World Ocean Weekly

A Climate Conversion

Paper mills to aquaculture facilities, retired military bases to incubators for green start-ups, the possibility of re-purposing a shipyard for destroyers into a hub re-programmed to 21st century needs and jobs: industries are shifting away from conventional and failing ways of doing business to an embrace of enterprising and inventive opportunities for a sustainable future.

We speak of climate change and the climate challenge; we articulate our growing despair over what can be done at what scale to mitigate or adapt; we fear that no single person, or no single action, can make a difference on a scale of consequence that is affecting every aspect of our lives. We cling to straw, Styrofoam container and plastic bag bans,knowing that, while each bit helps and counts, the total does not even approach a transformative response to the problem.

So what constitutes a real solution? Some friends and neighbors here in Maine, ardent advocates for change and social justice, have begun a movement for conversion — the re-purposing specifically of Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, and the state’s largest defense contractor and a major employer, that is now contracted for construction of Zumwalt destroyers for the U.S. Navy at its shipyard on the Kennebec River.

BIW is a small element in the so-called American military industrial complex. The U.S. Navy is a massive collection of firepower and mobility, and is larger than the next 13 national fleets combined. The cost to operate, maintain, and renew this Navy is astronomical. A Zumwalt destroyer costs $7 billion. General Dynamics has already received corporate subsidies of $194 million from the State of Maine and the city of Bath, with another $45 million recently approved by the state legislature. How many times do the taxpayers have to pay for these ships — at federal, state and local levels — to a for-profit company that in 2017 compensated its CEO at a reported $21 million and otherwise distributed ample profits to its private shareholders? The entire enterprise is a house of cards justified in the name of national security.

But changing climate is now also understood as a challenge to national and local security. Sea level rise threatens to inundate the thousands of U.S. Navy coastal facilities in the U.S. and around the world. Ironically, for over a decade now, the Pentagon has acknowledged the immediate risks and threat-multiplier effect of climate-caused conditions in the form of flooding, drought, wildfires, dislocation, refugee relocation, in turn leading to further political instability, escalating conflict, and the possibility of climate war. Additionally, the Pentagon has the largest carbon footprint on the planet, generating more than 70% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and uses more oil than that consumed by 175 countries combined. U.S. foreign policy is predicated on oil, with military deployments engaged overtly and covertly in the protection of global oil resources worldwide. Bath Iron works is a very small part of a very big situation. Frankly, as such, it is dispensable, American national defense not really compromised by one less destroyer.

But BIW could become a model example of climate conversion, a shift from a fragile and artificial viability into a new place attuned to the new realities of the climate-changed world, a more stable workplace for a skilled workforce re-programmed to 21st century needs, national and regional, and engaged in the creation of new responses to changing natural, financial, and social circumstance. BIW could run on new non-fossil fuel energy; it could build new cargo ships and coastwise transports that will be required to service offshore wind or distribute goods beyond the already exceeded capacity of highways and trucks; it could fabricate alternative energy devices, high speed trains, electric buses, wind and solar arrays, hi-tech greenhouses, underwater turbines, aquaculture and desalination equipment, and other applied design and manufacturing production for a sustainable planet. It could determine its own future, not just rely on presidential, congressional, or private corporate budgetary whims desperately affirmed by the State political delegation.

There are, in fact, stunning examples of such a conversions — one in Bath, Maine, of all places, where the closing of a naval air station brought sudden devastating despair to some 5,000 employees and the community economy. However, now, a regional re-development authority has mobilized to use public finance to convert and improve the facilities and to attract aerospace industries, small manufacturing companies, green start-up businesses, plastic recycling facilities, and other 21st century enterprise to re-employ workers, enlist new skills, and attract new investors with inevitable positive consequence for the community and its quality of life.

A second comparable example is a new state-of-the-art aquaculture facility just down the road in Belfast, Maine, being constructed on the site a recently bankrupt paper mill, from the closing of which the community thought it would never recover.

Out with the old, in with the new; that’s called regeneration. Swords into plowshares, isn’t that how the story goes? These are examples of applied optimism, a positive reaction to the climate challenge, not as closing and collapse, but as opening and opportunity. Invention and conversion: these are pathways to the future.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

The Halcyon Ocean

denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy, calm, and peaceful.
A bird in Greek legend generally associated with the kingfisher. There was an ancient belief that the bird nested on the sea, which it calmed in order to lay its eggs on a floating nest.

