Energy, News, and Climate / Marine Life / Marine Preservation / Policy

What would happen if the ocean “died?”

A few weeks ago, several of us here at UNdertheC were privileged with the opportunity to see Sylvia Earle and Nancy Knowlton speak. Both of them, especially Dr. Earle, were very big on the idea that the oceans are our lifeblood. They talked at length about the importance of showing people who do not live near the oceans  why the oceans should matter to them. Helping people understand why the oceans matter is the key to protecting and preserving them. These talks sparked a discussion amongst out blog team about this topic. How do we get people’s attention? We decided it was time to try writing a post about what would happen if we do nothing to protect the oceans.

This post is also inspired by an excellent AsapScience Youtube video (posted below):

Earth post-humans is probably not something you have given much thought to, unless you are a science fiction fan (go watch the reboot of “Battlestar Galactica” to see some strange post-Earth/ pre-Earth life).

The ancient, mysteriously extinct alien species know as "Prothean" from the video game space opera trilogy "Mass Effect" Get on my sci-fi nerd level. :)

The ancient, mysteriously extinct alien species know as “Prothean” from the video game space opera trilogy “Mass Effect”
Get on my sci-fi nerd level. 🙂 (

Ok, let’s be real here. We don’t have the technology or the interest required to become a nomadic space dwelling species, so this planet is the only one we have to live on for the foreseeable future. Obviously, we’ve altered the planet in some very substantial ways and it will take decades or centuries for the earth to reclaim some of our structures.  So, how would humans suddenly disappear? Climate change, global nuclear warm, pandemic disease, unexpected asteroid impact. There are plenty of possibilities.

One way we could disappear would be if the oceans died. What exactly does this phrase mean? The oceans are full of life. What would happen if all of that life ceased to exist?


1.) Less breathable air: Around 50% of the oxygen we breath is present in the atmosphere thanks to phytoplankton (photosynthetic organisms that live in the surface oceans). People often think that trees are the reason we have breathable air, but without phytoplankton oxygen would decrease about 50%!

All that light blue/green stuff... yeah, that's phytoplankton. Visible from space! (

All that light blue/green stuff… yeah, that’s phytoplankton. Visible from space!

How would we lose all of this phytoplankton? Ocean acidification is a potential factor. Many ocean phytos (like diatoms) build calcium carbonate or other hard “tests” (think shells). They require these structures to survive and without them they don’t do well. The ocean is becoming more acidic as it absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere. As CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise due to human CO2 emissions (burning fossil fuels, etc…), the acidity of the oceans will continue to rise as well. The shells of these tiny creatures dissolve in acidic conditions, so many marine phytoplankton face an adapt or die scenario in the near future (within a few hundred years or less).

Side effects: If plankton start dying, so does the marine food web. Which leads us to the next main point…

2.) Global food shortages: Have you ever eaten a fish? There’s a good chance it came from the ocean. What about a shellfish? There is an almost 100% chance that it came from the ocean. Global marine fisheries provide tonnes and tonnes of food for people all over the world.

global fish catch (

global fish catch

Global Fish Stocks (

Global Fish Stocks (

Marine fish stocks are vitally important for our species. There is only so much aerable land and livestock has it’s limitations. Some areas of the world depend almost entirely on fish for protein. Unless we have a drastic global diet shift, animal protein will be important forever. Fish stocks are already in dangerous waters, with almost all global stocks suffering some type of exploitation (meaning we are taking faster than the stocks can replenish). Overfishing is already a huge problem, but if you add in declining phytoplakton populations due to ocean acidifcation, you have an even bigger problem. Plankton are the base of the marine food web, without them all larger organisms will probably die. No plankton=no fish= no food for millions of people. Without ocean life millions (if not billions) of people will start to starve. Such desperation can only lead to more problems (think wars fought over food, etc… it could get ugly).

How do we prevent fish stocks from collapsing worldwide? As humans, we need to have better stock assessments, build our aquaculture infrastructure (which has it’s own issues, but that is another story), and allow fish species to bounce back before harvesting. As an individual what can you do? You can only purchase and eat sustainably harvested species. To do this, check out SeafoodWatch and download the app. You can take this info with you everywhere you go and make informed consumer decisions about the types of fish you consume.


3.) Loss of Biodiversity and tourism dollars (GDP): 

“Dead” oceans= no coral reefs, no kelp forest, no otters, no whales, no dolphins, no sharks, and no sea turtles. Animal lovers the world over will be saddened by this fact, but many others will also be effected. These beautiful and charismatic ecosystems and organisms are the base of many countries tourism industry (which makes up significant portions of GDP in many developing nations).

To sum all of this up, if the oceans “die” we will have less food, less beauty, and less money. Also, 70% of our world will become a desert/ trash dump. The oceans are amazing, inspiring, mysterious, and vitally important for our survival. Don’t believe me, watch this.

What can we do to prevent this? Turns out we can do a lot. Reducing CO2 emissions should be at the top of that list, but we can also make small changes to our daily lives. What are these small changes, you ask?

-Stop using plastic bags! For real. Grocery stores love to give you all of the bags. Instead, you can bring one or several reusable bags. In fact, you can even buy reusable produce bags online and bring those to the store. You can also buy grain and pasta products in bulk (and put them in reusable bags). This will cost you less than $20 and it will only eliminate clutter in your home (what do you do with those plastic grocery bags? Most people stick them in a drawer or cupboard somewhere). Plastic is not great for the ocean. Animals consume it and choke/die, plus there are millions of tons of microplastics floating around in the worlds oceans and washing up on beaches. Cutting plastic consumption is really not that hard. I use reusable mesh bags at home, along with glass jars instead of plastic tupperware. It’s cheap and it’s easy. Give it a try!

-Think before you drive. We can’t all invest in a hybrid or electric car (and the solar charger that will help you prevent using coal instead of gas to power it). But we can all ride a bike, walk, or take a bus (if we live in a place that is small or has public transit). America’s Most Walkable Cities

-Eat sustainable seafood! (SeafoodWatch)

-Understand how interconnected the oceans and humans are. Be aware of your choices and try to act sustainably.

-Spread the word!


6 thoughts on “What would happen if the ocean “died?”

  1. Pingback: What's bad for the fish, is bad for the planet! - CanLead Training

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