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An open letter to my newborn niece

Dear Tinsley,

Welcome to the world. I know it must feel like a very small world right now–just big enough to keep you safe and sheltered and loved–but trust me, as you keep growing, so will the world. Even after you stop growing, it will keep getting bigger. This big, old world that you have suddenly appeared in is huge and strange and beautiful and mysterious. There is more to discover in this world than all of us who have ever lived, working together, can ever know. Even before you can speak, you will think things and know things that no one has ever thought or known before. That is wonderful.

We are explorers. Not just your aunt and uncle, or your family, but all of us: this whole, gigantic group of people that call ourselves “humanity”. Today, there are over 7 billion of us and every last one, every person you will ever meet, can trace their heritage back, through thousands of millennia, to a small tribe of primates somewhere on the African savannah  We were explorers then, too. This tribe made its way across Europe and Asia. They sailed across the Pacific to Australia and a thousand tiny islands. They marched across the Bering Sea–land once connected Alaska to Russia–and traveled all the way down to the tip of South America. And, no matter how far they traveled, no matter how much they explored, the world just kept getting bigger.

We’re still exploring, today. We’ve built an enormous machine called the Large Hadron Collider–some say it’s the most complicated machine humanity has ever built—that allows us to explore the tiniest things in the universe: the sub-atomic particles that hold our world (and every world) together. We’ve even begun to explore beyond our own world. We have massive telescopes that allow us to explore distant galaxies. We’ve built probes that have left our own solar system. We have satellites orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. This summer, we landed a robot on Mars. It has already discovered that Mars was once more like our own world than we previously believed. We named that robot “Curiosity”.

I use robots to explore, too, though they are nothing like the Curiosity rover currently wandering across the surface of Mars. The robots I use are called Remotely Operated Vehicles, ROV’s, and they are built to explore the deepest places in the ocean. For most of the time that humanity was exploring the world, and even decades after the first person had walked on another world, we had no idea how much of the ocean was still left to explore. We’ve discovered underwater hot springs, called hydrothermal vents, thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface, that are covered in animals that can do something we once thought impossible: survive, even thrive, without sunlight. Some of us now think that life began in these deep, hot springs. We’ve discovered underwater lakes of brine and deep sea corals and giant pill bugs longer than my arm. These are just some of the things we’ve found in the deep ocean, but the sea is teeming with so much life that no one could ever explore it all.

This is one of the great secrets about this world in which you’ve abruptly appeared: you get two worlds to explore. There’s the world on land that will be your home and then there’s the ocean. In the past, only a few very lucky people could ever explore this world beneath the waves, but you were born in the first era in human history in which the ocean is open to everyone.

This world we are giving you is changing and those changes are going to be the defining story of your generation. You should know that the world is always changing, but, right now, it looks like the world is changing faster than it should and that our actions are responsible for causing these changes. In the last two hundred years, we’ve discovered how to take the fossilized remains of ancient creatures and turn them into energy, lots and lots of energy. This energy allows us to explore farther than ever before. It allows us to grow more food and make better medicine. It gives us the power to build and operate machines that can work harder and longer than a person. This means that more people can spend more time exploring, time they once had to spend just surviving in this world.

But everything comes with a cost, and the cost of using all this energy is that we changed our world’s atmosphere. Our world now traps more heat than it used to, and this heat has to go somewhere. A lot of that heat went into the ocean. This is part of the reason why it took us so long to realize something was wrong–the ocean, our other world, was protecting us. Some of that heat is going into glaciers and ice caps, causing them to melt. We still don’t know what all the effects of this extra heat will be, but we’re trying to figure it out.

There are other consequences of using this energy. The gas we create when we burn fossil fuels, called carbon dioxide, is also absorbed by the ocean, making it slightly more acidic. This ocean acidification is not enough for you or me to notice, but many marine animals cannot tolerate it. They will have trouble growing shells or building reefs and they may not survive.

As our population grows, we have to use more and more land to grow food. This means that we have to plow places where other animals once lived. Much of the world eats fish, so we have to build bigger and bigger boats to catch more. Fish aren’t unlimited and some of my friends think that if we keep going at the rate we’re currently fishing, by the time that you’re my age, there won’t be enough fish left to eat.

The hardest thing for me to admit is that there are animals, and even whole communities, that no longer exist, simply because we were careless or greedy or just plain ignorant of the effects of our actions. Some we hunted to extinction, others, we destroyed their homes, some were attacked by diseases or predators that traveled with us while we explored the world, and, for some, their disappearance will remain forever a mystery. It breaks my heart to know that you will never have the chance to see a river dolphin, a Javan tiger, a black rhinoceros, a golden toad, a Pyrenean Ibex, a Po’ouli, a Spix’s Macaw, a Japanese river otter, a La Pinta tortoise, an eastern cougar, an Alaotra Grebe, a Levuana moth, a St. Croix racer, an Aldabra banded snail, or a sunstar. These are just some of the animals that have vanished in my lifetime. Hydrothermal vents, the hot springs I mentioned earlier, are rich in copper and gold. Already, people are planning to mine these vents, destroying the animals that live around them. We’ve known that vents exist for less than 50 years, and already we must fight for their conservation.

You may ask yourself “how do we know all this?” That is a very good question to ask. Whenever you are presented with a new fact, you should ask how we know that that fact is true. Often, how we know something is more important that what we know. The process we use to figure out how the world works is called “Science”. Science is a way to test ideas to see if they are true. The beauty of science is that, when new information is discovered, old ideas have to be tested against that new information. If this new information conflicts with the idea, then the idea must be changed. Ideas that are consistently verified by new data are called ‘theories”, and these theories form the foundation that we use to explore the world. The system is not perfect, and people can still cling to old ideas after they’ve been shown to be false, but over time, science builds and changes these ideas to reflect what we know about the world. Science does not deal in absolutes and it never says that any idea is certain, only that that idea is the most likely explanation given the evidence.

When I say the world is changing, that is an assessment based on scientific evidence. Science doesn’t say if those changes will be good or bad–indeed, some changes will be good for some people and bad for others–only that those changes are likely to occur. There are many of us, myself included, who believe that we have a responsibility to give our children a better world than the one we inherited, and that these changes, if we cannot minimize, mitigate, or reverse them, will take from, instead of give to, your generation. Some of these changes are inevitable, and for that I am truly sorry, but some are not.

All around the world, there are thousands of dedicated women and men who are doing everything they can to protect both worlds. Some of them work in politics, some work in activism, and some, like me, work in science. We don’t always agree, and we don’t all have the same goals, but we all want to ensure that this beautiful, weird, wonderful world is still around for you and, one day, for your children, to explore. It isn’t an easy task, but few things worth doing are ever easy. The ocean you grow up in may be very different from the ocean that I grew up in, but it will be no less vast, no less mysterious, and no less magical. Our worlds are huge and no matter how many generations are spent exploring them, we will never see their end.

With all my love, your uncle,


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.

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