The hidden downside to ocean data and how to make it more sustainable

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linwood Pendleton, Senior Vice-President; Head, Science, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Ocean & Asgeir J. Sørensen, Director, Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems, NTNU (NTNU AMOS)


  • Data technology can help us monitor and preserve the ocean.
  • But it comes with a high environmental cost in terms of emissions and waste.
  • Here are some immediate steps we must take to realize the benefits of more ocean data while mitigating the costs.

Scientists and planners are increasingly turning to digital technology to save the ocean. Data is needed to map and monitor ocean conditions, assess the impacts of climate change, warn about ocean-related natural disasters, and manage the ocean’s valuable economic and ecological resources.

Yet the same data technology that could help transform how we study and manage the ocean may also be unsustainable and environmentally damaging. As a result, at least some of the benefits of a more digitized planet and ocean may be offset by the environmental impacts of these efforts.

Fortunately, there are readily available solutions that could allow us to enjoy the benefits of a more digital ocean while limiting the negative environmental consequences of doing so. Here are the top environmental consequences and how to reduce these impacts.

The carbon cost

Government agencies are putting enormous amounts of environmental data into the cloud, and ocean scientists are in the process of creating arrays that will generate terabytes of new data. The hope is to unleash the power of big data to drive scientific discovery, ecological restoration and sustainable development. Yet processing this data requires large amounts of energy, potentially increasing emissions.

To reduce carbon emissions, we should look to increase the efficiency of cloud computing for ocean data by employing simple software improvements and hyperscaling. We should also store ocean data on data centres that use green energy and batteries for back-up instead of fossil-fuel generators.

In addition, priority should be given to cloud providers and data solutions that take a “blue economy” approach to achieve net positive impacts on the ocean by creating, for example, underwater data centres that use natural ocean cooling to cool data centres, use these centres to collect ocean data and video, and have exteriors that are designed to promote eco-friendly reef-building.

Other energy-saving techniques include capturing heat energy from data centres and using it, and replacing old, carbon-emitting research vessels with autonomous sensor-carrying platforms while also pursuing a greener research fleet.

Image: NTNU AMOS Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems

The mineral dilemma

Ocean sensors and the platforms that host them are full of materials that need to be mined from the Earth. The demand for these metals has led to global-scale efforts to explore and potentially mine minerals from the seafloor.

To reduce the impact due to newly mined materials, and to thus reduce the environmental damage and biodiversity loss associated with mining (especially the sea floor), we suggest usingrecycled metals in ocean data sensors and platforms.

The debris problem

Many ocean sensor-carrying platforms are launched without any plans for recovery. Compounding the rise in the number of ocean sensors is the fact that many of these ocean sensors simply don’t last very long. While planned obsolescence is a frequently acknowledged downside of the digital economy, the problem in the ocean world is uncontrollable senescence – the ocean is a harsh and unforgiving environment for technical hardware.

As a result, non-recoverable ocean sensors contribute to the growing morass of ocean litter and plastic. When their batteries and metal parts corrode and fall apart, these sensors also release toxins and pollutants.

And don’t forget about the senescence of satellites, always a mainstay in ocean data collection. As more satellites begin to clog space, the debris created by these satellites multiplies and much of that space junk falls back to Earth where it becomes ocean litter.

To reduce the marine litter created by ocean data collection, we must improve the durability of ocean sensors and platforms and regulate satellites with the ocean in mind. We must also democratize data harvesting – and reduce marine litter – by focusing on more recoverable ocean sensors likesmall autonomous underwater vehicles and saildrones and putting more ocean sensors on mounted on maritime platforms that are either fixed (e.g. cables) or ships of opportunity that return to port (ferryboxes and ship-based sensors).

Finally, we must liberate ocean data. Countries should share more of the ocean data they already have.

The transition to sustainable ocean tech

It is easy to argue that the environmental impacts of a more digital ocean pale in comparison to potential benefits, including environmental benefits, of having more and faster ocean data. That’s not the point.

