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Using Geo-Data to Understand Ocean Phenomena and Build Coastal Resilience

Nibedita Mohanta

Posted on September 13, 2022

Academia, governments, the private sector, NGOs, and philanthropic organizations must all join hands to provide discovery and access to our ocean geo-data and resources, to increase our understanding of the ocean and restore its health, says Louis Demargne, Data and Knowledge Management Officer at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO (IOC-UNESCO).

According to a recent report, more than 1,000 rivers account for 80% of annual global riverine plastic emissions into the ocean, ranging between 0.8 and 2.7 million metric tons per year, with small urban rivers being the most polluting.

Plastic litter also causes severe economic losses through damage to vessels and fishing gear, negative effects on the tourism industry, and increased shoreline cleaning efforts, costing up to USD 1.26 billion per year for the Asian-Pacific Rim alone.

Concerned about mounting threats to the ocean, the United Nations has declared 2021-2030 as the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

What is the role of geo-data in building coastal resilience?

Geospatial and hydro-spatial data are fundamental building blocks for understanding ocean science and for developing sustainable solutions that address the serious threat posed by declining ocean health and climate change, thereby improving the resilience of the ocean, the climate and coastal communities.

From satellite remote sensing to vessel-based bathymetric surveying, from floating measurement buoys to live streaming in-situ data, increasing the volume and accuracy of ocean geo-data is essential to diagnose and understand ocean phenomena and improve our predictive capabilities.

In our search for solutions to unlock ocean knowledge, we must also look for innovative combinations of data from multidisciplinary sources, including socioeconomic data, local and indigenous knowledge, and so on.

This is key for developing long-term sustainable solutions, which we need to return to the clean, healthy, productive and resilient ocean we all want and need.

Tell us about some of the partnerships that the IOC-UNESCO has established with private companies?

IOC-UNESCO has received the mandate from the UN General Assembly to coordinate the implementation of the Ocean Decade, inviting the global ocean community to work together in ocean science and technology to co-design and co-deliver the ocean we need, for the future we want.

Fugro, a Netherlands-based company that specializes in collecting and analyzing geological data, both on land and at sea, is one of the companies working with IOC‑UNESCO.

Fugro is providing loaned personnel to the IOC-UNESCO Secretariat in Paris to help establish and administer two working groups focused on data coordination/interoperability and private sector participation in the Ocean Decade, as well as contributing in-kind resources to the UN Ocean Decade team.

With the help of industry at large, the UN Ocean Decade will play a key role in providing equitable access to ocean geo-data to help boost scientific understanding of the ocean to tackle these multiple challenges.

We must all join forces — academia, government, private sector, NGOs and philanthropic organizations— to provide discovery and access to our ocean geo-data and resources, and increase our understanding of the ocean and restore its health.

Why is it important to revive ocean health?

The ocean plays several critical roles in our lives, which many of us aren’t even aware of. To start with, the ocean covers approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface and is responsible for 50% of the oxygen on Earth.

It captures somewhere roughly 25% of all human-made CO2 emissions. It is also one of the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet and a key ally in the fight against climate change. It provides food and livelihoods for over 3.5 billion people.

If we don’t take care of the ocean’s health, then all these critical components that we take for granted will be even more severely disrupted than they already are today, with potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity. In a nutshell, the ocean is our planet’s life-support system. Without a healthy ocean, our very existence is threatened — it’s a simple as that!

What are the major contributors to this crisis and how can they be eradicated?

Climate change and pollution arguably present the greatest threat to the ocean’s health. They upset the fragile balance of oceanic ecosystems and have huge consequences on weather, biodiversity, ocean circulation, and coastal communities, to name a few. However, much of the ocean remains invisible and unknown to us.

To date, only 23% of the ocean floor has been mapped through direct observation, and that is an astonishing fact. We use sensors to measure ocean variables typically in the first 100 m to 200 m of depth, yet the average ocean depth across the world is roughly 3,700 m.

We know more about the surface of the moon and Mars than we do about the bottom of the ocean, which makes up approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface. With such a vast knowledge gap, it is hard to find ways to manage the ocean responsibly.

To tackle these challenges, we need to give ocean science a boost, not just to discover and understand the ocean but also to develop solutions that allow us to responsibly develop ocean resources for a sustainable ocean economy.

Science and technology can help us achieve that. This is the mission and vision of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (Ocean Decade) launched in 2021, of which Fugro is a partner. We also need a step change in our relationship with the ocean. If we feel inspired by and connected to the ocean, we will be more inclined to take care of it.

Accidents such as oil spills are often covered by news outlets, because they are so spectacular, in a negative way. With close to 90% of global trade transported by sea, and growing, it’s hard to see how accidents will drop, despite improved regulation, enforcement and monitoring in the last 30 years, including through the use of satellite remote sensing.

However, while devastating for local wildlife and coastal communities, oil spills are the tip of the iceberg in terms of ocean pollution. The pollution that enters the ocean from land via rivers has a far greater and more long-term impact on ocean health.

How is climate change affecting the ocean and coastal communities? How serious are the problems and if left unchecked, what are the consequences?

Climate change is disrupting the ocean in several ways. The planet’s increasing temperature is heating up the ocean, which is leading to several critical issues. First, the ocean is expanding.

Melting glaciers and polar ice caps are a major source of expanding oceans and rising sea levels and this will challenge the very existence of coastal communities and island nations around the world. Beach and cliff erosion, flooding and so on — all these events will damage coastal property, habitats and infrastructure, and inevitably lead to loss of life.

The ocean also acts as a gigantic conveyer belt. It carries heat from one end of the planet to the other through a series of surface and deep water currents, thereby regulating our weather patterns.

Any disruption to these currents caused by a warming of the seas could lead to catastrophic weather events, such as increased frequency and intensity of storms leading to heavy floods and severe droughts, even far inland.

The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle that occurs every three to five years in the Pacific is an example of what can happen when ocean circulation is disrupted.

Lastly, climate change is also leading to acidification of the seas, which is disrupting the delicate balance of marine ecosystems and biodiversity around the world, especially in coral reefs. This can deeply affect local communities that rely on healthy coastal ecosystems for their subsistence and livelihoods — from tourism to fisheries.

How can ocean pollution and other ocean stressors be prevented?

Pollution does not come from one single source. Unfortunately, it is spread out across the entire globe, which makes it difficult to tackle — difficult, but not impossible. Plastic pollution tends to get a lot of attention because it is quite visible; we often see plastic objects lying on the beach and it’s not a pleasant sight.

Less visible and just as harmful is the pollution that comes from micro-plastics, as well as inorganic chemicals used in land activities such as agriculture, as these drain into the ocean via rivers, impacting marine life.

Pollution is a multifaceted problem that requires a combination of approaches: legislation, enforcement, monitoring, lobbying from advocacy groups and consumers, and so on.

But perhaps most important of all, tackling pollution requires a behavioral change. By changing people’s perceptions and understanding of the ocean, we can encourage behavioral changes that can have a global impact. This could be as simple as further reducing single-use plastics or growing food with fewer chemicals.


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