Here is an evocative story: According to Greek mythology, Alkyone, the daughter of the god of the winds, became so distraught when she learned that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck that she threw herself into the sea and was changed into a kingfisher. As a result, ancient Greeks called such birds halcyon and the myth ensued that these birds built floating nests on the ocean that so moved the wind god that he created a state of breathless quiet on the water that protected the eggs until the fledglings were born. This legend prompted the use of halcyon both as a noun naming a genus of kingfisher and as an adjective describing unusual, primordial calm.

Calm can be associated with the ocean - a state desirable as an alternative to chaos. On a recent trip to Antarctica, there was much discussion of the Drake Passage, a convergence of current and weather from Cape Horn south, that was portrayed as a collision of wind and wave that wrecked ships and marked its sailors for life as survivors. Our passage both ways was across a placid sea, birds and dolphins racing alongside, not even a hint of any storm to come. I can't say that I was disappointed.

Calm can be also associated with an inner state of being - a neuro-chemical-physical quietude, a desirable condition that expels and denies the neurotic conditions of our lives and brings us peace of mind and body. Be calm we say to our children grappling with their futures; be calm we say to our parents and friends in illness or grappling with the fear of death; be calm we say to ourselves en route to Antarctica, it's going to be a Drake Lake. And it was.

Why is it that all major religions involve water as an essential place of ritual: baptism, cleansing, purity of purpose and soul? The ocean is a vast reservoir of water to the point of no dimension: its horizon has no meaning; its depth and breadth cannot be perceived, disorienting in space and disconnecting in time. The ocean is in constant movement and there is no foretelling, even with the best observations above and below, that can be said to be certain. A storm can materialize in a sudden shift of pressure; a wind can reach gale force by a minor adjustment of degree; a reef or bar can appear when the charts and satellites assert that for all time there has been nothing there. Clearly, the ocean strikes every chord, each lost in one coherent resonating tone.

Dr. Nichols has shared blue marbles around the world with millions of people in celebration of our beautiful, fragile, planet, carrying the simple and clear #BlueMind message.I have a friend, colleague, and fellow ocean advocate, Wallace J. Nichols, who for years has given out a simple blue glass marble as a evocation of the Earth from space - presented to any and all, from national presidents to the Dalai Lama to the most secular surfer, literally to thousands who understand the ocean calm, directly or indirectly, through experience, study, and intuition.

I have emulated this distribution myself, carrying marbles with me as an almost perfect metaphor that I can hold up to the light to release the calm, the fluidity, and the peace of the ocean world in my hand. It connects, it captures and refracts all the available light, and it consistently elicits a quiet understanding between those assembled, even in a crowded elevator, a giant auditorium, and across borders of nations and the boundaries of language. J. writes about Blue Mind - what he measures physically in the body, psychologically in the head, and spiritually in the heart - a pervasive state of harmonic blue. He has relentlessly spread this message and I hope he will never stop.

How many stories in how many cultures is there an account of the wife bereft of her fisher husband lost at sea, grieving and regenerating through immersion in such a dynamic, mysterious space? How many floating nests will be accommodated by the ocean, over how many generations? How many fledglings will find the ocean calm to clear their way?


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

A Celebration of Maritime Heritage


World Ocean Observatory is partnering with Main Street Bucksport for the 4th annual International Maritime Film Festival, a celebration of maritime heritage, spirit of adventure, concern for the environment, and ingenuity of boats and waterborne pursuits. This week we introduce the film fest and share their call for submissions. And we reflect on the importance and power of the written word, photographs and film to make us aware of issues and to act toward change with new conviction.


Learn more about submitting a film at

In pursuit of tools by which to portray the ocean in its full dimension and to convince our neighbors and our leaders that it must be respected and conserved for the benefit of all life on earth, we use words, and sounds and images as means to affect our senses and our emotions and thereafter to shift our reasoning and our actions toward sustainability and preservation of its systems.

Words can paint a picture and, as primarily a wordsmith, I am dedicated to that method as means. Sounds can speak for themselves, just as they can augment words. The underwater calls of whales, for instance, is a hauntingly beautiful case in point — an eerie, almost alien vibration that evokes response, implies connection among creatures that are individual yet communal, and declares possession of an environment that reveals another mystery of life.

And then there are pictures.

If we are inundated with words and sounds these days, then we are being maxi-whelmed by pictures — the constant flash of forms and compositions that suffuse our senses into a relentless experience of light. We have begun to communicate with visuals, like hieroglyphs in a sequence of optical meanings intended to add up to something, typically awareness of a person or product that we are commanded to consume. We are diverted by stories told visually — graphics and cartoons, ads and animations, films as narrative and documentary, and social media where some communication strategies are based on the easy click bait of pretty pictures by which to enlist viewers exponentially to a cause.