There are concrete and readily available steps that can be taken to reduce the environmental impacts of ocean data and technology. Adoption of some or all of the options we present here will only serve to increase these net benefits and reflect our shared commitment for a sustainable ocean data enterprise.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

EU Budget 2020 conciliation talks suspended

Eurozone’s north-south growth gap to become structural

Air pollution: Most EU Member States not on track to reduce air pollution and its related health impacts by 2030

New Disability Inclusion Strategy is ‘transformative change we need’, says Guterres

These are the countries best prepared for the fight against cancer

Prospect of lasting peace ‘fading by the day’ in Gaza and West Bank, senior UN envoy warns

Security Council approves ‘historic’ political Haiti mission, ending UN peacekeeping role in the country

Learning lessons from across Europe – the hidden costs of COVID-19 on lung cancer

Why ‘video call fatigue’ might be making you tired during lockdown – and how to beat it

What is tuberculosis and why are deaths rising?

Mergers: Commission waives the commitments made by Takeda to obtain clearance of its acquisition of Shire

10 ways COVID-19 could reshape offices

The US calls off globalization, targets Germany. Paris offer to Berlin comes at a cost

4 lessons on human cooperation from the fight against Ebola

Collaboration and connectivity at ITU Telecom World 2019

‘Revved up climate action’ needed to counter ‘prolonged’ and deadly storms like Cyclone Idai: Guterres

Here’s how data can shine a light on financial crime

What does artificial intelligence do in medicine?

Parliament to ask for the suspension of EU-US deal on bank data

Progress made at COP25, despite lack of agreement to increase climate ambition

UN ‘prioritizing needs’, ramping up aid, as Hurricane Dorian continues to batter the Bahamas

Countries must invest at least 1% more of GDP on primary healthcare to eliminate glaring coverage gaps

Brexit: the time has come for the UK to clarify its position

Starbucks and FIAT again under Commission’s microscope: is Europe ready to kick multinationals out of the house?

Why we need a blockchain bill of rights

India vs Virus: voices from the COVID front line

How the tech sector can power the shift to a sustainable economy

UN chief welcomes G20 commitment to fight climate change

Are we at risk of a financial crisis? Our new report takes a look

Antitrust: Commission sends Statement of Objections to Conserve Italia for participation in canned vegetables cartel

iSting: a reader’s thoughts on the UN Environment Assembly 2017

With 5 billion set to miss out on health care, UN holds landmark summit to boost coverage

Antitrust: Commission fines Google €1.49 billion for abusive practices in online advertising

Essential services on verge of shutdown in Gaza as emergency fuel set to run out

Here are three technology trends changing the way you travel

The EU Parliament sidesteps the real issues about banks, while the US target the Eurozone lenders

5 crises that could worsen under COVID-19

How can we make enough vaccine for 2 billion people?

China, forever new adventures

Quality Internships: Towards a Toolkit for Employers

Who cares about the unity of Ukraine?

YouTube stars get creative at UN, to promote tolerance

These Dutch tomatoes can teach the world about sustainable agriculture

daniela-runchi-jade-president__

A Sting Exclusive: “Education in Europe, fostering skills development inside and outside the school system”

How the mobile industry is driving climate progress on the scale of a major economy

EU defence gets a boost as the European Defence Fund becomes a reality

How the Belt and Road Initiative could support an ageing population

Better understanding the psychological impact caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic

Our poisonous air is harming our children’s brains

EU legislation protecting home buyers approved in Parliament

Does the West play the Syrian game in Egypt?

Normal reactions to the abnormality of the pandemic

How climate change sparks innovation for fragile communities

Thai cave boys spared thundershowers, highlighting extreme climate disruption: UN weather agency

Batteries included: how better storage can transform renewable energy

Eurozone stagnates after exporting its recession to trading partners

Why the euro may rise with the dollar even at lower interest rates

New Eurobarometer survey shows: The majority of Europeans think the EU should propose additional measures to address air quality problems

We must stop turning a blind eye to the world’s health crises

Living in a pandemic: what are the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of the youth?

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: