The Pacific Ocean: All you need to know
The Pacific Ocean is the deepest and largest ocean on the planet, the ocean is located between a number of continents as depicted by the image below, these include the Australian, Asian, North and South American continents. Interestingly, the Pacific Ocean derives its name from the Latin phrase ‘Mar Pacifico,’ meaning a peaceful sea. The name was coined by the first European explorer to reach the Pacific, Ferdinand Magellan in the early 1520s, after sailing through a patch of calm waters on the ocean.
The size of the Pacific Ocean
The Pacific covers an estimated area of 165.25 million square kilometers ( 63.8 million square miles), covering about 30% of the earth’s surface. The size of the Pacific exceeds the total expanse of all the world’s seven continents. The Pacific also represents about half of the planet’s total water surface area.
Although its name refers to a calm and peaceful sea, the Pacific is a massive body of water teeming with life. Every year, the Pacific Ocean contributes billions of dollars to different countries across the world through multiple economic activities, as an example fishing from the Pacific contributes over 70% of the world’s catch.
Additionally, the Pacific is a great source of natural resources, including metal, sand and minerals. Even with the large quantities of mineral resources, only a few have been exploited, such as magnesium, bromine, and salt. The ocean also contains large deposits of oil, gas, and petroleum.
The Pacific is responsible for providing some of the key shipping and trade routes globally, including the North and South Pacific routes. The North Pacific route connects North America (specifically the West Coast) to East Asia. In terms of trade volumes per route and distance, the North Pacific route is the longest and the largest compared to other channels. The South Pacific route, on the other hand, interconnects Western Europe, North America, New Zealand, and Australia. Worldtradia released some stats back in 2017 that saw the North Pacific trade route see traffic volumes (number of vessels) of 30.5 million. The next busiest route being the North Atlantic with volumes just over 22.3 million.
The depth of the Pacific
The Pacific is the deepest ocean on earth, with an average depth of 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). Scientifically, the deepest points of any ocean are known as deep trenches. Out of the 20 major trenches worldwide, 17 of them are found in the Pacific, with the Mariana Trench being the deepest of them all. The Challenger Deep (which is the deepest point in the Pacific and on earth) measures at 10,994 meters (or 36,040 feet). In 2012, it took James Cameron, a National Geographic explorer and film producer, 2 hours and 36 minutes to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep.
The Pacific is shrinking by 1cm a year
Scientists have discovered that the Pacific is shrinking at a rate of 1cm per year due to tectonic plates. Let’s put the academic hat back on and explore the why, tectonic plates are pieces of the earth’s crust and uppermost mantle, commonly referred to as the lithosphere. As an estimate, the plates are around 100 km (62 mi) thick and mainly consist of two types of material: oceanic crust and continental crust. This crust is always in a state of flux i.e. constant motion. The movement of these plates occur at a rate of a few centimetres per year, causing a collision known as subduction. As a result, the Pacific plate pulls away from the North American plate at about 1cm per year, causing the ocean to shrink in the same proportion.
What Is the Pacific Ring of Fire?
The largest volcano on earth is located in the Pacific, with over 75% of the world’s volcanos coming from the ocean’s basin. The volcanoes and earthquakes that originate from the Pacific occur from an area in the ocean known as the Ring of Fire. The occurrence of earthquakes and volcanoes here are as a result of heavy volcanic activity and the movement of tectonic plates. It is reported that over 80% of the world’s tsunamis also occur in the Pacific’s Ring of Fire.
Islands of the World
There are hundreds of thousands of islands across the world, some of which are yet to be inhabited. Among the endless list of ocean islands found on the planet, the Pacific has the highest number. With about 25,000 islands, the Pacific Island countries have become home to millions of people. This total equates to their being more islands in the pacific than in all the other oceans put together, why? The reason being is because the Pacific experiences the highest volcanic activity compared to all other oceans, thanks to the vigorous movements that occur in the Ring of Fire. Following oceanic crust movements that happen at the floor of the ocean, this can lead to a series of oceanic or volcanic islands being formed.
The El Nino Climate Cycle
El Nino is the Pacific’s climate cycle that impacts weather patterns globally. The pattern consists of unusual warming of the waters on the surface of the Eastern Pacific. El Nino influences local weather, the strength of ocean currents, and temperatures across South America, Australia, and beyond. This cycle has a significant impact on the global climate, and to some extent, can cause some lasting changes. The 2016 El Nino saw severe droughts in Africa and South-East Asia, catastrophic coral bleaching in the Great barrier reef and wildfires in Indonesia and Canada.
The La Niña Climate Cycle
The impacts of a La Niña climate cycle tends to be the exact opposite of the impacts of an El Nino Cycle. La Niña represents a period of cooling for the surface ocean waters across the tropical west coast of South America. During a La Niña year, winter temperatures in the US will be cooler than normal in the Northwest and warmer than normal in the Southeast.
The Birthing of Hurricanes
Hurricanes, also known as typhoons when formed over the Pacific, are the most violent storms experienced on earth. Evidence in the past has proven that the Pacific can stir extremely strong hurricanes. Hurricane Patricia, for example, was the strongest Pacific typhoon ever recorded in history, affecting Central America, Texas, and Mexico. Typhoon Nepartak is another Pacific storm that significantly affected Taiwan.
Hurricanes and cyclones are fuelled by warm sea surfaces (the Pacific being warmer than any other ocean on earth). The warmth of the Pacific waters can be persistent for a year, allowing a hurricane to last longer. This is why La Niña and El Nino are never ignored.
Increased marine pollution
Being the largest ocean on earth, the Pacific extends to several continents and a significant number of countries. Consequently, the ocean is more exposed to high levels of pollution. The Pacific is particularly prone to plastic, which comprises over 90% of the visible pollutants and debris covering the ocean. Studies indicate that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (the ocean’s garbage collection site) has grown 100 times bigger than it was 40 years ago. Nuclear waste and ocean dumping have also contributed to marine pollution significantly.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the ocean’s collection of debris (caused by human activity). A lot of plastics are pushed by the ocean currents into floating patches of debris, forming the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Today, GPGP is the largest plastic accumulation zone in the world’s oceans, covering an estimated area of 8 million square kilometres. The patch is so huge that it is estimated to be 2.3 the size of Texas. There are collective efforts by international organisations and individuals to control GPGP from growing.
Overfishing of the Pacific
Overfishing is the primary contributor of decline to aquatic life worldwide. Research shows that large quantities of fish are removed from the Pacific (every year) , far exceeding the rate they are able to reproduce. An estimated 1.6 million pounds (over 725,000 kgs) of fish are removed from the reefs of Pohnpei each year. Generally, over 30% of the species found in the coral reefs of Oceania are threatened with extinction.
In 2013, there was a recorded decline in the population of Pacific bluefin tuna. The Pacific bluefin tuna is one of the rarest fish species found in the Northern Pacific. The same trend has continued to date. In 2018, the value of a Pacific bluefin tuna was ranging at above $320,000. This is due to the continued decline in the Pacific bluefin tuna stocks. Why? The answer is simple, overfishing! And what promotes overfishing? Overfishing can be as a result of the increase in illegal fishing, lack of fishing regulations and increased human activity in the ocean.
This Ocean is a lifeline to almost everyone on this planet, we therefore, need to respect it. The ocean doesn’t belong to us, we don’t own it, we shouldn’t see it as a trash can!! Instead, humanity should consider ourselves as “stewards”, protecting the ocean and its inhabitants, so it can support future generations of life, both sea life and human life. Our mindset has to change!