This new project will help us understand, monitor, predict and protect the ocean

(Credit: Unsplash)

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

Author: Peter de Menocal, President and Director, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Member of Friends of Ocean Action


  • Our society’s capacity to mitigate and adapt to future climate impacts is dependent upon how accurately we can predict them.
  • We are currently missing reliable and consistent ocean observations throughout more than 90% of the world’s oceans.
  • The OTZ Observation Network will help researchers better understand ocean carbon cycling and its impact on the global climate.
  • Converging cloud-based storage and computing, machine learning, edge computing and robotics are driving a revolution in our ability to observe and understand oceans at scale.

The ocean, which is rapidly changing, is fundamentally important in both understanding and developing solutions to the climate crisis. These ocean changes directly impact nearly every aspect of present and future human sustainability, including changes in extreme heat and rainfall events, crop yields, fishery yields, and coastal inundation. The ocean is vast and deep, and not well observed or monitored. Yet understanding, monitoring and predicting the ocean is vital to securing our future and the blue economy.

The ocean exerts critical forcing functions on our climate system: it absorbs, transports and stores huge amounts of heat and carbon. Our world without the heat-absorbing services that the ocean provides would simply be inhospitable (the Earth’s average surface temperature could exceed 120° F without the ocean’s heat-absorbing characteristics).

The ocean has absorbed more than 93% of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s. This great reservoir continuously exchanges heat, moisture and carbon dioxide with the atmosphere, driving weather patterns and controlling our climate. This invaluable service buffers our terrestrial existence from the most acute potential disturbances that could have resulted from industrial age greenhouse gas emissions without the carbon- and heat-trapping qualities of the ocean. This “ecosystem service” has been an immense, unappreciated, value to humanity.

Earth’s life support system

Moored and drifting buoys, autonomous underwater vehicles, and classic shipboard research missions with teams of scientists aboard are all incredible tools for observing ocean processes. But all of these expensive tools have various limitations with one deficiency in common: the inability to observe ocean parameters consistently in time and space (particularly in the deep sea).

Ocean observing satellites were added to the oceanographer’s tool chest in 1978, leading to a revolutionary new understanding of ocean temperatures, colour and height of the water (currents, water depth and bathymetry). A portfolio of satellites orbit the Earth several times a day, allowing oceanographers to obtain data from all over the world in a short amount of time.

In the vernacular of science, satellites provide excellent spatial and temporal coverage. But analogous to the limitations of classic oceanographic instruments, satellites share a common limitation: they can only ‘see’ skin deep. Deep ocean biological and chemical processes are unobservable by satellites.

A deeper understanding

A remarkable convergence of new technologies with an international call for action is shaping a vision of achieving a highly observable and predictable ocean. As an accelerant to this vision, we have just begun the United Nations “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development”. Some of the key challenges of the “Decade” include:

  • Develop a sustainable and equitable ocean economy;
  • Unlock ocean-based solutions to climate change;
  • Expand the global ocean observing system;
  • Create a digital representation of the ocean;
  • Deliver data, technology and knowledge to all;
  • Change humanity’s relationship with the ocean.

These are important and ambitious goals.

The science we need for the ocean we want

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Ocean Twilight Zone (OTZ) project – a collaboratively funded Audacious Project – has served as a powerful catalyst and disruptor of the traditional oceanographic model. The Audacious Project is a collaborative approach to funding big ideas with the potential to create change at thrilling scale.

Advancing that mission statement, OTZ is developing a prototype suite of small, economical, autonomous sensors to efficiently and effectively study open-ocean processes, while simultaneously building and deploying a demonstration OTZ Observation Network located in the North Atlantic Ocean. This network will give scientists a comprehensive view of the ocean twilight zone using several different technologies, including moored buoys equipped with acoustic survey systems, low-cost optical and geochemical sensors, and new tracking tags that will continuously record the position of major predators such as sharks and tuna. All of these components will connect to the network’s buoys using acoustic signals underwater and a satellite link at the surface.

The information provided by the network will improve estimates of the density and distribution of fish and invertebrates in the twilight zone, reveal new insights about their interactions and daily migrations to and from the surface, and help fuel new strategies for conservation and policy making.

Looking at the Ocean Twilight Zone using minions, multifrequency bioacoustic mooring, ROAM fish tags.
Ocean Twilight Zone Observation Network. Image: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Better understanding ocean carbon cycling

The future of ocean observatories is bright. Some of the fundamental building blocks are maturing and technologies to connect these networks are currently available to build a network of networks (such as long-range autonomous underwater vehicles and gliders).

Converging cloud-based storage and computing, machine learning (a subset of artificial intelligence), edge computing and robotics, are driving a revolution in our ability to observe and understand the ocean at scale, and are democratizing data, supporting research inclusion.

Autonomous drifting sensors are under development that employ powerful imaging techniques. Imaging results in large data files that are difficult to transmit via satellites, which is where edge computing will accelerate the objective of achieving a highly observable and predictable ocean. Industry research collaborations can drive down the cost of ocean-sensing vehicles and networks.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can’t have a healthy future without a healthy ocean – but it’s more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The larger vision is to drive multi-stakeholder collaboration to develop an always-on, always-connected ocean sensing network to track essential, whole-ocean processes that stabilise the climate and sustain humanity.

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