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12 January 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:20am

The mission to map the world’s ocean floors

Seabeds hold the key to our understanding of climate change, but remain largely undocumented.

By Amy Borrett

The ocean covers 71 per cent of the earth’s surface, but it is still something we know relatively little about. An oft-cited statistic in ocean science is that over 80 per cent of the ocean floor, an area roughly twice the surface area of Mars, is unmapped.

This is surprising when you think about all the industries that depend on accurate information about the ocean, from shipping and coastguards to offshore wind farms and managing global fish stocks, to say nothing of the fundamental role it plays in understanding climate change.

We have come a long way since the millennium with the help of technology. Satellites, autonomous vehicles and powerful remote sensing capabilities have revolutionised how and what data can be collected, precipitating a meteoric surge in ocean observation since the start of the century.

New tech has driven a surge in ocean data collection since 2000
Number of casts* per year
World Ocean Database, NOAA

But, while ongoing technology advancements drive an exponential increase in data collection and analysis capabilities, we need to shift focus to the “less sexy” debate about global ocean data sharing, says Annie Brett, an assistant professor and lecturer in ocean and coastal law at the University of Florida.

“There’s been an explosion in ocean data in the past decade driven by new technology developments and increasing interest in exploiting ocean resources, [but] that’s not been followed by a rethinking of how we can more effectively exchange and use the data that’s been gathered,” she says. “Even if you can collect and analyse all the data, it is not necessarily meaningful unless you can use it and share it and access it more efficiently.”

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In the past, much of the collected data was stored in silos and ways that made it difficult to analyse, meaning that resources were largely under-utilised, and data collection was sometimes needlessly replicated.

Now, projects like Seabed 2030, a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation of Japan and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) to produce an open-source map of the entire ocean floor by 2030, and the Global Ocean Observation System have greatly improved the global network of data sharing.

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These improvements have been critical to the growth of the blue economy – defined by the World Bank as the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs and ocean ecosystem health – enabling climate scientists to more accurately model tsunami waves and understand how ocean currents impact the melting of ice caps.

Investment Monitor: What is the blue economy and is it green? Part of New Statesman Media Group

The data is also fundamental to the economic interests supported by the ocean. The OECD estimates that growth in the ocean economy will significantly outpace the wider economy in the next decade, more than doubling its contribution to global value added and becoming a $3tn a year market by 2030.

At almost 30%, growth in ocean employment will significantly outpace average employment growth in the global economy
Projected growth in ocean industries between 2010 and 2030

The Ocean Economy in 2030, OECD

While much of the existing framework has been designed around the need to understand climate, advancing technology has driven a wave of private corporations into the market for ocean observation, says Ralph Rayner, professorial research fellow at the London School of Economics and chairman of Sonardyne International.

“[A lot of] ocean observation has been driven by addressing two needs: better ability to understand and predict the weather, [and] better ability to understand and project future climate,” he says. “Now, there is growing pressure from corporations to play a more significant role; not just in providing the technology that makes the observations possible, but in actually conducting the observations and providing the data streams.”

But the growing role of private players presents new obstacles. Companies are largely resistant to sharing data with centralised repositories as they want to protect its proprietary value.

The hope is that ocean data can piggyback on international efforts around sharing other data on topics like health and finance, says Linwood Pendleton, senior vice-president for science at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“The challenges that we face with sharing ocean data are the same challenges that are facing the sharing of all kinds of data, which is becoming a topic of diplomatic interest,” he says. “We’re starting to think now about ways of sharing data that’s somewhere between raw data and data that’s so highly processed that you can’t do anything with it.”

Technology also has a key role to play. From the creation of federated networks like those used to share confidential data in health, to blockchain-style tagging systems to allow companies to retain some level of ownership of the data, tech is helping to overcome hurdles to effective data sharing.

Tech Monitor: How AI helps run ocean infrastructure Part of New Statesman Media Group

An increasing role has also been given to public-private partnerships, with companies like Amazon partnering with the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to take advantage of cloud technology that improves access to its expansive ocean database. Although outsourcing a public service like ocean observation comes with its own downsides, potentially muddying the waters between the collection of ocean data as a public good or as proprietary information that can be sold on for profit.

Ocean observation supports a wealth of public and private interests
% blue economy businesses in the US supporting a given market

The Ocean Enterprise Study, IOOS

The pandemic has thrown sharp focus on the need for a sustainable, green and, to a lesser extent, blue recovery, as well as renewing international efforts at data sharing. With the UN’s year of ocean science due to start in January 2021, this is a seminal moment for ocean data sharing, says Pendleton.

On the flipside, Covid will likely slash government budgets, reducing the flow of money towards areas like the ocean that typically fall further down the policy agenda. But it’s not all bad news, says Pendleton, as tighter budgets could spur a shakeup of how we collect ocean data, especially in an environment where technology is helping data collection outpace the retrenchment in government funding.

“[We rely on] legacy observation systems, collecting data at frequencies and resolutions that may not be the ideal; by having tighter budgets, it will spur a rethinking about how we collect ocean data,” he says. “Covid-19 is really going to push us towards more autonomous data collection, which can be a lot cheaper than ship time and a lot safer.”

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Cuts to resources also force the focus onto historical data, meaning that Covid could provide an opportunity to explore previously untapped resources, adds Brett.

“After the 2008/2009 financial crisis, in the US at least, scientific funding dramatically decreased and what we saw instead was a return to looking at and using older datasets to discover new insights,” she says. “There’s actually a great opportunity right now to go back to some old data and figure out how we can work effectively to use it.”