Land & Water Stories

9 Ways You Depend on a Healthy Ocean

Even if you don't live near a coast, the ocean provides food, medicine, oxygen, inspiration and so much more.

A wave breaks as the ocean swells towards the shore.
Waves of Inspiration The ocean is awe inspiring. It brings us joy, wonder, fear and humility. It activates all our senses. It holds life so strange and amazing it strains credibility. © Giovanni Allievi/TNC Photo Contest 2023

When we take care of the ocean, the ocean takes care of us. Think of the ocean like the heart of the planet. It pumps oxygen, nutrients, water and weather around the globe. And just like with your heart, a healthy ocean is a healthy you.

When overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change and other factors threaten ocean health, the ripples of risk run far and wide. And not just along the coasts, but all over the world. We must prioritize the ocean's health so it can help to sustain us.

Dive into some of the many benefits the ocean brings to you and everyone you know:

1. The ocean provides healthy food for people all over the world.

No matter what you’re eating next, you can thank the ocean. Seafood provides people across the globe with healthy protein—but the ocean’s role in food is even bigger than that.

Virtually all of the planet's plants and animals are sustained by the global water cycle that’s driven largely by the ocean. This transfer of water, wind and weather creates reliable conditions for growing food, whether it's coffee beans in Kenya or rice in Southeast Asia.

But we need to source our seafood sustainability to keep the ocean healthy. We can relieve pressure on tuna and other fish and restore ocean health. We can also use sound aquaculture practices to produce shellfish, shrimp and seaweed in ways that support a healthy ocean and feed a hungry planet.
 

2. The ocean provides half of Earth's oxygen.

And if you like food, we bet you love breathing. Well, take a nice deep breath and thank the ocean ... oh, and plankton, too. The ocean's top layer is loaded with plankton: the tiny algae, bacteria, plants and other living things that practice photosynthesis, creating oxygen in the process.

And here's a fun fact for your next trivia contest: One minuscule species of bacteria, Prochlorococcus, is so abundant that scientists estimate that it produces 20% of the planet's oxygen. That's every fifth breath you take.

The World's Goal: Protect 30% of the Ocean by 2030

TNC supports the global goal of protecting 30% of the planet’s ocean, lands and freshwater over the next decade. To contribute to that goal, by 2030 TNC intends to conserve 4 billion hectares (more than 10% of the world’s ocean area) while benefitting 100 million people at severe risk of climate-related emergencies.

Learn more about all of TNC's 2030 goals.

3. The ocean absorbs heat and carbon dioxide, keeping it out of our atmosphere.

The ocean helps us beat the heat in more ways than one. The sea is an essential ally against climate change and its effects. Since the Industrial Revolution, when humans rapidly began releasing greenhouse gases, the ocean has absorbed about 90% of the excess heat in our atmosphere. If the ocean didn't do that, the Earth's air temperature would be rising even faster.

The ocean also absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2), helping prevent further warming. The carbon from decomposing organisms falls to the ocean floor and can remain there for thousands of years. Even coastal habitats—like seagrass meadows, salt marshes and mangroves—are fabulous at storing carbon. In fact, these “blue carbon” habitats can hold five times more carbon per acre than tropical forests.

But the ocean's abilities to absorb heat has limits. As climate change accelerates, the ocean is paying a steep price—becoming more acidic, losing oxygen and threatening marine species and people everywhere. To continue to protect us, the ocean needs our help! That means reducing emissions and phasing out fossil fuels.

What is blue carbon? (2:10) Mangroves, seagrasses and saltmarshes are real superheroes when it comes to preventing further global warming.

The ocean's future is our future.

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4. The ocean regulates our weather.

You can't expect perfect weather all the time, but without the ocean, our weather would be much less stable.

With its currents, the ocean is like a giant pump, moving warm water and precipitation from the tropics toward the poles while in its depth it moves cold water from the poles back toward the equator.

And in warmer regions, as the sun's energy evaporates ocean water, prevailing winds carry clouds and storms across the planet, where it falls as rain. Most of the rain that falls on land—whether on your head or on your garden—has its origin in the ocean.

People in the ocean near Varadero, Cuba, watching a spectacular storm building over the ocean.
Stormy seas The ocean is a major driver of the planet's weather. © Giovani Cordioli/TNC Photo Contest 2019

The ocean is a major driver of the planet's weather.

