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Ocean Index: A Doomsday Clock For The World's Oceans

Scientists are making an effort to quantify the health of our oceans into one easy-to-read score. If that's even possible, will it actually motivate us to change our behavior?

school of fish

The world's oceans are vast, interconnected, and mind-meltingly complex—and a group of scientists gathered together by Conservation International, National Geographic, and the New England Aquarium wants to capture their state in a single number, to be called the Ocean Health Index. You will be able to see, in simple numerical values, the health of the world's ocean ecosystems, and the health of your local area as well.

It's a tall order. Not only the ecology, but the legal, economic, and social status of the oceans in human life consists in a rich brew of treaties, industries, and practices of habitation, recreation, and resource use.

At Miller-McCune, three of the scientists leading the effort are reporting on the pitfalls they face in coming to terms with the enormous topic of the oceans' health. 

A booming whale-watching industry may come at the expense of thriving fisheries, while an emphasis on unpolluted waters may constrain coastal economies. As a consequence, it is no trivial task to answer the question: healthy to whom? Does a fisherman landing a record catch worry that the fish were harvested from increasingly warm and acidic ocean waters? Is a whale-watching tour boat operator concerned that coastal habitats that provide protection from storm damage are in decline?

Multiply this paragraph by a million or more and you begin to express the challenge of the Ocean Health Index project. The scientists see this complexity as an opportunity, however, to think beyond the local focus so common to marine science and policy and engage the question of the fate of the oceans in a holistic way.

To that end, a model for the Ocean Health Index might be found in the Doomsday Clock, the symbolic measure of risk of nuclear annihilation managed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Founded at the dawn of the Cold War, the Doomsday Clock furnished a sobering and evocative reminder of the stakes of world conflict in the nuclear age. Since 1947, the Clock has been reset 19 times; currently it stands at six minutes to midnight, reflecting not only the threat of nuclear proliferation but the menace of climate change.

The Doomsday Clock isn't a rigorous measure of threat level; such a thing would never be possible. Although its influence has waned since the end of the Cold War, it still acts as a polemic and a goad—and for the scientists involved in its maintenance, it's a powerful reminder of the impact their work has on the world at large. 

Perhaps what the planners of the Ocean Health Index need to focus on, in addition to a thorough and rigorous synthesis of global marine science, is the formulation of a charismatic symbol to convey the state of the world's oceans. What should a Doomsday Clock for the sea look like?

[Image: Flickr user lazlo-photo]

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  • matthewbattles

    A smart comment, John—thanks for pitching in. I too am skeptical whether a crude metric can be useful in communicating the perils faced by the world's oceans; the effectiveness of the Doomsday Clock, after all, has declined in the post-Cold-War era, and nuclear annihilation is in any case a formidably discrete and binary prospect compared to the slow-motion decline of ocean ecosystems. I would argue, however, that those perils are hard to visualize, despite the charismatic imagery produced by the Costeaus and their confreres over the decades. The oceans are so vast, they dilute our attempts to capture them in the public imagination. Perhaps in the course of doing the work of synthesis described by the scientists involved in the Ocean Health Index, we'll find new ways of comprehending and talking about the blue Earth—in which case the work would prove more important than its end product. But like you, I'll be surprised if anything like a magic bullet is found.

  • John Howley

    We have a doomsday clock (and a national debt clock in NYC) because the threats of nuclear proliferation and government debt are difficult to visualize.  I'm not sure how much either one has raised awareness or inspired action, but even assuming they've been effective, don't we have more effective means of educating about the wonders of and threats to the oceans?  Think of all the beauty that is there -- much of which we haven't even discovered yet.  See, for example,  We don't need another metric that will be less than accurate and will fail to capture the public's imagination.  We need more Discovery Channels and Jacques Cousteaus to open our eyes to the wonders, beauty, magic, and tragedies of the oceans.

    John Howley