Human Damage to World Oceans Mapped, 40% “Strongly Impacted”

by Ian O'Neill on February 14, 2008

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Science study map of most imapcted oceans on the planet (credit: B. S. Halpern/Telegraph Online)
If we needed any more proof that we as a race are damaging the worlds oceans, for the first time, our impact has been mapped by new study to be published in Science. It makes for uncomfortable viewing. Taking 17 known types of human impact on marine ecosystems, this new research suggests that only 4% of the oceans are relatively untouched, whilst 40% are strongly impacted by human activity. The most impacted marine ecosystems include the North Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf, the Bering Sea, the East coast of North America and in much of the western Pacific.

The new, high-resolution map of predominantly yellow regions and red dots could be mistaken for a global temperature map. However, this map is the first of its kind, mapping damaging human activity in the worlds oceans. At first glance it is obvious that most of the oceans have been affected in some way by the continued onslaught of human activity, with only the Polar Regions holding some of the most pristine and untouched seas. These are about the only portions of the map where the reach of human activity cannot grasp, but as global warming increases, the protective ice-sheets are likely to reveal more sea for humankind to exploit.

This new research was released today at the AAAS Annual Meeting and will be published in the February 15th issue of Science. The scientists behind this study are attending a special three day seminar on “Managing Threats to Marine Ecosystems”. Although this work highlights the concerns about damage to our oceans, it may also aid future efforts to preserve areas of low human impact and will help us identify the worst affected regions.

Whether one is interested in protecting ocean wilderness, assessing which human activities have the greatest impact, or prioritizing which ecosystem types need management intervention, our results provide a strong framework for doing so.” – Kimberly Selkoe of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, CA and the University of Hawaii.

The map was created by dividing the Earths oceans into a grid of 1km×1km squares. The 17 contributing human factors were identified (including fishing, coastal development, fertiliser runoff and pollution from shipping traffic) and the extent at which each grid-point was influenced by each contributing factor was calculated. An “impact score” was then allocated at each location to rate how 20 different types of ecosystem are affected by each factor. It was found that an astonishingly high 41% of the oceans had medium-high to high impact ratings. 0.5% had very high impact ratings, representing 2.2 million square km (850,000 square miles).

Although these results may seem grim, it is the first chance scientists have had to evaluate the worst affected oceans, and many appear upbeat about managing the oceans better, preserving what is left of our pristine seas.

Our results show that when these and other individual impacts are summed up, the big picture looks much worse than I imagine most people expected. It was certainly a surprise to me. [...] With targeted efforts to protect the chunks of the ocean that remain relatively pristine, we have a good chance of preserving these areas in good condition.” – Ben Halpern, assistant research scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, research leader. “

Source: AAAS, Guardian Online


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog:, be sure to check it out!

scottie 5000 February 15, 2008 at 8:28 AM

My God. What have we Done?!

Steve February 15, 2008 at 8:40 AM

What activities have most prominantly affected the oceans. More specific information would be nice.

Mr. Anderson February 15, 2008 at 12:03 PM

“strongly impacted by human activity”
“human impact on marine ecosystems”
“damaging human activity”
“continued onslaught of human activity”
“the reach of human activity cannot grasp”
“more sea for humankind to exploit”

I don’t know what we’ve done Scottie – but it sounds really bad. Maybe they will followup with some detail by percentage of activity or such.

RP February 15, 2008 at 12:21 PM

“The sky is falling” says Chicken Little.

As soon as the people that report this type of stuff (global warming, destruction of “everything” ) off themselves first, then I’ll seriously consider what they say.

Michael February 15, 2008 at 9:10 PM

I’ve only been a patron of universe today for a few months now, but I’ve quickly learned to pretty much ignore any posts from Ian. Unapoligetic hysteria get’s old really fast. For me it got old around 1979.

Me February 15, 2008 at 9:24 PM

This looks like the earth is flat theory. This person needs to face reality that man good false belief bad.

zero February 16, 2008 at 11:02 AM

Unless something is done to control human population growth, we are in for a very rough time. Simple math, folks–water shortages, food shortages, global warming (oh yeah, it’s not really happening), extinction of species, sewage problems, and on and on. Forget politics, just get out a calculator and figure what just a two percent growth rate will become year after year. The earth is finite in size and supplies. And if you are thinking about sending people to distant planets–by the year 6000 there will be as many people as there are atoms in the known Universe. Check my math–maybe I’m off by a few years.

Terragen February 16, 2008 at 11:50 AM

Either we start mandating world-wide birth regulation and all sorts of Nazi-esque measures, the population is going to continue blowing up like bacteria in a petri dish, until there are no good resources left and nature will then take care off the population problem, i.e. starvation and polluted water and food supplies.

Problem is all the stupidest people are the ones breeding the most, so 90% of humanity is basically wasting space.

Also this article sucks, it doesn’t give any kinds of specifics, just stirs up more fear…typical.

Calvin L. February 16, 2008 at 1:14 PM

i agree w/ terragen. we need to open our blind eyes

Dave February 16, 2008 at 6:35 PM

When ih when are we going to face the actual base reason for our dilema? It’s a matter of numbers. You put a hundred people in a small closed room and somebody is going to have trouble breathing.. What drives us to mulitply in the same mindless manner as bacteria, eating up their host only to then starve. Our Earth is our host.

Dave February 16, 2008 at 6:36 PM

oops Should be.. “When OH when” fat fingered be I

Kevin Koski February 18, 2008 at 11:57 AM

We need to wake up,but first greed and money have to be stopped ,once thats realized we have a chance.

gekko February 18, 2008 at 5:16 PM

Greed is good!

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