[Viewpoint] Oceans of opportunities

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[Viewpoint] Oceans of opportunities

We tend to have vague fantasies and expectations about something when we lack the right amount of information. A case in point would be the world’s oceans.

The history of humankind reveals just how important the oceans have been. They served as trade routes and the blueprint for today’s world map, which was shaped by Western countries that dominated the oceans for hundreds of years.

But the more we get to learn about them, the more we realize we need to make much more of an effort to understand and preserve the oceans, instead of regarding them only as just a warehouse for our resources.

People usually think an unlimited amount of natural resources are buried at the bottom of the oceans. Some people even believe that Japan claims sovereignty over the Dokdo islets because of the underground resources such as methane hydrate.

But this is not the case. Japan’s claim is probably based on the islets’ location. It is difficult to see on ordinary maps that show only the land and ocean above the sea, but when looking at the topography of the bottom of the sea, Ulleung Island is definitely connected to the Korean Peninsula. But the Dokdo islets are not. There is a canyon between Ulleung Island and Dokdo.

One can easily find this information on Google Earth, which contains information about the geography and topography under the oceans around the world.

Japan set up concrete structures on boulders just a few square meters in size on the Pacific Ocean and then claimed that 200 surrounding nautical miles as its territory. Fortunately for Japan, no other countries protest against it, but as Korea occupies Dokdo, which is close to Japan, Japan must feel frustrated.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the only economically viable resources under the oceans are oil and gas.

Besides, the two fuel sources aren’t found in the deep seas, but in seabeds near the shore. The remaining resources are for future generations, so to speak, and they are unlikely to bring about huge economic values for the time being.

It is impossible to make use of them with our current knowledge and technology, and we need to wait for decades or even longer.

There is a distinctive difference in people’s general understanding about oceanography.

When a new scientific fact is discovered, people tend to get excited about its potential industrial value.

But after research, we can see that the economic value might not be that great.

Advanced countries conduct research with a great deal of consistency and perseverance to better understand new science, while developing countries give up easily, or else jump into development.

Unfortunately, our country seems to belong to the second group when it comes to the oceans.

Humans acquired something from nature that gives direct help to our life only after they fully understood how it worked.

If 19th-century scientists such as Michael Faraday had not discovered how electricity and magnetism worked, would it be possible today to produce electric goods such as the semiconductor and liquid-crystal display?

If these scientists had not understood the principles of evolution and genetic inheritance, would it be possible to cure diseases through molecular biology in our times?

Countless cases in history prove that only after we fully understand a certain natural phenomenon can we discuss its economic value.

There are also numerous cases of people ignoring what they see before them or exploiting something for pure personal gain. In this sense, we still need to understand a lot more about the oceans and the seas, and try our best to preserve them.

Only scientific understanding can give us an answer about how to best use and maintain the waters that girdle the planet.

*The writer is a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Seoul National University.

by Lee Sang-mook
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