To take another example, consider the "great Pacific garbage patch." The term leads many people to believe that a visible blanket of trash covers the ocean surface somewhere in the middle of the North Pacific. This is not true. The debris is mostly small (often microscopic) pieces of plastic suspended in the water column. This type of garbage - or, more accurately, pollution - is not visible from plane or satellite images, or even always from boats.
The popular term garbage patch misrepresents the complexity of the problem. It sounds like something that can be simply collected and disposed of. But the widespread and dispersed nature of the problem makes any cleanup effort extremely difficult. The only credible solution in the long run is to stop plastic waste from entering the ocean.
Red tide suggests something visible, but some of the greatest hazards associated with algal blooms - domoic acid, which addles the brains of marine mammals, and paralytic shellfish poisoning, which can harm people who eat contaminated shellfish - are not visible.
Global warming is another example of a not-entirely-accurate term, one that has fed skepticism about the phenomenon. Skeptics often cite extreme weather or short-term cooling as evidence against global warming. But weather (which is short-term, localized, and highly variable) is not the same as climate (the long-term average of such things as rainfall and temperature). Hence the push by experts to replace the term with the more accurate climate change.
A relatively new term drawing public attention is ocean acidification, used to describe changes in seawater chemistry due to increasing amounts of carbon dioxide being taken up by the ocean. But the ocean actually is not becoming acidic; it's becoming less alkaline. That's not to downplay the severity of changing ocean chemistry, which could have devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. But we must be careful with terminology.
People don't like to hear bad news. They'd prefer that the oceans were healthy and that rapid shifts in climate were not occurring. That's why scientists and the media must avoid hyperbolic language when describing crucial environmental issues. The use of more colorful terms may make for catchier headlines, but it can also invite disbelief.
There is a need to make complex scientific issues understandable to nonscientists. But in trying to do so, we must also be careful to be absolutely accurate in our descriptions.
Elizabeth Tobin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington's School of Oceanography. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.