World Ocean Weekly

Environmental Crime

As we consider the solutions that must evolve if we are to meet the serious challenges to the integrity and sustainability of the world ocean, it behooves of us to remember the decisions that brought us to this moment. With the wisdom of hindsight I suppose, we can look back and identify the actions and decisions taken by individuals in corporations and government to whom we owe the crisis we face.  In retrospect, I dare say these are environmental crimes committed sometimes inadvertently but most times with the eyes of those accountable wide open. Here are five that I consider most egregious:

First, there was the full amplification of the industrial revolution with its reliance on growth driven by fossil fuels, coal then oil and gas. All of us have benefited from this historical progress and it has energized our security and defense, built our economy, and defined our work, our play, and our future. Decisions made along the way can be excused perhaps, the novel short-term benefit and rewards of scale out-weighing consequence, then mostly unforeseen. We established fossil fuels as the engine for civilization and pursued consumption as the essence of our national and international system. How could we have foreseen the negative outcome? How could we know that the release of carbon in various forms into the air that would be revealed as localized smog, then atmospheric distribution, then out-fall into the rivers, lakes, and oceans, then the disruption of water temperature, changing weather patterns, glacial melt, shifting currents, sea-level rise, and all the other outcomes with which we are now forced to deal?

Well, now of course, it is revealed that we did know, that the scientists at the energy companies and research academies were aware of the reality, the extent, and the full implication of what was to come, and they ignored the knowledge, subverted the studies, denied the emerging evidence, and still to this day work against full public understanding of what such action has meant for our health and well-being.  If crime is defined as “an action or incidence of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or the State,” then these decisions qualify as criminal and those who made them should be held accountable.

Second, this first crime was compounded by another: fracking--the continuing effort to reclaim the last value from exhausted wells that has destroyed farmland and farming communities, displaced thousands from their livelihood, created new problems of polluted run-off and waste, poisoned water and sludge that has found its way into watersheds, been secreted in hidden dumps, and extended profits to the industry as a last initiative to offset the reality of social and climate consequence. This decision was even more cynical, the executives and investors acing with pre-meditation, and the regulators subverted by lobbyists and political donations.

Third, fossil fuels also drove the invention of fertilizers, insecticides, and plastic – all now revealed as deadly as evinced by nitrogen run-off, industrial farming, and the manufacture and discard of containers and other stuff that defiles our roadsides, clogs our dumps, streams in our rivers, and deposits useless deteriorating debris the world over that is now ingested as deleterious poison by animals in the water column and by us in our ignorance.

Fourth, there is the cumulative crime of acidification – the aggregations of all this consequence into chemical change in the pH of the ocean that degrades habitats, modifies nutrition, and works up and down the food chain threatening every species on earth with its very survival. And fifth, as if this is not enough, there is the unregulated, often illegal harvest of the “fruits of the sea,” the ocean-nurtured protein on which the entire system relies. All these are connected. They begin not with some kind of big bang accident or divine will, but rather with the overt decisions of every one of us who, willingly or unwillingly, has participated in this syndicate of crime.

Is this over-wrought, as a useless retro-hand-wringing accusation of responsibility and guilt? Some will say so, but I am moved to write this down to make certain that I understand that it is not just the irresponsible executives or greedy shareholders or compromised politicians or uninformed citizens that are to blame; it was and is all of us, then and now, who participate, enable, fail to vote, and otherwise decline to take back and preserve the integrity and sustainability of the ocean as the primary source and system for our future.  To not do so is criminal.

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.

A Climate Conversion

Paper mills to aquaculture facilities, retired military bases to incubators for green start-ups, the possibility of re-purposing a shipyard for destroyers into a hub re-programmed to 21st century needs and jobs: industries are shifting away from conventional and failing ways of doing business to an embrace of enterprising and inventive opportunities for a sustainable future.

We speak of climate change and the climate challenge; we articulate our growing despair over what can be done at what scale to mitigate or adapt; we fear that no single person, or no single action, can make a difference on a scale of consequence that is affecting every aspect of our lives. We cling to straw, Styrofoam container and plastic bag bans,knowing that, while each bit helps and counts, the total does not even approach a transformative response to the problem.

So what constitutes a real solution? Some friends and neighbors here in Maine, ardent advocates for change and social justice, have begun a movement for conversion — the re-purposing specifically of Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, and the state’s largest defense contractor and a major employer, that is now contracted for construction of Zumwalt destroyers for the U.S. Navy at its shipyard on the Kennebec River.

