US oceanographer joins NTU unit's board of advisers

Dr Sylvia Earle, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's first woman chief scientist, delivered the keynote address at the Melting Ice and Plastic Seas symposium yesterday.
Dr Sylvia Earle, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's first woman chief scientist, delivered the keynote address at the Melting Ice and Plastic Seas symposium yesterday.PHOTO: NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY

Renowned expert to guide university's Earth Observatory of Singapore in ocean research

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

The endeavour will be aided by world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who has joined the scientific advisory board of the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Earth Observatory of Singapore, one of the institutes here that conduct research on the ocean.

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

Announcing the appointment yesterday, NTU said Dr Earle will help guide the direction and growth of marine science research in Singapore and the region.

Yesterday, the 83-year-old delivered the keynote address at the Melting Ice and Plastic Seas symposium at NTU.

The event focused 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 is being held until Sept 1 at Shaw Theatres Lido.


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

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

The oceans are a fabric of life with many linkages, with every organism contributing 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 said.

The oceans are crucial to life on earth. The surface ocean 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, 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 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 ocean has 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 ocean, she added: "Now, we are suffocating, and so are the fish."


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

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. And just as how adding ice cubes to a glass of water raises water levels, 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.

Singapore recognises this vulnerability. Last month, the Government announced it will spend $400 million on upgrading and maintaining drains in 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.


The ongoing 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," he said, highlighting how the Arctic is warming at a rate twice that of the global average.


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

Mr Aw said the image highlights 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."

She added that people can mourn the loss of the polar bears, but they can also think about the implications of global warming on humans.

"If they (polar bears) are in trouble, so are we. If the ocean is in trouble, so are we."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 17, 2019, with the headline 'US oceanographer joins NTU unit's board of advisers'. Print Edition | Subscribe