ABU DHABI // In 1991, the renowned oceanographer Dr Sylvia Earle was in the Gulf to view first-hand the damage being caused by the blazing oilfields of Kuwait, set alight by retreating Iraqi forces.
Now, 20 years later, Dr Earle is back in the region to warn of other threats to the Gulf's waters, and those of the world.
She first came to the Gulf as a chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, and spent a month scuba diving in the waters of the Gulf in 1992 as part of an international scientific expedition to survey the coastline from Oman to Kuwait.
"It was an opportunity to see the Gulf before all this," Dr Earle said jokingly yesterday, pointing to the new high-rises of Abu Dhabi.
After her speech at the Eye on Earth Summit at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, she listed the threats to the oceans: overfishing, pollution, plastic debris, fertiliser run-off and other types of chemical waste.
"But the number one problem, absolutely and by far away, is ignorance," Dr Earle said. "You cannot care if you do not know.
"Most people do not realise the connection between the ocean and every breath they take or every drop of water."
Most see the ocean as a source of food and recreation, but she said recent scientific discoveries had shown the sea serves a much more profound role in maintaining life on Earth.
"The blue ocean beyond, the high seas and most of the surface waters on the world … this is truly the blue engine that is driving the way the world works," Dr Earle said.
Twenty per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere is created by micro-organisms bacteria living in sea water that were not even known to science before 1986, she said in her speech.
"We don't even appreciate how much oxygen comes from the sea, but with every breath you take you are connected to the ocean, no matter where on the planet you live," Dr Earle said.
"Yes, forests on the land are really important for generating oxygen but the forests in the sea, those microforests of small creatures, are critically important to shaping not only what happens in the ocean but certainly what happens on land as well."
As the ocean creates oxygen, it takes in carbon dioxide. This is becoming increasingly important considering that emissions of the gas are rising as a result of fossil fuels. These emissions threaten to disrupt the climate with catastrophic consequences.
Algae and coral reefs all sequester carbon, as do salt marshes and sea grass beds.
Mangroves, the world's only tree species capable of surviving in salt water, also play an important and until recently undervalued role.
"Here as well as in coastal systems all over the world, these systems have been degraded at a rate even greater than the loss of forests on the land, and yet mangroves are now known to gather and sequester up to 50 times as much carbon as their terrestrial counterparts," Dr Earle said.
"The decisions that we make in the next 10 years are likely to be the most important in the next 10,000 years because we're right at the edge now, we know, of losing much that we … could and did, and to some extent still do, take very much for granted."
Among the speakers at the environmental event in the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, which concludes today, was Dr Thabit Al Abdessalaam, the director of the marine biodiversity management sector at the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (Ead).
He expressed a similar opinion.
"We are spending billions of dollars to capture carbon dioxide and here we have a more natural, a more effective and cheaper way to share carbon," Dr Al Abdessalaam said.
Many steps are necessary to ensure the preservation of the ocean but ultimately, one key priority is setting aside more marine-protected areas. For now, just more than 1 per cent of the ocean is protected, Dr Earle said.
Dr Al Abdessalaam said Ead was considering expanding the territory of protected areas, as well as other measures to protect important coastal and marine habitats.
A main challenge in Abu Dhabi is "unplanned development projects with the associated dredging and land reclamation", he said. "We have a window of 10 years or so to protect what is still there."