05 Jun 2019 Story Oceans & seas

A silent signal of distress: our ocean and air pollution

By Miao Wang

Our oceans are the largest carbon sink on the planet. This big blue diffuser, for decades helping to buffer the impacts of climate change, is finally giving way. It is sending us a signal, and we ignore it at our peril. 

A report published recently by the World Meteorological Organization revealed that more than 90 per cent of the energy trapped by greenhouse gases goes into the oceans.

As this year’s World Environment Day highlights air pollution, it’s up to us think and reflect. How much is our daily activity affecting our bigger ecosystem?

As a diver and founder of Better Blue in China—a network of divers and citizen scientists collecting data about our oceans to protect them—I am alarmed by what I have seen.

Fish finding it harder to breathe below the depths of the ocean due to diminishing oxygen supplies; corals sending a bright glow before they die for good. The ocean is emitting a silent signal of distress. Why aren’t we taking any notice?

Recently, the World Meteorological Organization called for a ‘drastic change of course’, following a report highlighting the impacts of climate change, associated sea level rise extreme weather and record greenhouse gas levels.

The ocean is where most of our environmental pollution ends up—contaminated by industries from agriculture to tourism. There is a proverb that anyone with a passion for the environment should be familiar with: "Dilution is the solution to pollution."

Although the ocean is tolerant, it has a limit. The ocean cannot and should not be the destination for all our waste. After all, the future of mankind depends on this vast body of water and all the lives inside it—and it’s where we came from.

We need to preserve the ocean and rivers as one part of our giant ecosystem.

I recently took part in a campaign to raise awareness about the impact our daily activities is having on our wider world. The campaign, The Elysium Epic program, spans eight years and includes expeditions to the Antarctic, Arctic and the coral sea.  

Better Blue Founder Miao Wang with the Elysium Epic campaign in China, alongside great legends including Sylvia Earle. Credit: Better Blue

In Antarctica, the journey is inspired and informed by the incredible adventures of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who made three visits to the Antarctic region in the Endurance ship but died in 1922.

His expedition photographer, Frank Hurley, documented the majesty of the Antarctic region until the Endurance sank beneath the ice. Ten years later, internationally renowned underwater photographer and conservationist, Michael Aw, decided to trace his steps.

As part of this activity, a team of 57 Elysium explorers returned to Antarctica to document the Shackleton adventure and the environmental decline since. Some of this series of exhibitions, talks and presentations came to China recently.   

The Arctic sea ice spread has this year been the lowest on record for the last four years, reflecting a downward trend in winter sea ice extent.

Since the 1950s, a total of 25,000 km2 of ice shelf has been lost from around the Antarctic Peninsula. In volume, this is the equivalent of the UK domestic water requirement for around 1,000 years.

The Emperor penguin colony featured in the 2005 film March of the Penguins, has since declined severely, disappearing completely in some areas. According to this recent report, the global population of these beautiful creatures could halve by 2052.  

This has been an eye-opener for me. In my daily work, exploring the ocean, I have discovered how the ocean plays an essential role in regulating global climate, controlling the carbon, oxygen, and water cycles of the planet and supporting life on earth.

But our human activities are changing the chemical composition of the ocean, affecting pH levels and productivity, impairing the ability of ocean life to survive and thrive. These vital signs are telling us that our planet is in distress.

It’s time to educate ourselves about the ocean, through initiatives like the Save our Seas Fund and Elysium. Governments can use tax policies to support renewable energy, and electric mobility.

As individuals, we can take notice and think about how our everyday actives impact our ecosystem. Take a look at these toolkits to discover what you can do today to #BeatAirPollution—from using public transport to reducing your electricity consumption.

No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Together we are part of the whole and collectively, we can make better choices and work towards a better, bluer, more sustainable future.


Miao Wang is Young Champion of the Earth for Asia and the Pacific and Founder of Better Blue. The regional finalists in this year’s competition have been shortlisted and winners will be announced in September. Stay tuned!  

Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019 hosted by China. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?