5. Ocean habitats protect coastal communities from storms.

Those mangroves, seagrass meadows and salt marshes don’t just store carbon. They, along with reefs and dunes, play a vital role in protecting coastal communities from climate-charged storms, sea-level rise and erosion.

Coral reefs are masters of coastal defense—a healthy reef can absorb up to 97% of a wave’s energy. Mangroves are also coastal defenders—in the Caribbean alone, mangroves protect over half a million people from flooding each year.

In fact, mangroves and reefs are so effective at reducing flood risk that some communities in Mexico and Hawaii have even put insurance policies on them. Even if you don't live near the coast, these nature-based solutions save money for taxpayers and insurers by reducing costly damage to critical infrastructure like roads and buildings. 

A Story of Hope for Coral Reefs (4:48) The Nature Conservancy is committed to protecting 30% of our coral and shellfish reefs over the next decade.

6. The ocean provides medicines that keep us healthy.

The mind-boggling diversity of life in the oceans could one day save your life. Complex webs of interaction between species can generate enormous chemical diversity (think of how clownfish are immune to the venom from anemones) which in turn can lead to breakthroughs in medicine for humans.

Maybe you've heard about the blue blood of horseshoe crab? It has a protein called Limulus Amebocyte Lysate that's used to test vaccines and other medical products for the presence of harmful bacteria, and its saved millions of people from potential infections or worse.

Scientists are continuously discovering and testing other compounds, from tiny surface-loving algae to strange organisms in deep-sea depths. Some tunicates, those weird marine invertebrates that you might know as sea squirts, may help treat breast and ovarian cancers. Certain types of coral contain compounds used to treat leukemia. Other compounds are being tested to treat Alzheimer’s, cancer and HIV. 

Medicine Chests of the Sea (3:00) Coral reefs are home to 25% of all marine species. All that biological diversity translates into chemical diversity which can be used in life-saving medicines that treat cancer. Our own survival depends on their survival. Together, we can and must save them.

7. The ocean's winds can provide renewable energy.

As the world transitions away from the fossil fuels that drive climate change, the sources of energy in your own life will increasingly come from renewable sources like solar and wind. The ocean’s steady, reliable winds can play a big part in that mix of renewable energy.

When properly sited (that part is crucial), offshore wind energy has huge potential. Right now, there are only a handful of offshore wind turbines in U.S. waters. But by 2035, by some estimates there could be as many as 2,000 off the Atlantic coast. Together, they could generate enough renewable energy to power 10 million homes.

Scientists from TNC and other ocean experts are even looking into ways that new offshore wind turbines could create valuable habitat for fish and other marine life.
 

8. The ocean provides jobs and powers our economies.

No matter where you work, what you eat or what you buy, the ocean has played some role in your financial life. Today, so many of us rely on things that are made in one place and shipped overseas. And of course, communities all over the world depend on livelihoods from fishing, aquaculture, tourism and recreation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) values the ocean economy’s output in 2010 at USD $1.5 trillion.

In the Caribbean alone, one study found that keeping coral reefs healthy generated billions of dollars-worth of revenue for the tourism industry, island governments and local communities. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 600 million people rely on fisheries or aquaculture for at least part of their livelihoods.

Most of the ocean's fish workers are small-scale fishers and fish farmers in developing countries. Creating sustainable fisheries in places like Indonesia, Peru and the Gulf of Maine will ensure jobs for these and other places around the world.

Children run along the low tide's shallow waters, their image reflected in the waters off Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines.
Horizon of reflection For young and old, the ocean and its coast inspires the imagination. Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. © Junryhle Adem/TNC Photo Contest 2021

9. The ocean inspires.

With its sheer size and power, the ocean is awe inspiring. It brings us joy, wonder, fear and humility (ever been knocked over by a wave?). It activates all our senses. It holds life so strange and amazing it strains credibility. Since the times that humans first encountered the ocean, people have conveyed the ocean's mystique in constant tides of creativity that enrich us all. The ocean finds its way into poetry, novels, music, dance, films, visual arts and our own life stories. The ocean has a way of letting us reflect. Even as the horizon blurs, life comes into focus. Go to the ocean, take in its vastness and let the sea inspire you.