the sea, using tools like a compact, red Geneinno underwater robot that he affectionately calls Gino.

“Come here, little Gino!” he cooed as he steered it back to the surface. “Come here, buddy!”

Gino is his everyday robot, but there are others. During a recent trip to Alaska, he used a much larger underwater camera that required the help of several hands as it was mechanically lifted on and off the boat.

“It’s about using new technology to help save the ocean,” he said.

The health of the sea is something that worries him every day. What many do not realize, he said, is how connected what we do above ground is to what happens under the waves. Take, for example, greenhouse gas emissions. Gases such as carbon dioxide capture heat in the atmosphere, but for decades the sea has acted as a kind of buffer and absorbed over 90% of the heat and CO2 we emit into the air.

“If we did not have the ocean and we put all this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet would be about 100 degrees warmer now,” Shester explained, “which would basically make the entire planet inhospitable.”

It is an important role, but it costs money. Just as temperatures rise on Earth, the ocean also experiences heat waves, enough to damage fisheries, wildlife and deep-sea corals. CO2 also makes the sea more acidic, making it harder for crabs and oysters to build their shells.

“Even just a few degrees of temperature change can mean life or death for many marine animals,” Shester said. “Once you get over some of these turning points, you can not go back.”

But despite these alarming trends, he is still strong.

“For me, the sea is a place of hope,” he explained. “It’s amazing how resilient the sea can be.”

Marine protected areas, where people, fishing and drilling are prohibited, are now once again teeming with marine life. The 30 out of 30 project is a global effort to protect 30% of the sea in this way by 2030.

Shester also emphasizes the need to end our dependence on fossil fuels. Not only because of environmental concerns but also man-made disasters such as oil spills, “which will essentially happen,” he said.

This is something he has seen the effects of, after boarding the Exxon Valdez Restoration Office in Anchorage Alaska.

“There is no way to ultimately prevent oil spills and unfortunately there is really no way to clean them up,” he said.

Surrounded by water, Shester keeps a watchful eye on everything, big and small, those who fly and those who swim. And of course he looks at the horizon. Changes are already taking place out there in the great ocean, but it is not too late to reverse the trend.

“It’s our treasure. It’s our egg that we are here to protect,” he said, “and I just feel a sense of responsibility and surprise at the same time.”

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