BIW is a small element in the so-called American military industrial complex. The U.S. Navy is a massive collection of firepower and mobility, and is larger than the next 13 national fleets combined. The cost to operate, maintain, and renew this Navy is astronomical. A Zumwalt destroyer costs $7 billion. General Dynamics has already received corporate subsidies of $194 million from the State of Maine and the city of Bath, with another $45 million recently approved by the state legislature. How many times do the taxpayers have to pay for these ships — at federal, state and local levels — to a for-profit company that in 2017 compensated its CEO at a reported $21 million and otherwise distributed ample profits to its private shareholders? The entire enterprise is a house of cards justified in the name of national security.

But changing climate is now also understood as a challenge to national and local security. Sea level rise threatens to inundate the thousands of U.S. Navy coastal facilities in the U.S. and around the world. Ironically, for over a decade now, the Pentagon has acknowledged the immediate risks and threat-multiplier effect of climate-caused conditions in the form of flooding, drought, wildfires, dislocation, refugee relocation, in turn leading to further political instability, escalating conflict, and the possibility of climate war. Additionally, the Pentagon has the largest carbon footprint on the planet, generating more than 70% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and uses more oil than that consumed by 175 countries combined. U.S. foreign policy is predicated on oil, with military deployments engaged overtly and covertly in the protection of global oil resources worldwide. Bath Iron works is a very small part of a very big situation. Frankly, as such, it is dispensable, American national defense not really compromised by one less destroyer.

But BIW could become a model example of climate conversion, a shift from a fragile and artificial viability into a new place attuned to the new realities of the climate-changed world, a more stable workplace for a skilled workforce re-programmed to 21st century needs, national and regional, and engaged in the creation of new responses to changing natural, financial, and social circumstance. BIW could run on new non-fossil fuel energy; it could build new cargo ships and coastwise transports that will be required to service offshore wind or distribute goods beyond the already exceeded capacity of highways and trucks; it could fabricate alternative energy devices, high speed trains, electric buses, wind and solar arrays, hi-tech greenhouses, underwater turbines, aquaculture and desalination equipment, and other applied design and manufacturing production for a sustainable planet. It could determine its own future, not just rely on presidential, congressional, or private corporate budgetary whims desperately affirmed by the State political delegation.

There are, in fact, stunning examples of such a conversions — one in Bath, Maine, of all places, where the closing of a naval air station brought sudden devastating despair to some 5,000 employees and the community economy. However, now, a regional re-development authority has mobilized to use public finance to convert and improve the facilities and to attract aerospace industries, small manufacturing companies, green start-up businesses, plastic recycling facilities, and other 21st century enterprise to re-employ workers, enlist new skills, and attract new investors with inevitable positive consequence for the community and its quality of life.

A second comparable example is a new state-of-the-art aquaculture facility just down the road in Belfast, Maine, being constructed on the site a recently bankrupt paper mill, from the closing of which the community thought it would never recover.

Out with the old, in with the new; that’s called regeneration. Swords into plowshares, isn’t that how the story goes? These are examples of applied optimism, a positive reaction to the climate challenge, not as closing and collapse, but as opening and opportunity. Invention and conversion: these are pathways to the future.

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.

The Halcyon Ocean

denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy, calm, and peaceful.
A bird in Greek legend generally associated with the kingfisher. There was an ancient belief that the bird nested on the sea, which it calmed in order to lay its eggs on a floating nest.

Here is an evocative story: According to Greek mythology, Alkyone, the daughter of the god of the winds, became so distraught when she learned that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck that she threw herself into the sea and was changed into a kingfisher. As a result, ancient Greeks called such birds halcyon and the myth ensued that these birds built floating nests on the ocean that so moved the wind god that he created a state of breathless quiet on the water that protected the eggs until the fledglings were born. This legend prompted the use of halcyon both as a noun naming a genus of kingfisher and as an adjective describing unusual, primordial calm.

Calm can be associated with the ocean - a state desirable as an alternative to chaos. On a recent trip to Antarctica, there was much discussion of the Drake Passage, a convergence of current and weather from Cape Horn south, that was portrayed as a collision of wind and wave that wrecked ships and marked its sailors for life as survivors. Our passage both ways was across a placid sea, birds and dolphins racing alongside, not even a hint of any storm to come. I can't say that I was disappointed.

Calm can be also associated with an inner state of being - a neuro-chemical-physical quietude, a desirable condition that expels and denies the neurotic conditions of our lives and brings us peace of mind and body. Be calm we say to our children grappling with their futures; be calm we say to our parents and friends in illness or grappling with the fear of death; be calm we say to ourselves en route to Antarctica, it's going to be a Drake Lake. And it was.

