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This year's Clifford Symposium will take place September 19-21 and will cover subjects ranging from ocean plastics to deep sea volcanoes.

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Future of World’s Oceans to Be Topic of Symposium

September 4, 2019

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – The global ocean is increasingly threatened by human activity, yet many people remain unaware of how important to all life, human and non-human, the marine environment truly is. “The Future of the Global Ocean,” this year’s Middlebury College Clifford Symposium, will offer talks by pioneering marine scientists on key environmental topics, from ocean plastics and marine protected areas to the influence of melting sea ice on weather patterns. Events take place September 19-21 and include a screening of the documentary Chasing the Thunder that recounts a remarkable story of environmental activism on the high seas. 

“The marine environment drives our climate and weather, and it provides food for many varieties of plant and animal life as well as humans,” said Dan Brayton, the principal organizer of the symposium and professor of English and American literatures at Middlebury. “At the same time, humans are rapidly degrading the oceans through overfishing, pollution, global warming, and habitat destruction.”  

“The symposium will offer an opportunity to learn about new research that can improve our understanding of ocean health and point in new directions for future discoveries,” added Brayton.

Kara Lavender Law will deliver the keynote lecture, “Reflections of an Ocean Plastics Scientist.”

One of the first events will take place on Thursday, September 19, when Lisa Gilbert gives a talk titled “Deep Sea Hydrothermal Vents and Volcanoes.” Gilbert is an associate professor of geosciences and marine science at Williams College who teaches in the Williams-Mystic Program, a maritime studies program based in Mystic, Conn.

Kara Lavendar Law, research professor of oceanography at Sea Education Association in Falmouth, Mass., will deliver the keynote lecture, “Reflections of an Ocean Plastics Scientist,” in the evening. One of the nation’s foremost experts on ocean plastics, Law will discuss their most current environmental impacts, as well as the role of scientists in advancing solutions.

Events on Friday, September 20, include a talk by Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center in Woods Hole, Mass. Francis will explain new research that links increasingly extreme weather with the rapidly warming and melting Arctic during recent decades. Her lecture is titled “Extreme Weather on the Rise, Arctic Ice on the Decline: How Are They Connected?”

Sea Shepherd head and marine conservation activist Captain Paul Watson (above) and filmmaker Mark Benjamin will answer questions following the screening of their documentary "Chasing the Thunder."

The day will end with a screening of Chasing the Thunder, a compelling eco-thriller. With high-seas blue-water action, the documentary film follows marine conservation group Sea Shepherd’s vessels as they chase the Thunder, the notorious pirate poacher, to the bottom of the sea. Sea Shepherd head and marine conservation activist Captain Paul Watson and filmmaker Mark Benjamin will introduce the film and answer questions afterwards. 

The symposium will wrap up on Saturday, September 21, with a panel on coral reefs featuring Professor Jeremy Ward and Assistant Professor Erin Eggleston – both members of the Middlebury Biology Department – and several of Eggleston's students. The two helped lead a January term course this year that focused on coral reef conservation and genetics in the waters surrounding the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas, where the students spent 10 days doing field research.

The symposium is an annual event named after the late Nicholas Clifford, who taught history at the College from 1966 to 1993 and who, in his many years as a member of the faculty and administration, cultivated critical inquiry at Middlebury.  

A full schedule of events and biographies of the speakers are available on the symposium website. Events are free and open to the public. For additional information, please contact Lily Hunt, environmental studies department coordinator, at or 802-443-5222.