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The Costa Rica Dome and Phytoplankton Treasures

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Author’s Note: A lot of the information on this article comes from the Environmental section of the digital news daily El Pais and the National University.

The alleged naming of Costa Rica by Christopher Columbus during one of his final voyages of discovery is often the subject of tongue-in-cheek jests by Ticos who know better. “He had no idea”, goes the saying, particularly when making reference to the amazing blessings that Nature keeps bestowing upon the country. Recent studies into the Thermal Convection Dome and the rich biomass it creates underscore the importance of the Costa Rica Dome to life in the ocean.

The Aqua satellite image from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that accompanies this article was reviewed by scientists at the National University in Heredia in mid-February, 2012. The dark red aspect of the image shown off our north Pacific coast is not red tide; it rather represents the highest concentration of chlorophyll in the world, up to 60 milligrams per cubic centimeter of sea water. This means that a lot of phytoplankton -unicellular algae that eventually photosynthesizes into plankton- is available for the pleasure of a number of migratory marine species, including crabs, dolphins, marlin, tuna, turtles, whales and more. These species swim and crawl across thousands of kilometers to feast and reproduce off our coast.

The Costa Rica Dome

Marine species that feast off our Pacific coasts can thank the phenomenon created by the Costa Rica Dome for the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of nourishment available to them. The Alpha of the Dome is located in the depths of the Cocos underwater tectonic valley, which is not only the cause of many earthquakes, but it’s also responsible for a subaquatic cyclonic current that moves in harmonious sync with the air current above sea level. The axis of rotation of the Costa Rica Dome is located way off to the west of the Isla del Coco. The balmy weather and convective energy produced by the dome guarantees a constant process of photosynthesis that is rich in phytoplankton.

In this other satellite image showcased at the Visible Earth gallery of NASA, the inter-tropical convergence zone can be appreciated in the midst of the dome and close to our shores. The deep green areas are extremely rich in phytoplankton, and these are the precise areas where marine biologists have observed deep concentrations of marine life, from fish to algae and from crustaceans to mammals. That image was published in 2001, and taking a look at the image showing the chlorophyll concentration levels, it’s easy to see that the Costa Rica Dome is still thriving.

Benefits of the Costa Rica Dome

The atmospheric and oceanic benefits of the Thermal Convection Dome are evident to the marine species that live and migrate just off our shores. Whales, dolphins, turtles and other migratory species will want to keep coming back to feed and procreate, thus ensuring that the world’s oceans teem with life; which in the end attracts even more wildlife (think about sea birds). For Ticos, it’s a source of deep pride and one more thing to add to their bragging rights of living in a country that is truly blessed by nature. In an article appearing in El Pais, author Guillermo Quiros Alvarez points out that while the Costa Rica Dome is but one of her wonders, not enough awareness is being promoted at the school level. Teachers and Ministry of Education officials reading this, please take note.

For the fishing communities of the Pacific, the Dome -when not affected by atmospheric events by El Nino and La Nina– is a rich source of sustenance. Under international maritime law, the government can only protect a few square kilometers of the ocean in a straight line from the coast, and to this extent there isn’t much danger of overfishing, as long as the phytoplankton levels remain close to our coast.

Whale Watching and Ecotourism

In terms of ecotourism, the benefits are tremendous. It is estimated that whale-watching brings in more than $20 million a year to at least 10 fishing communities, according to marine conservation group MarViva. As long as sustainable and responsible fishing is practiced in the Dome areas, whales will keep coming back. The conservation policies that were enacted around the country in the 1970s are paying off in the 21st century, as it has become easier to spot the gentle giants off our Pacific shores (not far from the Envision Festival).

One organization that wishes to call greater attention to the Costa Rica Dome is the Environmental Protection of the Islands Corridor (EPIC). This initiative is spearheaded by Eduardo Acosta, a former residential developer who is the author of a book about a sea turtle that is besieged by threats to the Costa Rica Dome. The planned EPIC Park will be a nature-themed attraction that will focus on educating visitors about the Dome. The heroine of Eduardo’s book is named Hope, and she also has the potential to educate young students about the Dome.

Whale lovers should also take note that the Costa Rica Coalition for Whales will be holding a special screening of Big Miracle, a new film starring Drew Barrymore about whale conservation efforts in Alaska.  The film will be screened at the Terramall theaters at 7:30pm on February 23. Costa Rica will be present at the future International Whaling Commission summit, and Ticos are expected to take a strong stance against commercial whaling around the world, unless it is practiced by native tribes.

Methane Clathrate in the Dome

The ocean floor beneath the Dome is rich in methane chlathrate, a byproduct of the life and death process of the rich biomass closer to the surface. For millions of years, the sediments of the ocean floor off our Pacific coasts have been accumulating millions of metric tons of methane clathrate, also known as fire ice, a compound that is believed to be far more powerful that natural gas in terms of energy production. Oceanographic research vessels bearing flags of industrialized countries have been sailing the oceans past our international maritime demarcation line, taking samples from the depths. The result of the research thus far? Costa Rica is ripe for exploration and prospecting of fire ice, something that could make Ticos richer than the oil-producing nations of the Middle East.

Given Costa Rica’s track record of resisting mineral exploration; to wit: the Crucitas affair and the reluctance of prospecting for rare earth, it is unlikely that we will see initiatives for the exploitation of the Costa Rica Dome. If anything, it is incumbent upon Ticos to protect the Dome and the life it produces.

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