Here on Earth we have more detailed maps of Mars than of our own ocean, and that’s a problem. A massive force to survive climate change, the ocean absorbs 90% of the heat caused by emissions and generates 50% of the oxygen we breathe. “We have to thank the ocean for so many aspects of our safety and well-being,” says Dawn Wright, oceanographer and chief scientist at Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provider Esri, who notes that the he ocean also provides renewable energy, a major food source. source, and a transport corridor not only for ships, but also for submarine internet cables.
Now, the same kind of smart maps and geospatial technologies guiding the exploration of outer space are supporting the quest to better understand and protect our ocean. “For the first time, our knowledge of the ocean can come close to our knowledge of the land,” says Wright. “We can transform the deep unknown into the deep known.”
GIS – the geographic intelligence technology that businesses and governments use for everything from risk mitigation and crisis response to market analysis and operational efficiency – also applies to the ‘ocean. The logic is simple: the ocean supports a sustainable planet and economy, and data-rich maps can support a sustainable ocean.
‘Tons and tons of great data’
Over 80% of the ocean floor remains unmapped, but comprehensive ocean maps will be essential to stem the problems of overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and loss of biodiversity. It’s easy, and at this point cliché, to say ‘save our ocean’, but a data-driven map forces people to see why the ocean needs to be saved, where to start and what to do. to do. “Seeing the ocean in its true depth and complexity is exactly what we need if we are to reduce the risk of critical damage or depletion of marine resources,” says Wright.
Since its release in 2017, the world’s first 3D ocean map has spurred an innovation revolution in ocean-related data and sustainability solutions. The 3D digital ocean map sorts the world’s water bodies into 37 distinct volumetric regions, called ecological marine units, defined by factors of ecosystem health and recovery: temperature, salinity, oxygen, and nutrient levels. Scientists, environmental managers, fishermen and shippers, as well as citizen scientists can use the map to virtually navigate and explore the ocean.
What makes the 3D map of the world ocean possible is the enterprise technology capable of collecting and processing data in volume and variety. And there’s more data on the way. “This whole idea of marine robotics is one of the great future visions of the ocean,” says Wright. “Robotics, sensors and other instruments create tons, tons and tons of great data.”
Once collected, these volumes of data are transferred to a GIS where they are managed and processed, using artificial intelligence (AI) to quickly identify and classify the information. The output of GIS, often referred to as location intelligence, comes in the form of smart maps, spatial analytics, and real-time dashboards – the same kind seen around the world this year to track and analyze the pandemic. coronavirus. These GIS-powered interactive data visualization tools bring clarity to even the most complex issues and help guide policy and business decisions based on a solid understanding of what’s happening now and what’s to come next. .
“We can even make predictions about what the data will tell us in 2030,” says Wright. “What will the temperature of the Florida coast be in 2050?” Will these temperatures kill seagrass beds in this region? Will these temperatures cause a red tide around Tampa that will be so toxic it will kill all the fisheries there? “
“ The ocean is vulnerable ”
Growing up in the Hawaiian Islands and working in American Samoa, Wright understands the ocean as a sacred place. This sentiment now guides her work with fellow scientists, government leaders and business leaders. “I want people to understand that the ocean is vulnerable,” says Wright. “What we are doing in the ocean right now has huge consequences. Our daily weather and our long-term climate depend entirely on the ocean. “
For Wright, the creation and enforcement of marine protected areas, such as the Cook Islands Marine Park off New Zealand and the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the United States, represents a triumph in the protection of l ‘ocean. So far, only 7% of the ocean has been marked as protected, compared to 15% of land. “Even though we have about 7% of the ocean protected in these parks or reserves, less than half is an area where you are not allowed to fish or take the corals or take the pretty rocks,” says Wright. . “So we’ve got a long, long, long way to go.”
Protected areas, predictive maps and calls from scientists certainly have an impact on business and policy decisions. Add to that the growing climate risk and global pressure for social responsibility. These incentives and the GIS tools needed to respond to them prompt managers to implement new initiatives.
For example, shipping companies strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by design more efficient vessels, an initiative that promotes the cause of sustainability while reducing business expenses. Industries such as retail and manufacturing are putting circular economy principles in place to recover or recycle materials after the product has completed its initial use. Aquaculture companies are select prime locations for responsible fish farming to help reduce overfishing, encourage restoration of aquatic ecosystems and recover endangered species.
Such efforts lead us towards the vision of a sustainable ocean and therefore a sustainable planet. Although Wright feels convinced with so many advanced technologies – “now is the perfect time to map” – what is less certain is whether the work of scientists, governments and business will be sufficient or yield the results enough. early.
‘The ocean is not too big to fail’
Concerned by the growing threats to the ocean, the United Nations declared from 2021 to 2030 the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. “It’s like the Paris Ocean Climate Agreement,” says Wright. “For me, it’s the moon … to have something so focused for everyone – governments, universities, nonprofits – that’s a really big push.”
A number of important ocean mapping projects are already at various stages of development and implementation. For example, Seabed 2030 has an ambitious goal of mapping the entire ocean floor by 2030. The Biodiversity Importance Map shares habitat patterns for more than 2,200 species at risk in the contiguous United States , with layers of AI predictors for species viability. on development plans and environmental factors. And the Healthy Oceans Index annually assesses the health of the oceans by examining the social, ecological and economic benefits to accelerate progress on ocean policies.
Such projects will help socially responsible businesses (those that develop sustainable development solutions tailored to business opportunities) to make profits while preserving the ocean. Their work often revolves around complex, real-time data, stored and processed with GIS, and presented on smart maps and data visualizations with GIS. Smart localization helps businesses, especially the shipping, energy, logistics and fisheries sectors, with issues such as:
- Where would offshore wind turbines have the least impact on commercial fishing?
- Where should a new transatlantic submarine communications cable go to avoid interference with scallop schools, rare deep-sea coral habitats or sand extraction areas needed for beach restoration?
- What are the appropriate areas for the transit of ships in the Arctic (now that it is no longer covered with ice all year round) to minimize the impact on sensitive ecosystems?
As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic and enters the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, it can do so knowing that businesses, scientists and policymakers have the power to make more choices. smart for people and the planet.
These choices will be guided by comprehensive ocean data, the technology to map critical information, and an understanding of how, when and where to intervene. The kingpin will make sustainability choices in time. “It turns out the ocean isn’t too big to fail, unfortunately,” says Wright. “The good news is, it’s not too big to fix.”
This content was produced by Insights, the personalized content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by the editorial staff of MIT Technology Review.