The key understanding here is that words, sounds, and images are the tools of narrative — the art of using story to reveal people, places, and ideas in a stream of encounter and meaning. There is tradecraft: the manipulation of time, voice, place, and metaphor to reveal connections and relevance, and to engage an audience rationally and emotionally. A good story will make you angry and make you cry, make you laugh and make you think, make you aware and make you act with new conviction.

The ocean is an infinite seascape for story, and to that end, the World Ocean Observatory has announced a partnership with Maine Street Bucksport for the presentation of the 4th Annual International Maritime Film Festival, a celebration of maritime vitality through films on a broad range of themes from yachting and leisure, to boatbuilding and restoration, history and cultural heritage, environmental and ocean science, and more.

If you know of such films, recently produced, please urge their immediate submission. To submit a film or to learn more, visit Maritime Film Festival judging is not category-specific; all films will be evaluated in relation to each other, in one of two tracks: Feature Length (40 minutes or more), or Shorts (under 40 minutes). All films are to be in English, or to carry English subtitles. Prizes are to be awarded and promoted through the World Ocean Observatory social media audience of over 800,000 Citizens of the Ocean worldwide. The festival will take place at the historic Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine, September 27- 29, 2019. Other festival sponsors include WoodenBoat Magazine and The Island Institute.

These films deserve an audience far beyond midcoast Maine. Our intent to package this year’s films with winners from the prior year’s festivals into a national tour for showings by maritime museums, environmental groups, educational institutions, and conservation organizations with interest in maritime affairs. If your organization would like to sponsor an event locally, please contact for further information.

Words, sounds, and images: these can be combined into a powerful medium for communication. Alexander von Humboldt, the great 19th century naturalist traveled the world observing and recording his surroundings in his journals, his descriptions, and his drawings; in Views of Nature: Contemplations on the Sublime Phenomena of Creation with Scientific Illustrations, published in 1850, he is said to have invented a new genre of nature writing, combining ”lively prose and rich landscape descriptions with detailed and evocative visual observations” that found its way down through a sequence of observers such as Charles Darwin, John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachael Carson, Annie Dillard, and Barry Lopez, among many others. Today, film is the medium of choice and the extension of this tradition, its purpose is the same: to describe, convince, and protect the full dimension of Nature.

The International Maritime Film Festival is sponsored by Main Street Bucksport in collaboration with the World Ocean Observatory. September 27 – 29, 2019

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Ocean Systems and Saltwater Engineering

Seawater: a resource for fresh drinking water, for robust renewable energy, and perhaps so much more. This week we explore the potential for inventive ideas using ocean systems that have yet to be imagined.

The ocean is this enormous volume of saltwater, and, while it covers a majority of the Earth’s surface, we often ignore it in favor of our more immediate need for fresh water to survive. This distinction misinforms many things: for example, in the world of policy and science, the separation of salt and fresh results in the fact that at the international meetings of the World Water Forum, a gathering of thousands of government and scientific leaders, presenting hundreds of learned papers on the topic of water, the ocean is almost never mentioned as an integral part of the global water cycle. The line of jurisdiction and interest is drawn at that ephemeral place where water becomes brackish or fresh, the so-called salt line below which is of little concern to the assembled expertise. It seems to me that this is bad science that can only result in bad policy, but I am no expert in these things.

When we do think of salt water, we see it as a solution in which is suspended the marine food chain of species, large and small, that depend on that hospitable host fluid to thrive.

We sometimes, but only recently, have begun to think of salt water as a possible source for fresh water supply, as unconventional irrigation for certain crops, and as a medium from which to extract heat geo-thermally as an alternative energy supply. But surely, such a vast resource must have other serious uses that could be of even greater benefit for the future.

Let me describe a few. First, there is technology in development that will use the energy of the sun to turn salt water into fresh drinking water. Researchers at Rice University have engineered a portable device, using nano-technology that combines membrane filtration with light-harvesting photonics to convert hot salt water, passing over a porous surface, to cold and enhancing the distillation process using less and freely available energy for application off the grid in coastal areas where the salt water is readily available. While the devices under test are small and portable, it would be possible to upscale the technology to serve larger areas, rural water systems and wastewater treatment, humanitarian emergency response in remote sites, and use for offshore facilities surrounded by the ocean.

A second example is the use of saltwater for flushing of toilets and other effluent treatment, predictably questionable with regard to chlorine, chemical disinfectants, and other possible toxins that might adversely affect the marine habitat. But studies have suggested the opposite: that such a system might actually improve and protect marine ecosystems, in fact be less impactful that similar discharge of freshwater flushing only which upsets the normal conditions of localized habitats at treatment outlets. If such a technology could be applied safely, again at scale think of the pressure drop on consumption of freshwater supplies already limited.

