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Q&A with Dr. Jesse Ausubel

In advance of our lecture on April 28th, we chatted with environmental scientist Dr. Jesse Ausubel about the past century of oceanic changes and what sparked his interest in ocean exploration:

Published April 21, 2015

jesse ausubel

Why is it so important to study the past history of our oceans? How does this fuel your passion for ocean exploration?

I like to read early texts of geography and history. I think of the chronicles of St Brendan, who, it is believed, was born in 484 C.E. near Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, where he died in 577 C.E. His Navigatio, or wandering, was assembled about 300 years later. Some is pure Celtic fantasy, but to me, his description of one region as ‘curdled  ocean’ sounds very much like it could be the Sargasso Sea. 

The medieval Icelandic chronicles, the Graenlendinga Saga and also Eirik’s Saga famously offer the primary written evidence for the Norse landfall in North America. About the same time as Eirik, the Moroccan geographer and cartographer al-Idrisi wrote a Universal Geography, produced in Sicily in 1153. 

His Nuzhat al-Mustaq describes the seas of the North Atlantic: “There are animals of such great size that  the inhabitants of the islands use their bones and vertebrae in place of wood to build houses. They make hammers, arrows, spears, knives, seats, steps, and in general every sort of thing elsewhere made of wood.” Perhaps  we can extract some ideas from al-Idrisi about the distribution and size of Atlantic marine animals 950 years ago. Such fantastical ideas stimulate the imaginations of historians and ecologists.

How have technological advancements affected ocean research?

Thanks to technology, we have all become superheroes who can see in the dark, dive deep and sniff a single molecule. Until only a few decades ago, most of the oceans were not only unexplored but unknowable. Most of the oceans remain unexplored, but technology has made them knowable!

Do you think it will ever be possible for humans to discover every marine species?

No, at least not in the 21st century. The "long tail" of the distribution is very very long. In fact, we know only about 250,000 species, while 750,000-2,000,000 probably remain to be discovered. Even if we improve and intensify our efforts, the job is enormous! 

What do you love most about discovering new species?

Nature finds infinite ways for organisms to make a living. The particularities of a species always thrill me, what makes it survive in the survival of the fitness. And then, equally the beauty in form and color of many species takes my breath away.

In your opinion, what does the future hold for our oceans?

The oceans will become more transparent to humanity. They will also become more crowded with human activities. We need to use our greater vision and knowledge to assure that the seascape is hospitable for sea life, not only useful humans. We can spare large amounts of sea for nature, and must do so.

Don’t miss our lecture with Dr. Ausubel!

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