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Importance of the Ocean

Throughout history humans have been directly or indirectly influenced by the oceans. Ocean waters serve as a source of food and valuable minerals, as a vast highway for commerce, and provide a place for both recreation and waste disposal. Increasingly, people are turning to the oceans for their food supply either by direct consumption or indirectly by harvesting fish that is then processed for livestock feed. It has been estimated that as much as 10% of human protein intake comes from the oceans. Nevertheless, the food-producing potential of the oceans is only partly realized. Other biological products of the oceans are also commercially used. For example, pearls taken from oysters are used in jewelry, and shells and coral have been widely used as a source of building material.

Ocean water is processed to extract commercially valuable minerals such as salt, bromine, and magnesium. Although nearly 60 valuable chemical elements have been found dissolved in ocean water, most are in such dilute concentrations that commercial extraction is not profitable. In a few arid regions of the world, such as Ascension Island, Kuwait, and Israel, ocean water is desalinated to produce freshwater.

The shallow continental shelves have been exploited as a source of sands and gravels. In addition, extensive deposits of petroleum-bearing sands have been exploited in offshore areas, particularly along the Gulf and California coasts of the United States and in the Persian Gulf. On the deep ocean floor manganese nodules, formed by the precipitation of manganese oxides and other metallic salts around a nucleus of rock or shell, represent a potentially rich and extensive resource. Research is currently being conducted to explore nodule mining and metallic extraction techniques. Ocean water itself could prove to be a limitless source of energy in the event that nuclear fusion reactors are developed, since the oceans contain great quantities of deuterium.

The oceans also are important for recreational use, as each year more people are attracted to the sports of swimming, fishing, scuba diving, boating, and waterskiing. Ocean pollution, meantime, has escalated dramatically as those who use the oceans for recreational and commercial purposes, as well as those who live nearby, have disposed of more and more wastes there (see water pollution).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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