We’re a Young Explorer and a Scientist, and These Are Our Ocean Stories. What’s Yours?

We’ve teamed up with Esri to officially launch the 2021 ArcGIS StoryMaps Challenge for Restoring Our Ocean. If you’re in high school, college, or otherwise between 18 and 24 years of age we invite you to participate by integrating maps, data, and multimedia content with text to share a narrative about the world’s greatest challenges and inspire us all to find solutions.

National Geographic Young Explorer Shelby O’Neil and Chief Scientist of Esri, Dawn Wright, two of the judges for the challenge, developed a passion for the ocean early in their lives. That passion has guided their work in education, conservation, and mapping. We connected with Shelby and Dawn about what excites them so much about StoryMaps. Read the conversation below, then enter the challenge by creating your own impactful story about ocean health.

National Geographic Society (NG): When in your life did you realize the urgency of ocean conservation and education?

Shelby O’Neil (SO): When I was in middle school, I learned about keystone species and their importance to our ecosystems. In the process, I learned about the importance of balance in our oceans and saw the drastic unnatural conditions we were creating. From that moment on I was fascinated by the idea that human creations—such as plastic—can take on a life of their own, to the point where they start to negatively affect us even though we created them. 

NG: When did you realize the power of mapping?

Dawn Wright (DW): I realized the true power of mapping as an eight-year-old girl. I was completely enchanted by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. One of the pillars of the story is Captain Flint’s treasure map. Ironically, the details of the map are never actually revealed. It is the sheer idea of the map’s existence, and the possibilities of what it could lead to, that drives Long John Silver and the other characters to the point of obsession. For me, that was incredibly powerful!

I majored in geology as an undergraduate and oceanography in graduate school. During my first round of graduate studies at Texas A&M, I came across a map to my future: the 1977 World Ocean Floor Panorama by Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen. It was the first map in history to hint at the full scope of what lies beneath the ocean.

I fell more deeply in love with this map when I learned the life story of Marie Tharp. As a researcher at Columbia University in the 1950s and ’60s, she began the world’s first systematic, comprehensive attempt to map the ocean floor. To do so, she translated millions of ocean-sounding records into a single drawing and discovered a rift valley that informed the theory of plate tectonics. For years her contributions were left out of historical accounts because she was a woman, but now Tharp is considered the inventor of marine cartography.

NG: Some people disconnect science from storytelling. What would you say to them? What impact have you seen from connecting the two?

DW: I would say never to disconnect the two if you can help it! In particular, I think sharing your own personal story is crucial as a scientist. Scientists should be willing to share more of themselves, in line with their comfort level, beyond the methodologies and data. As you share more of your own story, people may come to you for advice or inspiration.

StoryMaps have emerged as a powerful storytelling platform to leverage the power of GIS to tell stories about important connections among scientists, resource managers, and policymakers. By connecting science with data, StoryMaps allow scientists to inform, educate, and inspire on a wide variety of scientific and policy issues.

SO: Many people seem to view science as if only a select few are or can be involved in the field. In reality, science and scientists are at the forefront of everything upon which our modern world is built. We know details from past generations because advancements in science and human connectedness have helped bridge the gap and fill in missing information. Science and storytelling are vital to combine because they inform us about the past while helping to predict the future. They can also help people connect to causes and stories beyond their personal experience and develop empathy and passion for issues they didn’t know about previously.

NG: Why does the ocean inspire you?

SO: The ocean inspires me because it has seen so much change, from the forming of Earth to massive geological shifts to all of our ancestors breathing air produced by ocean life.  Throughout all of that change, the ocean has stayed resilient to anything we have thrown its way. Now it is our turn to take care of the ocean as it has taken care of us.

NG: How could mapping change the world? How can the power of mapping conserve the ocean?

DW: There is something about a map that opens our eyes in ways that are unparalleled. There are so many of us who have spent minutes or even hours just looking at maps and delighting in personal discoveries. Mapping is also a special kind of language that is truly universal. Mapping can ultimately bring us all together, and that is certainly what we need to change the world.

