Tag Archives: Marine geologist

World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

The last time I spoke to Peter was in 2004 (Kitsap Sun, Jan 31,2004) when he was working for Geoscience Australia and presented his latest findings on coral reefs to audiences in Kingston and Poulsbo. His dad, Alfred Harris, still lives in Poulsbo, while his mom, Sydney Cotton, lives in Silverdale.

For the past four years, Peter has been working in Norway as managing director at GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. He heads a staff of about 30 people, including experts from various countries.

By the way, GRID stands for Global Resource Information Database, and Arendal is a community about the size of Bremerton, where Peter has purchased a home and agreed to stay on with GRID another four years.

I asked him what his team concluded about the three biggest problems facing the world’s oceans. He said the group, after much consideration, decided that what rose to the top —above ocean acidification, chemical contamination, noise pollution and others — were coral reefs, plastics and overfishing.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” he said. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress. They will keep dying off.”

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

Warm water causes the coral colonies to reject their symbiotic algae, leaving them white in a process called coral “bleaching.” They can recover if cooler water returns and there is enough time between bleaching events, he said. But it takes about 10 years for corals to recover, and the Great Barrier Reef has undergone bleaching for three years in a row. Vast areas may never recover.

Coral reefs provide habitats for huge numbers of marine species, and their loss will be an environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. Even if humans eventually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological diversity may be lost in many areas.

“The only solution is to try to preserve coral reefs in locations where they are less susceptible,” Peter said.

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

“More and more people are using more and more plastic,” he said, and some of it eventually reaches the ocean. It can come from stormwater, litter, fishing activities, garbage picked up by the wind and outright dumping. Much of it comes from developing countries with inadequate waste-treatment systems.

“It seems like many people and countries see this as a problem that can be addressed, like the ozone problem,” he said. “It all comes down to how you deal with plastic in your own life.”

The third problem he mentioned was overfishing, which has the potential to drive some populations to the brink of extinction.

While some countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are doing much better in managing their fisheries, many developing countries are stuck in a cycle of needing more fish to feed a hungry population while generating revenue from fisheries, he said. Taking more and more fish from the ocean will lead to population collapse.

Some of the greatest concerns are on the high seas, where there is little control over what anyone does, he said. Some fishermen are targeting seamounts, where large numbers of various fish species congregate.

“When fishermen find a good spot out in the ocean it is usually a spawning aggregation,” he said, adding that removing those fish can affect growth of entire populations.

“One solution is to put a moratorium on high seas fishing altogether,” he said, adding that it would take a major international effort, but people should recognize that the high seas is the least productive part of the ocean.

GEO-6, the U.N. report on the world environment, is scheduled for publication before the end of the year.

Through GRID-Arendal, Peter keeps in touch with many environmental issues, which can be reviewed on the foundation’s “Activities” page as well as its “Publications” and “Graphics” pages.

Peter’s world travels are as interesting as his research. After graduating from North Kitsap High School in 1976, he went on to receive an oceanography degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

“I think I have always had an interest in the ocean,” he said, noting that his father built sailboats as a hobby and raced them on Puget Sound.

At the age of 12, he took a course at the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (now SEA Discovery Center). After that, he took advantage of every opportunity to visit the marine animals in tanks at the center and to go out on tide-pool walks on Puget Sound.

“I was really captured by the image of how this place was formed,” he said. “I came to understand that there is a reason for everything you see. Puget Sound was once under an ice sheet. The gravel is glacial till. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”

While other places, such as Chile and Norway, have waterways that look similar to Puget Sound, they often lie over rocky outcroppings rather than gravelly substrate. Puget Sound is truly unique, he added.

“When you travel the world, you realize how rare and precious it is,” he said. “There are no other places like it.”

At the UW, one of Peter’s professors, Dick Sternberg, convinced him to do his graduate work at the University of Wales in Great Britain, where he could work under the late Michael Collins, co-editor with Sternberg of the journal “Continental Shelf Research.”

While there, Peter met his future wife Ellen, an Australian native, and he decided to take a job at the University of Sydney, where he taught oceanography and conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef. When he joined the Australian government, he was required to become an Australian citizen, though he maintained his American citizenship. He worked for Geoscience Australia for 20 years, becoming head of the Antarctic marine and coastal programs, before moving to Norway in 2014.

He and his wife have three grown children, two still living in Australia. Eleri, the oldest, recently took a job with the online political cartoon magazine “The Nib” in Portland, Ore. With a grandchild now on the way, Peter says he has even more reasons to return to the Northwest.