Why is it that all major religions involve water as an essential place of ritual: baptism, cleansing, purity of purpose and soul? The ocean is a vast reservoir of water to the point of no dimension: its horizon has no meaning; its depth and breadth cannot be perceived, disorienting in space and disconnecting in time. The ocean is in constant movement and there is no foretelling, even with the best observations above and below, that can be said to be certain. A storm can materialize in a sudden shift of pressure; a wind can reach gale force by a minor adjustment of degree; a reef or bar can appear when the charts and satellites assert that for all time there has been nothing there. Clearly, the ocean strikes every chord, each lost in one coherent resonating tone.

Dr. Nichols has shared blue marbles around the world with millions of people in celebration of our beautiful, fragile, planet, carrying the simple and clear #BlueMind message.I have a friend, colleague, and fellow ocean advocate, Wallace J. Nichols, who for years has given out a simple blue glass marble as a evocation of the Earth from space - presented to any and all, from national presidents to the Dalai Lama to the most secular surfer, literally to thousands who understand the ocean calm, directly or indirectly, through experience, study, and intuition.

I have emulated this distribution myself, carrying marbles with me as an almost perfect metaphor that I can hold up to the light to release the calm, the fluidity, and the peace of the ocean world in my hand. It connects, it captures and refracts all the available light, and it consistently elicits a quiet understanding between those assembled, even in a crowded elevator, a giant auditorium, and across borders of nations and the boundaries of language. J. writes about Blue Mind - what he measures physically in the body, psychologically in the head, and spiritually in the heart - a pervasive state of harmonic blue. He has relentlessly spread this message and I hope he will never stop.

How many stories in how many cultures is there an account of the wife bereft of her fisher husband lost at sea, grieving and regenerating through immersion in such a dynamic, mysterious space? How many floating nests will be accommodated by the ocean, over how many generations? How many fledglings will find the ocean calm to clear their way?


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.

A Celebration of Maritime Heritage


World Ocean Observatory is partnering with Main Street Bucksport for the 4th annual International Maritime Film Festival, a celebration of maritime heritage, spirit of adventure, concern for the environment, and ingenuity of boats and waterborne pursuits. This week we introduce the film fest and share their call for submissions. And we reflect on the importance and power of the written word, photographs and film to make us aware of issues and to act toward change with new conviction.


Learn more about submitting a film at

In pursuit of tools by which to portray the ocean in its full dimension and to convince our neighbors and our leaders that it must be respected and conserved for the benefit of all life on earth, we use words, and sounds and images as means to affect our senses and our emotions and thereafter to shift our reasoning and our actions toward sustainability and preservation of its systems.

Words can paint a picture and, as primarily a wordsmith, I am dedicated to that method as means. Sounds can speak for themselves, just as they can augment words. The underwater calls of whales, for instance, is a hauntingly beautiful case in point — an eerie, almost alien vibration that evokes response, implies connection among creatures that are individual yet communal, and declares possession of an environment that reveals another mystery of life.

And then there are pictures.

If we are inundated with words and sounds these days, then we are being maxi-whelmed by pictures — the constant flash of forms and compositions that suffuse our senses into a relentless experience of light. We have begun to communicate with visuals, like hieroglyphs in a sequence of optical meanings intended to add up to something, typically awareness of a person or product that we are commanded to consume. We are diverted by stories told visually — graphics and cartoons, ads and animations, films as narrative and documentary, and social media where some communication strategies are based on the easy click bait of pretty pictures by which to enlist viewers exponentially to a cause.

The key understanding here is that words, sounds, and images are the tools of narrative — the art of using story to reveal people, places, and ideas in a stream of encounter and meaning. There is tradecraft: the manipulation of time, voice, place, and metaphor to reveal connections and relevance, and to engage an audience rationally and emotionally. A good story will make you angry and make you cry, make you laugh and make you think, make you aware and make you act with new conviction.

The ocean is an infinite seascape for story, and to that end, the World Ocean Observatory has announced a partnership with Maine Street Bucksport for the presentation of the 4th Annual International Maritime Film Festival, a celebration of maritime vitality through films on a broad range of themes from yachting and leisure, to boatbuilding and restoration, history and cultural heritage, environmental and ocean science, and more.

If you know of such films, recently produced, please urge their immediate submission. To submit a film or to learn more, visit Maritime Film Festival judging is not category-specific; all films will be evaluated in relation to each other, in one of two tracks: Feature Length (40 minutes or more), or Shorts (under 40 minutes). All films are to be in English, or to carry English subtitles. Prizes are to be awarded and promoted through the World Ocean Observatory social media audience of over 800,000 Citizens of the Ocean worldwide. The festival will take place at the historic Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine, September 27- 29, 2019. Other festival sponsors include WoodenBoat Magazine and The Island Institute.

