By Bum Cheul Park, OECD Environment Directorate
The data is in—human ingenuity, curiosity, and desire to know have penetrated to every corner of our globe, and humans have since made even the vast resources of the ocean, long a source of mystery, available for use and observation. The amount of key ocean scientific data gathered—Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs) including CO2 concentration, water temperature and pressure, salinity, and acidity—have exploded in recent years, both in terms of quantity and quality. As if to confirm this trend, an article published by the World Economic Forum states that so far scientists have collected more cumulative ocean data during the years 2015-2017 than in all previous years combined.
However, there is still a long way to go before the ocean goes mainstream. Improbable as it may sound, we know more about the topography of Mars than we do about the earth’s sea floor, of which the vast majority of remains unexplored to this day. All this points to a need not only to promote higher visibility regarding the ocean, but also to secure more sustained ocean-related finance, in addition to pursuing international partnerships. To that end, the present blog provides an overview of what is currently being done to support, reinforce and enrich the ocean data-gathering landscape — including such initiatives as the participation of citizen scientists, and the involvement of the private sector in ocean data gathering.
One well-known framework —among many others, ad-hoc or otherwise— for ocean-related data gathering falls under the umbrella of GOOS (Global Ocean Observing System), a programme under IOC-UNESCO. To support the mission of GOOS, there exists individual ocean observing programmes which utilise, inter alia, sensor technologies, fixed-point platforms, drifters and floats deployed into strategic areas of the ocean. The most well-known of these is the Argo Programme, which deploys scientific instruments called profiling floats that can systematically collect temperature/salinity profiles across varying depths. As of 9 May 2020, 3965 Argo floats have been deployed all over the world’s seas.
Figure: Argo float distribution across the globe
The ocean is still very far from being comprehensively monitored, and for the most part funding and initiatives for large-scale data-gathering expeditions come from the state level, which take time and lack flexibility to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.
A solution proposed in a research paper by Lauro et. al. (2014) calls for the widespread involvement of citizen scientists and the promotion of citizen science in pursuit of more efficacious ocean data-gathering. Calling it “crowdsourcing the collection of oceanographic data”, the paper argues that even with low-cost scientific instruments—or even with the unaided eye—key marine data may be gathered and distributed by anyone who can follow basic instructions. For example, citizen scientists living near coastal areas may help collect biological samples and water samples to be collected by nearby laboratories for processing. Citizen scientists out at sea may help observe surface weather conditions, like cloud cover and the height of waves. While data collected by citizen scientists are not adapted to the long time series, complexity and diversity of data requisite to meet the requirement of professional scientists, it can nevertheless play a part in sensitising the general population to the importance of the ocean ecosystem for our times.
Over 90% of global trade is carried out by ship—a massive amount. Therefore, there is need for renewed and strengthened partnership between the oceanographic community and the maritime shipping community for the optimisation of ocean data collection. The Ship-of-Opportunity Programme (SOOP) provides an opportunity for strengthened co-operation through transiting of strategic shipping routes by merchant ships. According to the SOOP website, ships’ officers are trained to deploy such devices as Expendable Bathythermographs (XBTs) at predetermined sampling intervals to acquire temperature profiles in the open ocean8. The Joint WMO/IOC Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM) Ship Observations Team oversees the management of data.
Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs)—including variables more widely-known to the general public such as salinity, temperature, and nutrients, as well as lesser-known ones such as particulate matter, phytoplankton biomass and density, and stable carbon isotopes—are indispensable pieces of knowledge to better understand the ocean. These data are put to use in all kinds of ocean-related fields, such as ensuring safety of shipping, and the management of living and non-living marine resources.
This is where the OECD’s work on the ocean comes in, such as indicators for the sustainable ocean economy, as well as the in-house sustainable ocean economy database. Indicators that are currently in the works, such as that for marine ecosystem health, and biologically sustainable fish stocks are poised to provide highly relevant insights for policymakers in terms of conserving and sustainably using biodiversity, all while supporting the progress towards a sustainable ocean economy. In an era where more and more policymakers and stakeholders look to the potential of the ocean to drive sustained economic growth, it is becoming more necessary than ever to found future projects on the solid foundation of quality, relevant data.
For a comprehensive and detailed overview of the field of ocean observation, the OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) has published a Policy Paper in May 2021 entitled “A new era of digitalisation for ocean sustainability?” which not only surveys key advances made in this field so far, but goes one step further to offer an analysis into future strategies that could support ocean research and innovation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The time is now to enrich data gathering for our ocean.