Bal­ti­more should adopt this canyon

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Kris Hoellen Kris Hoellen (KHoellen@aqua.org) is the se­nior vice pres­i­dent and chief con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer for the Na­tional Aquar­ium.

Would it sur­prise you to learn that just 70 miles off the coast of Mary­land, there is a ma­jor sub­ma­rine canyon bear­ing our city’s name? At 28 miles long, 5 miles wide, and more than 1,500 feet deep at its mouth, the Bal­ti­more Canyon is ap­prox­i­mately the depth of 81⁄ World Trade Cen­ter Bal­ti­more build­ings stacked upon each other.

Most im­por­tantly, this canyon is an eco­log­i­cal treasure con­tain­ing rare, ir­re­place­able deep-sea corals along with sel­dom-seen bi­o­log­i­cal phe­nom­ena known as cold-wa­ter meth­ane seeps, which are crit­i­cal for sus­tain­ing the food web and our lo­cal fish­ing econ­omy. While meth­ane seeps on land are con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous, in the ocean they are con­sid­ered a gift, and we are for­tu­nate to have in the canyon one of the largest seeps in the North At­lantic.

It is in­ter­est­ing that this canyon bears our name, yet so few of us have heard of it or ap­pre­ci­ate its eco­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance and con­tri­bu­tions to our daily life. The “out of sight, out of mind” para­dox seems to reign supreme when char­ac­ter­iz­ing most ur­ban ar­eas and the ma­rine en­vi­ron­ment, which is a dis­con­nect that is un­for­tu­nate. We are both a rapidly ur­ban­iz­ing na­tion with 85 per­cent of Amer­i­cans pro­jected to live in ur­ban ar­eas by 2050 — an al­most 180-de­gree re­ver­sal of where peo­ple lived just 100 years ago — as well as a na­tion in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent upon our oceans.

Oceans pro­vide over 50 per­cent of our oxy­gen sup­ply, serve as our great­est car­bon sink, sup­ply us with food and di­rectly ac­count for over 2.8 mil­lion jobs in the U.S. econ­omy. More­over, oceans help reg­u­late our weather and cli­mate — a par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant fea­ture for cities suf­fer­ing from ur­ban heat is­land ef­fects.

So why aren’t peo­ple in Bal­ti­more fa­mil­iar with the Bal­ti­more Canyon? In short, ocean lit­er­acy, the study of the ocean’s in­flu­ence on hu­man life and vice versa, is largely ab­sent from most schools’ sci­ence cur­ricu­lum. Which leads us to a key ques­tion: As ocean ex­plo­ration be­comes the new fi­nal fron­tier af­ter space ex­plo­ration, will our ur­ban youth be equipped to ac­cess and en­ter this new field?

The Na­tional Aquar­ium be­lieves that the Bal­ti­more Canyon presents us with an op­por­tu­nity to con­nect our youth and ci­ti­zens to the deep seas. Be­fore the end of the year, we in­tend to nom­i­nate the Bal­ti­more Canyon as our na­tion’s first ur­ban na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ary through the Na­tional Oceanic At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s (NOAA’s) Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary des­ig­na­tion process. Mary­land is be­com­ing a bur­geon­ing biotech­nol­ogy hub, at­tract­ing nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies that spe­cial­ize in vi­su­al­iza­tion tech­nol­ogy, ro­bot­ics, acous­tic sonar sen­sors and ocean map­ping, to name a few. Wouldn’t it be ben­e­fi­cial to ex­pose our youth to th­ese tech­nolo­gies us­ing the sanc­tu­ary as our base for ex­plo­ration?

This is not a pipe dream. Once the canyon is des­ig­nated as a sanc­tu­ary, the Na­tional Aquar­ium, work­ing in tan­dem with NOAA, com­mits to use its plat­form to ed­u­cate its 1.3 mil­lion vis­i­tors, com­mu­nity part­ners and youths on the sig­nif­i­cance of our deep seas and the canyon. Ad­di­tion­ally, by part­ner­ing with some of our na­tion’s fore­most re­search and tech­nol­ogy firms that now call Mary­land home, we can use the canyon as a liv­ing lab­o­ra­tory, cre­at­ing new STEM ca­reer path­ways for our youth, teach­ing ocean lit­er­acy, spark­ing eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and en­sur­ing equal ac­cess for all to the next and fi­nal fron­tier.

The Bal­ti­more Canyon mer­its sanc­tu­ary des­ig­na­tion. The pri­mary pro­tec­tive safe­guard will be to en­sure the canyon re­mains free from ex­trac­tive in­dus­tries. While re­li­able en­ergy is im­por­tant to all of us, there are some places that sim­ply should not be de­vel­oped. The Bal­ti­more Canyon is such a place. World­wide, less than 5 per­cent of the ocean has been pro­tected as com­pared to ap­prox­i­mately 15 per­cent of the world’s spe­cial ter­res­trial places. It is time we al­low our oceans to strate­gi­cally catch up.

To make this dream a real­ity of con­nect­ing our ur­ban ar­eas to the ocean, we need Bal­ti­more to lead the na­tion and adopt the Bal­ti­more Canyon. Al­ready, Bal­ti­more City Public Schools, the In­sti­tute of Ma­rine and En­vi­ron­men­tal Tech­nol­ogy, Duke En­ergy, the Na­tional Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion and a wide ar­ray of other stake­hold­ers and ci­ti­zens have joined the cam­paign to sup­port the des­ig­na­tion of the Bal­ti­more Canyon as our na­tion’s first ur­ban na­tional ma­rine sanc­tu­ary. You can do so, too, by writ­ing sup­port let­ters and sign­ing the on­line pe­ti­tion at aqua.org/ bal­ti­more canyon.

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