Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling

2007 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner
weiss_kenneth

Citation

It is my pleasure to nominate Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling of the Los Angeles Times, and their five-part series “Altered Oceans,” for the AGU Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism—Features.

The series was the brainchild of Weiss, who has covered the coast and ocean beat for several years and was surprised, time and time again, by marine scientists describing a litany of disturbing news: Species they had long studied were vanishing; huge swaths of the ocean were so deprived of oxygen they were described as “dead zones” and animals and fish of all sorts were dying and washing ashore in large numbers. McFarling, meanwhile, who has reported on climate change for several years, was disturbed by reports that the oceans were absorbing so much carbon dioxide—a million tons an hour—they were literally becoming acidic.

In an 18-month reporting journey that stretched from Australia to the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, and deep into the Pacific, Weiss followed a common thread that unified seemingly unrelated casualties: brain-damaged marine mammals washing ashore along the California coast; Florida residents sickened by wind-borne toxins from red algae; and Native American children undergoing tests for cognitive deficiencies after eating shellfish. McFarling found that the pH changes that are an inevitable result of the burning of fossil fuels will soon lead to the demise of some sea animals, particularly many crucial species at the base of the food chain.

The sobering conclusion they reached was this: Wholesale ecological changes caused by humans are leaving the oceans increasingly dominated by primitive life forms—algae, bacteria, and jellyfish—and denuded of the fish, corals, kelp, and mammals necessary for a healthy balance. The seas are being plundered of their biological diversity, fertilized with basic nutrients from sewage and fertilizer runoff, and overdosed with carbon dioxide and various contaminants, the spent leavings of an industrialized society.

Reaction to the series was broad and impassioned. During a congressional hearing on national ocean policy held days after the series appeared, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) read aloud a passage describing the effects of toxic algae blooms on human health and asked a panel of federal officials why they were not doing more about it. The leaders of the bipartisan House Oceans Caucus distributed copies to every member of the House, with a cover letter that said, “We recommend that you take a moment to review this series. The conditions it describes are a threat to our national security, economy, and environment, and we need to act…before the damage is irreparable.”

“Altered Oceans” went below the surface to illuminate an urgent problem brought on by anthropogenic changes. Without pointing figures, it rendered a judgment obvious to the hundreds of readers who wrote letters and Web mail in response. “I have met the enemy and know its face,” wrote one reader. “I cannot tell a lie. It’s me, my family, my friends, my relatives, and everyone I know.”

—FRANK CLIFFORD, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, Calif.

Response

It is a great honor to receive this award from the American Geophysical Union.

In our series, we examined the slow degradation of the seas by overfishing, coastal development, and nonpoint source pollution. These issues, with no dramatic single event to capture attention, can be difficult to convey to the general public. We were supported by a team of editors at the Los Angeles Times who gave us the time and the budget to report the topic thoroughly and find ways to tell it that would grab the attention of readers. Based on the millions of people who read the series, and the responses of those who wrote letters and emails and posted comments, the approach seems to have struck a deep nerve.

We would like to thank the more than 100 scientists we interviewed and who acted as expert guides underwater and on shore while reporting this series. We extend an extra appreciation to the many scientists who generously gave us their time and insights, even though their names did not appear in the articles. These unnamed contributors added immeasurably to the articles’ depth and breath.

The series would not have been possible without the sage counsel of its principal editor, Frank Clifford, who has covered environmental issues for the Times for more than a decade. Assistant Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin improved the writing immensely. We’d like to thank Dean Baquet, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, for supporting the project and the time it took to do it right. And we’d like to put in a plea that cost-cutting at newspapers does not run so deep that work like ours is no longer supported. If newspapers do not bring these stories to the attention of the general public, who will?

—KENNETH R. WEISS and USHA LEE MCFARLING, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, Calif.