Marine environment. Geopolitical implications

(To Renato Scarfi)

At first glance, some may have the doubt that the issue of protecting the marine environment has little to do with geopolitics. It is a error which many do, not reflecting sufficiently on the significant implications, for example, of global warming on the fish fauna (which is also seriously endangered by illegal fishing), on the salinity of the seas, on the rise in water levels and on the circulation of currents marine environments which, if significantly altered, have significant impacts on global climate. The health of the seas and oceans has, however, considerable geopolitical and economic implications, influencing fundamental issues concerning the conformation of the coasts, fish resources, productive activities and the overall well-being of the populations, not only those along the coast.

In this context, it should be emphasized that 19 June was a historic day for the planet's oceans, given that the United Nations officially adopted the first International agreement for the protection of the high seas, or those waters that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any State. Basically, the marine areas that are beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone (read article "Exclusive Economic Zone and maritime power").

Definitively approved last March, after fifteen years of negotiations, the Agreement represents a crucial step for the health of the oceans and, I might add, for us. The announcement made by the president of the Conference, Rena Lee, was exciting and auspicious: the ship has reached port.

Defend the oceans and their deep-seated ecosystems and, consequently, human survival, this is the ambitious goal of the document, which will provide the legal basis for taking the first concrete steps for the conservation and sustainable use of fish fauna and the protection of the marine environment.

The sea, a dynamic biosphere

The sea is in continuous movement, thanks to the presence of sea currents, which mix and transport important masses of water. Also the Sun and the Moon, due to their mass, contribute to the movement of the oceanic water masses, causing the tides. Finally, solar radiation heats both the surface of the sea, generating masses of water of different densities, and the earth's surface, causing the formation of winds, which cause waves and influence sea currentsi.

Based on the causes that generate them, sea currents can be classified into gradient, drift, tidal and geostrophic currents. Based on the temperature they can be hot or cold, depending on the temperature difference between the mass of water that moves and that which surrounds it, superficial and deep. If, on the other hand, we take into account the depth at which the water masses flow parallel, or nearly so, over each other they can be classified into superficial (0-200m) e deep (internal, over 200 m, e basicallynear the seabed).

Surface currents are mainly determined by winds and the rotation of the Earth. Winds move from high pressure areas to low pressure areas and are caused by relatively warm air rising and relatively cold air falling. The movement of the earth's rotation, from west to east, then diverts the direction of the air currents as they rise and fall in the atmosphere. Even the surface water masses (up to a depth of about 100 m) are affected by these air movements, being induced by the wind due to the friction of the upper layers on the lower ones. Under the action of strength of Coriolisii (but it would be better to call it the "Coriolis effect"), the direction of motion is deflected in the opposite direction to that of the Earth's rotation and has a variable intensity with the depth, latitude and speed of the moving particlesiii. Added to this is also the mixing that takes place vertically, when relatively warmer water masses arrive at the poles and cool down (remember the Gulf Stream?), sinking and moving the deep water towards the equator which, in the during its journey, undergoes a warming and "re-emerges" at lower latitudes, then restarting towards the poles, for a new cycle.

Therefore, a vertical movement is added to the horizontal movement of the water masses, the overall effect of which describes a spiral, known as the Elkman spiral, which contributes to keeping active a large system of circulation of enormous masses of water in continuous mixing.

Economic and geopolitical importance of the marine environment

The movements described above are essential for biodiversity and the survival of man on the planet. The rising and sinking of marine waters, for example, are fundamental phenomena for the climate and for biodiversity on Earth. They are also essential for life in the seas and oceans, as these movements act as a "conveyor belt" of nutrients that allow the development of plankton, which favors fish production. An example for all are the very fishy coasts of Chile and Peru, where the upwelling of deep waters, rich in nutrients, in fact, allows the formation of huge banks of anchovies and large pelagics. Even the Chinese have noticed it, who beat those waters intensively, also creating not a few problems in international relations with the South American coastal countries.