A data-driven map urges people to see the ocean as a complex system. It allows the viewer to understand why we should save the ocean, where we should start, and what areas are most critically in need of care. Once we see the ocean’s true depth and complexity, we can reduce the risks of exhausting critical resources and improve resource management. More than 80 percent of the ocean floor is unmapped, but to solve issues such as overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and biodiversity loss we need comprehensive ocean maps.

NG: Participating in the StoryMaps Challenge empowers young people to promote ocean conversation. How else can young people contribute to ocean conservation right now?

DW: One of the most beautiful examples of the power young people have to promote ocean conservation is the recent Virtual Early Career Ocean Professional (V.ECOP) event in support of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. It was hosted by and for early-career ocean professionals from around the world and a variety of ocean disciplines. Read all about it on the web and on Twitter, and see the event’s beautiful StoryMap here.

There’s plenty for young people to do to assist with marine conservation. But we need to act now—because if there’s no blue, there’s no green, which means there will eventually be no humans. No kidding!

SO: Growing up in the ocean conservation movement, I realized how much power youth have when they use their voices. However, I think we place an unnecessarily large amount of pressure on youth to be the fixers of any problem society faces today. Youth did not create this large mess of ocean plastics, deregulation, oil spills, and everything else we can see with the naked eye. The power young people have mastered is the ability to call out and form communities around topics they are passionate about, such as ocean conservation, and raise the collective consciousness of society. Young people will take on the challenges of tomorrow, ranging from hard conversations to innovative conservation solutions, because even though we didn’t create this mess we are eager to clean it up. That’s why, when creating Jr Ocean Guardians and the No Straw November challenge, I centered both of them on education to improve the systems passed down to my generation. People are welcome to join the conversation around plastics and ocean conversation at any age!

NG: What would you say to young people who live inland or have never seen the ocean? Why does it matter for them to take action toward ocean conservation?

SO: Inland kids are the most forgotten and overlooked ocean conservation powerhouses in the world. As an inland kid, I felt connected to the ocean in a very different way. I grew up on the Central Coast of California, yet I traveled between inland agriculture fields to go to school. While I didn’t always see the ocean, I felt its impact through an extending marine layer and learned that our weather depended on what rolled in over the hills. I always tell inland kids to find ways to connect themselves with the ocean. This can be as simple as understanding how plastic can migrate through waste systems and end up in the ocean. Having inland ocean advocates matters, as they can help shift the social norm for people who often forget about the ocean.

DW: For many of us, when we think about the ocean, it’s a situation of “out of sight, out of mind.” However, the ocean provides over half the oxygen we breathe. It regulates all of our weather patterns, feeds us, and provides for our energy and economy. My good friend Craig McLean of NOAA often says, “If you enjoy breathing, thank an oceanographer!” He often points out that the observations of oceanographers, in combination with atmospheric and land-based observations, are necessary inputs to Earth system prediction models that in turn drive land-based weather forecasts.

All landmasses on Earth, no matter how big, are surrounded by the ocean or seas and could therefore be considered islands. In this light, there’s less of a distinction between islanders and mainlanders. On an ocean planet, we are all islanders.

NG: How can a story impact the ocean—and the world?

DW: People are moved by emotion, and we know from experience that one of the best ways to capture attention and spark emotional connection is to start with “Once upon a time…” A good story can effect change, influence opinion, and create awareness—and maps are an integral part of that storytelling. A StoryMap can instantly give your narrative a stronger sense of place, illustrate spatial relationships, and add visual appeal and credibility to your ideas.

SO: Stories have the ability to spark empathy and passion in anyone who has the opportunity to hear them. As an art form that connects us all, stories throughout history have fueled excitement and have been the backbone of our evolution as a society. It would be unfortunate to think stories do not possess the power to change the world, as they have shaped the world we live in today. A single story about the ocean can spark a deep dive of personal reflection to better understand our relationship with our planet. The ocean has a vast history full of inspiring stories that could fuel and energize any innovator who looks closely enough. 

