Thu, May 12, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Look to the sea, for we ignore it at our peril

By Dai Chang-feng 戴昌鳳

A first round of water-saving measures has already gone into effect in some areas of the nation, and wider restrictions could follow.

The low temperatures we experienced at the start of this year and the present spell of dry weather are just two symptoms of an abnormal climate. More severe crises and challenges are lurking unseen and could emerge at any time.

Actually, signs of these climatic changes and environmental disasters have long been lying concealed among signals coming from the sea.

The root cause of the water shortages that we have experienced recently also has to do with the sea. From late last year to the beginning of this year, the sea surface temperature stayed cooler than in past years. Apart from giving us a rather cold spring, it has caused the spawning of coral and the blossoming of tung trees to arrive later than usual.

Another result of the low water temperature has been that there has been less evaporation than usual, causing insufficient humidity, so of course there has been a lack of rainfall. And the low water temperature is a result of slight changes in circulating ocean currents.

Even slight changes in the sea can often lead to major disasters on land. The reason is quite simple. The sea takes up 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, and the sea’s high heat storage capacity makes it the key factor in regulating the global climate.

Seen from this point of view, the frequent occurrence of disasters around the world in recent years is connected with our negligence and poor understanding of the sea and our failure to care for it properly.

Taiwan is completely surrounded by sea, so the sea is the key force determining its climate, terrestrial ecology and economic development. It is unfortunate, then, that we always look at questions from a land-based point of view, while neglecting the wide seas that lie all around us.

By looking at the symptoms, but ignoring the causes, we will never find any real solutions. Disasters will keep on happening and calamities may strike on an unforeseen scale. The government and public will have their hands full just trying to cope.

The governments of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have both trumpeted slogans about the importance of the sea for national prosperity, but once elections are over they go quiet and very little of a practical nature has been done.

There has long been talk of setting up a ministry of maritime affairs, but the idea remains on the drawing board. Not much has been done about fostering talent in marine affairs or encouraging oceanographic research.

Facing a future of increasingly serious climate change, if we can’t figure out where the root cause of the problems lies, then there is no chance of finding real solutions.

The seas and oceans determine the Earth’s climate, and they determine the future development of human society. Only by paying closer attention to the sea, understanding it better and paying it greater respect can we find solutions to environmental disasters.

That is the way to go in this day and age, as we confront the threats of climate change and the disasters it brings in its wake.

Dai Chang-feng is a professor in National Taiwan University’s Institute of Oceanography.

TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG

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