American oceanographer Sylvia Earle to join NTU institute's scientific advisory board

Dr Sylvia Earle will help guide the direction and growth of marine science research in Singapore and the region. PHOTO: NTU

SINGAPORE - As a small island state, the Republic has set its sights on understanding its marine environment better.

This effort will now be helped by world renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle joining the scientific advisory board of Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Earth Observatory of Singapore, one of the institutes here conducting ocean research.

The American is the first female chief scientist of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Announcing the appointment on Friday (Aug 16), NTU said Dr Earle will help guide the direction and growth of marine science research in Singapore and the region.

Associate Professor Fidel Costa, interim director for NTU's Earth Observatory, said Dr Earle could help the institute develop a more ambitious ocean programme beyond its current initiatives, such as on rising sea levels.

"Singapore is surrounded by sea and many of its economic interests are built on that. A more comprehensive and ambitious research programme will have an impact in terms of better hazards mitigation, through marine conservation, and the sustainability of marine resources."

Dr Earle, 83, delivered the keynote address at the Melting Ice and Plastic Seas symposium at NTU on Friday.

The symposium will focus on how humans are impacting the oceans, or as Dr Earle put it, "the blue heart of the planet".

Dr Earle, who has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, is also in town for the Singapore premiere of the Elysium Epic Trilogy, a free photo exhibition that documents the impact of climate change at the poles and in the Coral Triangle.

It will be held until Sept 1 at Shaw Theatres Lido.

Earth's blue heart

Dr Earle's love for the ocean is apparent from her speech, her actions, and her fashion choices.

On Thursday, as she spoke to The Straits Times, she was wearing a scarf - a gift from a friend, she said - which depicted colourful corals and fish.

Protecting the oceans, she said, is not just about saving the whales and sharks.

The oceans are a fabric of life with many connections and linkages. The whales, sharks, krill and every organism in the oceans contribute to their healthy functioning, she said.

"When we are oblivious to the complexity of life in the ocean, we break the links in the ocean that keep us all alive," Dr Earle told The Straits Times.

But she added: "We have learnt so much about how the ocean shapes the climate. It governs temperatures and the organisms in it generate oxygen."

The oceans are crucial to life on Earth.

The surface ocean, for instance, is home to tiny plants that produce half of the world's oxygen supply. And the deep ocean is one of the largest carbon banks in the world, making it an important regulator of Earth's climate.

When planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves into surface waters, a series of chemical, biological and physical processes occurs. Over time, the various processes break up the CO2 molecules, and take the dissolved carbon to the depths.

This prevents the carbon from de-gassing out into the atmosphere, and limits the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. This underwater bank of carbon is vast - it is much bigger than forests and other carbon sinks on land.

Asked how the oceans have changed over the decades, Dr Earle said: "In the past, plastics existed in small quantities and there were no plastics in the oceans."

Pointing to how human activity has put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and plastics in the oceans, she said: "Now, we are suffocating, and so are the fish."

The Singapore link

One key link between Singapore and the oceans lies in the Republic's vulnerability to sea-level rise, pointed out National Geographic photographer Jennifer Hayes.

She is part of the Elysium team in Singapore to promote the launch of the exhibition.

Singapore's Second National Climate Change Study has shown that the mean sea level is estimated to rise by up to 1m by 2100.

There are a few ways global warming could cause this. The first is the thermal expansion of water, which expands when heated.

This has been the biggest contributor to sea-level rise so far, NTU's sea-level rise expert Benjamin Horton previously told The Straits Times.

And just like how adding ice cubes to a glass of water raises the water level, melting land ice would also substantially contribute to sea-level rise.

Most of this water is now locked in the world's ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. If they were both to melt completely, sea levels would go up by about 65m, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Scientists say this would take thousands of years at the current rates of warming, although the worry is that accelerating rates of ice melt would pose a problem for small island states like Singapore.

Ice sheets are large blocks of ice that extend at least 50,000 sq km, as defined by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. Their large masses allow them to attract ocean waters, raising surrounding sea levels.

"If an ice sheet melts, its gravitational attraction decreases and sea levels around it can go down," said Prof Horton. "Conversely, regions far from a melting ice sheet, such as Singapore, will see a rise in sea level greater than the global average."

Singapore recognises this vulnerability.

In July, the Government announced that it will be spending $400 million on upgrading and maintaining its drains over the next two years, and $10 million more on a National Sea Level Research Programme, which aims to boost the understanding of sea levels around Singapore and develop more robust projections of rising sea levels.

Art and Science

The ongoing Elysium Epic Trilogy exhibition at Shaw Theatres Lido aims to highlight the importance of the oceans to Singaporeans, said Elysium Epic project founder Michael Aw.

"The exhibition depicts the faces of climate change. We want to show people the things that we could lose with unabated global warming," said Mr Aw, highlighting how the Arctic is warming at a rate twice that of the global average. This is a phenomenon known to scientists as Arctic amplification.

He recalled a scene that, for him, was particularly emblematic of the climate change problem: A young polar bear was scaling the face of a cliff in search of food, its paws bloody.

A photograph of a young polar was scaling the face of a cliff in search of food. ST PHOTO: AUDREY TAN

Mr Aw said the image stood out as it seemed to highlight the increasing difficulties animals like polar bears will face in finding food as declining ice cover robs them of hunting grounds.

Said Dr Earle: "Polar bears cannot solve the problem. But it's up to us to look at them and realise that we can. We can look at the world they're living in melting around them."

We can mourn the loss of the polar bears, she added, but we can also think about the implications of global warming on humans.

"If they are in trouble, so are we. If the ocean is in trouble, so are we."

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