Furthermore, the water masses have a fundamental thermal function, absorbing more than 90% of the excess heat, which is stored in the oceans and slowly "returned", contributing to the climate stability. Without this important function our planet would be much colder and life would be impossible. However, to put it simply, the heat accumulated by the oceans in recent years is much higher than the dissipation capacity and this is causing a very high mortality of marine organisms in all oceans, including important species that form habitat coastal, such as corals, sponges, gorgonians and marine algae, which contribute significantly to the structure and functioning of ecosystems, providing food and shelter to many species that otherwise could not surviveiv.

As we have seen, the impact of a "depressed" sea is therefore not only organic but also cheap, as the loss of these habitat favorable leads to a decrease in the catch.

Furthermore, the loss of fish fauna affects local populations, more seriously those who live in territories with problems of drought and poverty. In order to survive, these are therefore forced to turn to other sources of economic survival that are not always legal, such as the smuggling and piracy. Furthermore, the conditions of social hardship favor the phenomenon of illegal migration, pushing these desperate people towards areas deemed more socially favorable. It then triggers a vicious circle in which environmental problems create economic and political problems which force other countries (alone or included in multinational devices) to commit themselves to secure maritime communication lines, which are essential to guarantee as much as 90% of world trade. Onerous commitment which, in turn, affects national budgets (see article "African instability and its geopolitical consequences").

From a meteorological point of view, the effect that the increasing temperature has on the level of water is not negligible increased evaporation of marine surfaces. This increases the amount of energy and humidity in the atmosphere, which cause more "aggressive" and sometimes extreme meteorological phenomena, even where they did not exist until a few decades ago. The result is the appearance of hurricanes and typhoons, with heavy rains and floods, in areas unprepared for these phenomena, which cause deaths and very serious damage over vast areas of the affected territory. It is no coincidence, in fact, that they have been forming in the Mediterranean for some years hitherto unusual phenomena of intense tropical cyclones, called "medicine"(Mediterranean hurricane).

Covering a huge area of ​​the earth's surface, the seas also hold treasures of inestimable value. I am not referring only to the enormous reserves of natural gas and hydrocarbons, with all the economic and political implications that their exploitation entails. I am also referring to historical and archaeological heritage still kept on the seabed, especially in the Mediterranean.

In this context, the Navy conducts, in collaboration with the Ministry of Cultural Archaeological Heritage and Tourism (MIBACT), specific campaigns for underwater archaeological research and the conservation of submerged finds. These are highly specialized activities aimed at locating and inspecting underwater archaeological sites and wrecks of historical interest. It is an extremely important collaboration that has lasted for decades, thanks to the seabed exploration skills offered by extremely sophisticated and specialized units such as minesweepers and hydrographic vessels of the Navy. A specialized component which, from a military point of view, is important to ensure, in competition with the other components of the Navy, the supervision and protection of the indispensable natural gas supply lines and underwater IT communication lines (read article "Mediterranean, a sea of ​​growing opportunities and tensions").


The area covered by the seas and oceans represents over 70% of the earth's surface. It is a thin coating "film", if we think that it has a maximum depth of just over 11 km, 0,17% of the average terrestrial radius (6.371 km). However, this superficial layer of liquid water has enormous economic, social and strategic importance. The significant environmental risks, not only related to global warming but also to its level of pollution, have important consequences, as mentioned, in terms of biodiversity and sea level rise.

Within this area, the high seas account for almost two-thirds of the oceans. For a long time it has been sidelined in environmental battles, to the advantage of coastal areas. However, the oceans, undermined by the climate crisis, pollution and indiscriminate fishing, produce most of the oxygen we breathe, limit climate change by absorbing CO2 and host rich areas of biodiversity even as yet unknown. The aforementioned United Nations agreement should finally allow all of this to be protected, but there is still a long way to go. In fact, it still remains to be seen which and how many states will ratify the treaty.

The protection of the marine environment, as we have seen, has enormous geopolitical implications for several reasons. The first of these is the presence of relevant natural resources. The sea is, in fact, an important source of supply of fish, oil and natural gas for many countries. The protection of the marine environment is essential for the sustainable exploitation of these resources and for ensuring their availability for future generations.