A third example is the use of sea water for air-conditioning in urban areas and southern regions. The introduction of deep cold water from a lake or the ocean suggests a technology that takes advantage of available adjacent supply and is more economically and environmental friendly by conserving freshwater and substantially reducing energy costs. Studies by Makai Ocean Engineering in Hawaii suggest that such a system reduces the cost of conventional air-conditioning by 90%; decreases reliance generally of fossil fuels thereby alleviating air pollution, acid rain, and global warming; has short-term economic payback and long-term savings; is independent of fluctuating energy prices; is available for alternative utilities like sanitation; and again relieves demand on dwindling freshwater supplies. This technology is presently being used in six institutions with others in progress.

And finally a fourth example: the use of saltwater flow over a specially patterned surface to generate electrical voltage — essentially the movement of ions over a charged surface, the friction of positives over negatives resulting in an electrical potential difference, again potentially scaled by the speed of flow, the area of surface, and the efficiency of collecting and aggregating the charge as energy. (See Sciencing: Making Electricity from Salt Water)When I think of the areas of concrete in drainages, the faces of dams, and the frontage of sea walls and piers, I see an amazing secondary utility, that water generating the power to monitor those constructs, to run pumps, and to illuminate areas for safety, navigation, and other necessary economical use.

It’s all about invention, and I would submit that we have not even begun to explore ocean systems, to invent advantageous adaptation and response, and to derive heretofore unimagined advantage from the beneficent ocean.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Bridges Toward Sustainability

Do we have the courage and determination to cross over to the other side where a sustainable future awaits?


I’ve been thinking lately about bridges. Engineered structures: triumphs of ingenuity by which to connect things, one side to another, by stone and steel and wire, floating and suspended. Bridges are symbols: the Brooklyn Bridge in New York for example, used to distill and focus on the achievement not just of the designers but also the men, the builders, underwater in caissons laying the foundations, or spinning the wire into cables from which the connection is hung, raised to a metaphor for work, achievement, and aspiration, a reconciliation of communities and nations — the stuff of geopolitics and poetry.

It is no secret that we live in an era of disconnection. We oppose worldviews and beliefs — on climate and science. While the ocean seems much like a vast separation, it nonetheless connects through trade, immigration, and the passage of ideas that therefore serves to bridge. The convincing harmony, however, seems missing.

I have recently been presenting on opposite points of view — specifically the antipodes, the juxtaposition of the Arctic and Antarctic as the axis on which the Earth turns. North to south, land to water, settled to unsettled — and yet unified by the changing circumstance of climate, pollution, and disruption. Both are faced with deteriorating change: in the atmosphere, on land and the icy edges, and into the water column where still exists an abundance of life and resources mostly untouched by the anthropogenic impacts of what we call civilization. What is the bridge between them?

We are living on the span, out on the arc of history, of the record of our successes and failures, of our capacity to grow and thrive and survive, and of our ability to reach the other side without collapse — not just for some of us, but for all. If we are half-way out, how do we get to the other side?

Sailors knew the point of no return, when the way forward was imperative as the way backward was impossible. Explorers had no such decision point, in that they did not know what lay ahead in the unknown, uncharted water where only the prospect of knowledge and wealth provided the certainty to continue. Perhaps today our goals are different, as the world is parsed and known, albeit the lure of wealth remains — half-way out, but the future unknown and the sense of monsters in the margins, collapse, and apocalypse no longer the realm of science fiction. Is this a bridge to nowhere?

We are caught between despair and hope. In his conclusion to 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the confrontation of truth to power and our choice now between application of mind and body to resistance and re-invention and the subversion of our freedoms to technology, autocracy, and social disorder. “For a few more decades,” he writes, “we still have a choice. If we make the effort, we can still investigate who we really are. But if we want to make use of this opportunity, we had better do it now.”

Let’s do it now. Standing on the bridge I feel this urgency to move forward, to broaden and amplify every effort to clear the way across by advocating and doing all required to protect and sustain the world ocean. It’s a huge obligation, and no one voice in print or on the radio can succeed without so many more. This month, World Ocean Observatory surpassed 800,000 followers on Facebook alone, part of a relentless campaign via social media and various forms of communication designed to build and sustain a global community of Citizens of the Ocean, the millions of us who live by and depend on the ocean-fresh water cycle and who see the other side as place for natural, political, financial, and social connection.

We must cross over the bridge to the future — with courage, determination, and the assurance of success. Make your choice. Step out. Cross over. The other side awaits.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.