The ocean represents the largest ecosystem on our planet, and it performs a number of key functions supporting life, including generating oxygen, moderating the climate, offering food, improving health and well-being through tourism or even new medicines, and facilitating global trade and energy production.
The ocean-related economy (or “blue economy”) is already generating the annual wealth of the order of the gross domestic product of France, the 7th largest national economy in the world, and is actually growing faster than the land-based economy. The majority of the world population now lives in the coastal zone.
According to the First World Ocean Assessment, published by United Nations in 2015, humankind’s stresses on the ocean have already triggered a massive decline in ocean health, and the challenge is now to stop the detrimental practices of the ways in which we use the ocean, before this damage becomes irreversible.
This challenge is even more dramatic because our reliance on the ecosystem services provided by the ocean is likely only to increase in future, driven largely by the growth in world population and (uneven) consumption.
The ten targets UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No. 14 (SDG 14) call on us to stop ocean pollution and unsustainable fisheries practices, to protect key marine ecosystems, to start managing marine and coastal ecosystems scientifically, and to address the damaging effects and impact of ocean acidification.
Significantly, we are also expected to support the development of blue economy, especially for Small Island Developing States, and help artisanal fisheries to find their way to food markets, which has to be carried out through the development and use of ocean science, while respecting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Achieving some of the SDG14 targets requires new policies, regulations, best practices and their encouragement or enforcement, as well as investments.
However, some of these targets require a breakthrough in the abilities of ocean science to come up with practically useful solutions and practices. UN agencies with responsibilities and a mandate touching on the field of ocean ecosystems are ready to work in partnership to facilitate the implementation of SDG14 through concerted action.
UN Environment is leading on issues related to management and pollution. FAO is pursuing issues related to fisheries. IOC is leading on the development of scientific solutions. Contributions of other agencies, including the UN itself (e.g. via DOALOS), the World Bank, IMO, WMO, IAEA and IUCN, are also required, as well as those of NGOs, notably the International Hydrographic Organization, and many others.
Indeed, sustainable ocean management underpins all the other SDGs, including the Goals on extreme poverty (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2), health and wellbeing (SDG 3), water management (SDG 6), clean energy (SDG 7), economic growth (SDG 8), industry and infrastructure (SDG 9).
Ocean observation is greatly hampered by the fact that the ocean water is not transparent to radio waves. Since the dawn of this century, under the coordination of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), new automatic buoy technologies (especially Argo buoys) have revolutionized our knowledge of ocean thermodynamics.
It is possible now to make scientific statements such as “93% of the excess heat associated with the enhanced greenhouse effect have been absorbed by the ocean since the start of industrial era” and to trace the so-called “hiatus” in global warming to the penetration of warming into the deeper parts of the ocean.
Responding to the need for effective management of ocean ecosystems and to address the role of ocean in climate, GOOS expands the scope of observations by including ocean biogeochemical, biological and ecosystem variables, and is extending the domain of observations into the deep ocean areas and the polar regions.
Satellites enable data collection. New observing and data collections systems are put in place, including autonomous underwater vehicles. Worldwide, this is a billion-dollar enterprise. It is essential for our ability to manage the environment sustainably that the radio-frequency bands assigned for transmission of oceanographic, meteorological and other environmental data are preserved, despite the pressing need to enhance mobile communications.
A wealth of data and information products are now required and available for oceanography. A number of ocean-born disasters can and should be predicted and their devastating consequences avoided (e.g. typhoons or hurricanes, flooding, and tsunamis).
Data on water temperature in the upper ocean layer helps with the prediction of tropical cyclones. Their track is already usually predicted with sufficient accuracy, but prediction of their intensity still requires improvement. A highly complex information system that includes seismic stations, Internet, satellite and mobile communications, special buoys and modeling is used to support IOC-coordinated tsunami warnings for the world.
There is potential to further reduce the time needed to detect a tsunami on the ocean surface and generate a more accurate warning, where oceanbottom telecommunication cables crisscrossing the ocean floor can be used for additional ocean observations and data communication. An ITU-IOC-WMO Joint Task Force is developing this new technique.
Further development of our civilization is inseparable from our heavy reliance on the ocean. Unfortunately, we still do not know enough to operate in the ocean safely and sustainably. For example, ocean bottom topography is less well-known than the one of the other side of the moon.
Thus, for own sake and for preserving the health of the ocean, we need to invest in ocean observations, related research, data and information technologies. This requires mainstreaming investments in ocean science, observations, services and oceanbased communications into national agendas with effective communication and significant efforts dedicated to improving ocean literacy.
To engage the global community, including the UN, into such large-scale efforts, IOC has called for a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development towards the ocean we need, for the future we want.
It is hoped that the Decade will be conducted under the auspices of UN and will engage all relevant UN agencies and most nations to create better awareness about the role and state of the ocean, to strengthen ocean mapping and observation, to generate a wealth of useful information on the ocean and enable sciencebased solutions preserving ocean health, to improve our resilience to oceanrelated risks, and to facilitate the use of ocean services for humankind. Central to enabling these advances will be a global, regional and local data and information system supported by modern ICTs.
It is hoped that this Decade will help prioritize ocean health and the well-being of ocean ecosystems, simply because failure is simply not an option.
It is the responsibility of all of us to preserve the rich diversity and beauty of the cradle of life on Earth as we know it – the Ocean.