Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mission Blue

The future of the aquifer is in our hands...

Here, I am holding a tiny piece of the Floridan aquifer - and if you live in Florida, you are too. Here in the Sunshine State, we live on top of our main supply of drinking water - it winds its way through cavernous limestone tunnels beneath our feet.

The Floridan aquifer itself is massive. It's so huge that most Floridians naively assume we couldn't possibly have an impact on the quantity and quality of water beneath our feet. But fresh off a viewing of the must-watch documentary Mission Blue, I now realize that this is exactly what we thought about the ocean not too long ago. The vast, blue ocean at one time seemed unchangeable.

Mission Blue is a documentary about the amazing life of pioneering oceanographer and ocean explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. I actually meant to post this story a few weeks ago, but last weekend I got a lot of inspiration from fellow writers at the National Association of Science Writers conference in Columbus, Ohio. A few days chalk full of info-packed, dynamic sessions on everything from science blogging to pitching stories and writing science for children, has given me the extra spark of creative energy. Also, our badges for the conference, besides having our name and Twitter handle, asked us to write the name of our science hero. I penciled in "Sylvia Earle" on mine without hesitation, which of course reminded me of Mission Blue.

Anyway, her story is compelling from several perspectives - it's inspiring not only for budding marine biologists, scientists, and educators, but for women in general. She became a scientist during a time when women weren't exactly viewed as science material; I was surprised to see many of the newspaper articles and old video clips in the film that portrayed women as bikini-clad girls more likely to lay tanning on the beach. But Dr. Earle forged ahead, leading expeditions to the deepest parts of the ocean, heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and blazing a path for not only women scientists but all marine scientists and oceanographers. Dr. Earle is still speaking for the oceans - in the documentary, she says she spends about 300 days out of the year traveling, speaking, and sharing her unparalleled knowledge of the ocean. She is the embodiment of a smart, strong, and well-respected woman (who is often referred to as "Her Deepness"). I can only hope that little girls idolize her when they're growing up instead of the next up-and-coming Disney pop star.

The documentary is tragic yet beautiful and very compelling - basically, Dr. Earle explains how we are all tied to the ocean and why we should all care about the sea regardless of our proximity to the coast. She extended Aldo Leopold's land ethic and the U.S. national parks system to the ocean via "hope spots" and explains why it is extremely important to protect our oceans. The tone of the film is concerned and "doomsday" enough to get your attention but not leave you altogether depressed - she is optimistic in that she says there is still time for us to mitigate the damage we have done.

Dr. Earle concisely sums up the essence of the problem as "no blue, no green." Basically, without the ocean, we have nothing. But this is directly applicable to freshwater as well.

Crystal clarity at Blue Spring, Gilchrist County, Florida. Dr. Earle's "no blue no green" applies to our aquifer and springs as well as the ocean.
This "Mission Blue" needs to be applied to our groundwater, which is the water that ~90% of us in Florida rely on as a source of drinking water. It is all too often "out of sight, out of mind." Just like the surface of the ocean does not appear to be changing (and prevents people from seeing and recognizing the problem with their own eyes), we are blind to changes happening in the aquifer. But the springs are here to tell us the story - and like the algae that currently dominates many once-pristine reefs worldwide, many springs have also transitioned to an algal dominated state. Besides the negative implications for these irreplaceable ecosystems, this is also a telltale sign of problems regarding the future of Florida's water.

So remember, if you live in Florida, the aquifer is in your hands, our hands. So let's protect it like our lives depend upon it... because they do.


  1. Our springs are the top layer of the aquifer that provides our drinking water, so it is only a matter of time before the problems we see in our springs—algal pollution and low flows—plague our aquifer as well. Because the springs and the aquifer are linked in this way, if we can save our springs, we can save the aquifer too.

  2. Exactly - the springs are our eyes into the aquifer. Hopefully more Floridians will soon be able to see the changes in our springs and recognize the underlying problems. Thank you for all that you do for our water :)