These films deserve an audience far beyond midcoast Maine. Our intent to package this year’s films with winners from the prior year’s festivals into a national tour for showings by maritime museums, environmental groups, educational institutions, and conservation organizations with interest in maritime affairs. If your organization would like to sponsor an event locally, please contact for further information.

Words, sounds, and images: these can be combined into a powerful medium for communication. Alexander von Humboldt, the great 19th century naturalist traveled the world observing and recording his surroundings in his journals, his descriptions, and his drawings; in Views of Nature: Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomena of Creation with Scientific Illustrations, published in 1850, he is said to have invented a new genre of nature writing, combining ”lively prose and rich landscape descriptions with detailed and evocative visual observations” that found its way down through a sequence of observers such as Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachael Carson, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, among many others. Today, film is the medium of choice and the extension of this tradition, its purpose is the same: to describe, convince, and protect the full dimension of Nature.

The International Maritime Film Festival is sponsored by Main Street Bucksport in collaboration with the World Ocean Observatory. September 27 – 29, 2019

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.

Ocean Systems and Saltwater Engineering

Seawater: a resource for fresh drinking water, for robust renewable energy, and perhaps so much more. This week we explore the potential for inventive ideas using ocean systems that have yet to be imagined.

The ocean is this enormous volume of saltwater, and, while it covers a majority of the Earth’s surface, we often ignore it in favor of our more immediate need for fresh water to survive. This distinction misinforms many things: for example, in the world of policy and science, the separation of salt and fresh results in the fact that at the international meetings of the World Water Forum, a gathering of thousands of government and scientific leaders, presenting hundreds of learned papers on the topic of water, the ocean is almost never mentioned as an integral part of the global water cycle. The line of jurisdiction and interest is drawn at that ephemeral place where water becomes brackish or fresh, the so-called salt line below which is of little concern to the assembled expertise. It seems to me that this is bad science that can only result in bad policy, but I am no expert in these things.

When we do think of salt water, we see it as a solution in which is suspended the marine food chain of species, large and small, that depend on that hospitable host fluid to thrive.

We sometimes, but only recently, have begun to think of salt water as a possible source for fresh water supply, as unconventional irrigation for certain crops, and as a medium from which to extract heat geo-thermally as an alternative energy supply. But surely, such a vast resource must have other serious uses that could be of even greater benefit for the future.

Let me describe a few. First, there is technology in development that will use the energy of the sun to turn salt water into fresh drinking water. Researchers at Rice University have engineered a portable device, using nano-technology that combines membrane filtration with light-harvesting photonics to convert hot salt water, passing over a porous surface, to cold and enhancing the distillation process using less and freely available energy for application off the grid in coastal areas where the salt water is readily available. While the devices under test are small and portable, it would be possible to upscale the technology to serve larger areas, rural water systems and wastewater treatment, humanitarian emergency response in remote sites, and use for offshore facilities surrounded by the ocean.

A second example is the use of saltwater for flushing of toilets and other effluent treatment, predictably questionable with regard to chlorine, chemical disinfectants, and other possible toxins that might adversely affect the marine habitat. But studies have suggested the opposite: that such a system might actually improve and protect marine ecosystems, in fact be less impactful that similar discharge of freshwater flushing only which upsets the normal conditions of localized habitats at treatment outlets. If such a technology could be applied safely, again at scale think of the pressure drop on consumption of freshwater supplies already limited.

A third example is the use of sea water for air-conditioning in urban areas and southern regions. The introduction of deep cold water from a lake or the ocean suggests a technology that takes advantage of available adjacent supply and is more economically and environmental friendly by conserving freshwater and substantially reducing energy costs. Studies by Makai Ocean Engineering in Hawaii suggest that such a system reduces the cost of conventional air-conditioning by 90%; decreases reliance generally of fossil fuels thereby alleviating air pollution, acid rain, and global warming; has short-term economic payback and long-term savings; is independent of fluctuating energy prices; is available for alternative utilities like sanitation; and again relieves demand on dwindling freshwater supplies. This technology is presently being used in six institutions with others in progress.

And finally a fourth example: the use of saltwater flow over a specially patterned surface to generate electrical voltage — essentially the movement of ions over a charged surface, the friction of positives over negatives resulting in an electrical potential difference, again potentially scaled by the speed of flow, the area of surface, and the efficiency of collecting and aggregating the charge as energy. (See Sciencing: Making Electricity from Salt Water)When I think of the areas of concrete in drainages, the faces of dams, and the frontage of sea walls and piers, I see an amazing secondary utility, that water generating the power to monitor those constructs, to run pumps, and to illuminate areas for safety, navigation, and other necessary economical use.

It’s all about invention, and I would submit that we have not even begun to explore ocean systems, to invent advantageous adaptation and response, and to derive heretofore unimagined advantage from the beneficent ocean.

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.