NG: Many young people are taking action for social justice in their communities, especially since last year. What would you say to them about the interconnectedness of social justice action and climate action? How is ocean conservation related to social justice?

DW: I am overjoyed that so many young people are taking action for social justice in their communities. I would also say that climate action is already a form of social justice action. Many of us were deeply affected and inspired by the marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s Washington Post essay, “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.” She points out that “the sheer magnitude of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings and food systems within a decade, while striving to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter, is already overwhelming. And Black Americans are disproportionately more likely than whites to be concerned about — and affected by — the climate crisis.” In general, we know communities of color are forced to live in close proximity to polluted sites such as highways, landfills, and toxic waste dumps (including along our coasts and lakes). The quality of our natural world matters for every person and living organism on our planet, and where environmental impact is the greatest, so too is human suffering. 

For many people, the ocean is a sacred place. I was raised in Hawaii and learned in school and from my friends about the ways of Native Polynesians who treasured and protected their coast and ocean. In fact, the direct involvement of Indigenous peoples in the governance and management of marine protected areas needs to receive more attention. Ocean conservation is directly related to the experience of Indigenous peoples of coastal areas, because it can help them maintain their cultural and ecological values.

SO: When people think of the term “environment,” they may envision a setting similar to a national park, a picture of untouched nature separate from their own identity. In reality we are part of the environment, as we all play vital roles in our own ecosystems. However, some environments are more exclusive than inclusive. Social justice being interconnected with climate action provides us an opportunity to self-reflect and understand systemic racism as it relates to environmental development. This intersectional approach explains why a good chunk of the coastline is owned privately rather than maintained as a community space. The battle over non-accessible coastlines is important for several reasons, including that such exclusivity keeps people from experiencing the beach and developing a sense of empathy for such an amazing and vital life force. Most issues cross campaigns, and we sacrifice progress when we pit environmental reform against social justice reform. They are connected, and both are important.

NG: How might creating a StoryMap be an empowering experience for a young person? Why should they take the time to create one?

DW: Well, for one thing, because it’s fun! I’ve found that StoryMaps provide almost instant gratification. There are so many custom tools and widgets to make your map look immediately professional, something to be really proud of. It’s exciting to create a new map or to add text, photos, or videos to existing web maps or web scenes that you can bring into a StoryMap. Everything is super easy to publish and share in a short amount of time (minutes to hours to a few days, depending on the complexity of what you are trying to build). It can be super empowering to share your story via social media and get positive feedback—lots of likes and shares and hopefully quite a bit of impact!

SO: Having the opportunity to create a StoryMap is a beyond-empowering experience, as it allows the young person to be at the forefront of the future while contributing massively to the present. Time invested in creating a StoryMap is not only beneficial to the individual but also the overall science community, making it a more inclusive space for young people.

NG: If you could map any place, what would it be and why?

DW: Of course as “Deepsea Dawn” I would love to map the many, many places on the ocean floor that are still largely unexplored. We are only about 20 percent of the way there in terms of realizing a fully mapped ocean floor at a level of detail similar to land. Having a map of both the depth and shape of the seafloor is critical not only for the full exploration and understanding of this planet that is still our only home, but also for understanding ocean circulation, tides, tsunami forecasting, fishing resources, sediment transport, underwater geo-hazards, cable and pipeline routing (including submarine cables that carry internet traffic), and much more.

SO: I would love to shrink down to snail size and map out a whole field environment to account for every life-form, ranging from soil bacteria to any mammals that may wander through, to better understand that ecosystem’s balance. It would be nice to focus on the small scale to appreciate the larger scope of life.

Join the global conversation about restoring and protecting our ocean by building and submitting an ocean-focused story to the 2021 ArcGIS StoryMaps Challenge for Restoring Our Ocean.

Young people can further their solution-finding by joining the growing #GenGeo movement—a global community of young people with an insatiable drive to build a sustainable future and thriving planet.

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