Mapping the sea and its mysteries

She has done pioneering research on marine life and set records for deep diving. Now,Sylvia Earle has co-authored an illustrated atlas that reveals hidden waters

Published:January 18, 2009 2:51 pm

She has done pioneering research on marine life and set records for deep diving. Now,Sylvia Earle has co-authored an illustrated atlas that reveals hidden waters
The sea microbe Prochlorococcus is perhaps the most abundant photosynthetic organism on the planet. The tiny organism—so small that millions can fit in a drop of water—is estimated to provide the oxygen in “one in every five breaths we take,” Sylvia Alice Earle said. And it is just one of thousands of types of marine algae and photosynthetic microbes—everything from invisible cells to plantlike growths to kelp forests.

Earle,73,is a co-author of Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas,published recently by National Geographic. Its maps and graphs,prose and pictures detail how discoveries like the surprising ubiquity of Prochlorococcus are illuminating the sea,its immense impact on the planet and its habitability.
Earle,an oceanographer and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,has participated in more than a half-century of ocean exploration and protection. She has done pioneering research on algae,probed the ecology of coral reefs,set records for deep diving,tracked marine mammals and lobbied for the creation of marine sanctuaries.

In the altas,Earle reports that some 90 per cent of deep-sea creatures use bioluminescence in their life strategies and that the eerie glows may turn out to constitute the planet’s most common form of communication.
She describes how sunlight filters through seawater to surprising depths (its blue component penetrating to at least 250 meters,or 820 feet) but notes that scientists have yet to determine the maximum depth at which sea life can engage in photosynthesis. One type of algae,she notes,thrives more than 650 feet down.
“It’s the greatest era of planetary exploration in all of human history. And we’ve tried to cram it between two covers,” she said.

Earle grew up on a small farm in southern New Jersey and spent summers at the shore. For college,she went to Florida and fell head over heels for ocean research,her mentor an algae specialist. She graduated with a Ph.D. from Duke University in 1966.
Her love of plant life is reflected in the atlas’ portrayals of algae as well as a beautiful map that reveals the ocean’s highly variable concentrations of chlorophyll—the green pigments that power most photosynthetic organisms. Remarkably,the satellite map shows chlorophyll hot spots in the icy waters around the North and South Poles.
So,too,the atlas looks at giant mountain chains of the seabed that spew hot lava and power bizarre ecosystems. The wonders include “Lost City”,an area of the Atlantic where volcanic geysers form ghostly spires up to 180 feet high.
While the maps reveal much hidden terrain,the atlas notes that the seabed “is still not as well imaged or mapped as the moon or the surface of Mars.”
_WILLIAM J. BROAD,NYT

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