The seas of the world are then the highway along which 90% of the world develops international trading. The protection of the marine environment is, therefore, also essential to guarantee the safety of maritime transport and to avoid that some coastal populations, for the reasons mentioned above, threaten the continuity of supplies. There is also no doubt that the efforts shipowners are making involve significant economic commitments to achieve standard higher to drastically reduce the impact of this "intense" global commercial traffic. But this will necessarily have to be done with a concrete and pragmatic approach, taking due account of all the factors involved, not just the desire to have fewer overall emissions. I am referring to an intelligent approach to ship fuels, which addresses the issue of gas emissions in a practical and realistic way. I am also referring to ever more effective safety rules and systems which make it possible to reduce the danger of accidents with the spill of hydrocarbons or other polluting materials to a minimum.

The question of the protection of the marine environment also involves the international politics, as activities that take place in one country can have significant effects on other countries. For example, the pollution produced or CO emissions2 in one country can cause the acidification of the waters (EEZ) of neighboring countries or even beyond, with all the obvious implications.

Last, but not least, the National security. The protection of the marine environment is, in fact, also essential for the security of the countries. Fishing, for example, is an important source of food and income for many coastal communities. The protection of fishing grounds is therefore essential to ensure food security and the stability of its population. Furthermore, the protection of the marine environment is essential, as has been mentioned, for the prevention of maritime terrorism and piracy. Added to this is the ability to protect sensitive underwater infrastructure, which ensure the supply of energy resources or computer connections, on which international transactions "travel" (see article "Maritime spaces and international security").

In this context, scientific research certainly plays a fundamental role in monitoring and studying forms of adaptation and containment of climate change and its global repercussions. But also to sensitize, through scientific data and not through deranged ideologies, the populations, entrepreneurs, shipowners and governments of the world to do everything in their power to make our piece of water and rock in constant navigation in space more habitable.

With such a complex situation, it should be strongly emphasized that Italy is not watching, putting his technological and professional skills into play, with the will to play his part. In this sector it must be recognized that our country has implemented concrete actions whose effectiveness is recognized internationally.

The protection of the marine and coastal environment must, in fact, be one of the strategic objectives to be pursued with conviction and constancy, both for the richness of the national naturalistic and historical heritage, and for the relevant social and economic interests involved in the enhancement and use of the related resources. In all of this we must convince ourselves that the protection of the marine environment is not a task devolved to a few players in the sector, but it is a duty that concerns us all, from government officials (who have the main responsibility) to citizens.

Starting from the protection of the ecosystem and fish species, to arrive at the protection of the underwater archaeological heritage. In fact, under the waters of the Mediterranean there is a real submerged museum which, every now and then, gives us back real treasures. And we're not just talking about shipwrecks, amphorae, vases, containers, ancient coins or furnishings, but also real art treasures, as evidenced for example by the two statues found in Riace years ago.

The skills gained in the recovery of these treasures do not stop at works of art but, as mentioned, are also expressed in professional and technological skills for the protection of sensitive infrastructures such as gas pipelines, such as underwater telematic communication lines.

The protection of the marine environment, therefore, must be understood in the round, not only as the protection of ecosystems or of our historical roots, but as the protection of our most immediate needs, such as food, and of our broader national interests. spectrum.

Furthermore, together with initiatives to protect the marine heritage, the supervisory and control capacity. Consequently, politicians have the burden of ensuring that those who work on the sea do not lack the necessary tools for carrying out their mission.

Italy, I will never stop writing it, is a nation deeply reaching out to the sea, even if sometimes someone forgets it, and the sea for us must be increasingly at the center of our geopolitical, economic and strategic reflections, if we really want to adequately protect our economy and aspire to play a role in the management of enormous natural resources present at sea.

i Robert Danovaro, Marine biology. Biodiversity and functioning of marine ecosystems, Utet, 2019

ii The Coriolis force is a fictitious force observed in rotating non-inertial systems, which acts on bodies in motion with respect to the non-inertial reference system and which has the effect of causing the bodies to deviate from a straight trajectory. In extreme synthesis, it is a function of the mass of the particle, of the velocity at which it moves and of the angular velocity of the non-inertial system, measured with respect to an inertial system.

iii Robert Danovaro, Marine biology. Biodiversity and functioning of marine ecosystems, Utet, 2019

iv Andrea Mucedola on

Photo: US Navy