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See Human Impact in an X-Ray of the Ocean

Researchers were shocked to find two-thirds of the ocean show man-made strain.

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Rotterdam

asia

Seattle

Europe

North

america

New York

Valencia

Tianjin

Istanbul

Los Angeles

Charleston

Tangier

Shanghai

East

China

Sea

Dubai

Africa

Manila

Dakar

Colombo

Panama

Canal

Africa

Equator

Singapore

Jakarta

Pacific

ocean

Atlantic

ocean

Surabaya

australia

Port

Elizabeth

Cape

Town

Perth

Sydney

Antarctica

asia

Rotterdam

Seattle

Europe

New York

Valencia

Istanbul

Tianjin

Los Angeles

Charleston

Tangier

Shanghai

East

China

Sea

Dubai

Africa

Manila

Dakar

Colombo

Panama

Canal

Africa

Singapore

Equator

Jakarta

Surabaya

Pacific

ocean

Atlantic

ocean

Indian ocean

australia

Port

Elizabeth

Cape

Town

Perth

Sydney

Antarctica

asia

Rotterdam

Seattle

Europe

New York

Valencia

Istanbul

Tianjin

Los Angeles

Charleston

Tangier

Shanghai

East

China

Sea

Dubai

Africa

Manila

Dakar

Colombo

Panama

Canal

Africa

Singapore

Equator

Jakarta

Surabaya

Pacific

ocean

Atlantic

ocean

Indian ocean

australia

Port

Elizabeth

Cape

Town

Perth

Sydney

Antarctica

Human influence

Low

High

Major shipping port

Areas of perennial ice

(not included in study)

PROTECTION
Government actions affect the waters.
Sri Lanka’s lax regulations have likely led
to damage near Colombo, while protected zones near the Mariana Trench help limit harm there.

HOT SPOTS
The darkest swaths—in the East China
and North Seas, for instance—reflect
a combination of detrimental factors, including the effects of climate change. Shipping lanes also leave trails of accumulated pollution.

HUMANS AND THE OCEAN
Anthropogenic pressures—including
open-sea and deep-water fishing, commercial shipping, and climate change—damage ocean habitats.

This story appears in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The map above is essentially an x-ray of the ocean, and the colors show where it’s feeling the most impact from human activity. The darker the area, the more stressed the waters are by fishing, shipping, the destabilizing effects of climate change, or all three.

Such a map is rare. The vastness and depth of the ocean make it notoriously difficult to study. But in 2008 a team of researchers used satellite images and modeling software to make a complete portrait of human effects on the ocean. Five years later they did it again, capturing a comprehensive view of an ocean in transition. Among the revelations: Two-thirds of the ocean shows increased strain from human-related factors, such as fishing and climate change. And more than three-quarters of coastal waters suffer from climate change and increases in the effects of harmful land-based activities, including pollution. In all, the researchers classified more than 40 percent of the ocean as “heavily impacted” by human activity.

A booming population is chiefly to blame, says biologist Ben Halpern, head of the team that collected the data. Most of the dark areas are in the Northern Hemisphere, where almost 90 percent of humans live. But population alone doesn’t affect marine life. “A lot of the ocean is getting worse, and climate change in particular is driving a lot of those changes,” says Halpern.

Still, the story isn’t all bad. Some seas have seen reduced human impact—in parts of the North Atlantic, for example, where there are more fuel-efficient ships and new regulations. In 2016 countries established more than 40 new sites to create more than 1.4 million additional square miles of protected marine areas, shielding much of it from commercial fishing, energy drilling, and other activities that might otherwise do harm.



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