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Ocean Currents

An Ocean of Data

In a new report, we outline why modernizing and transforming the nation’s ocean data management system is critical for mitigating climate change and sustainably managing marine ecosystems

Windows to the Deep 2018: Exploration of the Southeast U.S. Cont
The NOAA Ocean Exploration and Research Team prepares to collect ocean data using a remotely operated vehicle. © Art Howard, GFOE, Windows to the Deep 2018

The significance of the ocean to humanity cannot be overstated, whether it is regulating Earth’s climate, providing food to billions or helping society transition to renewable, fossil fuel-free energy.

Yet, our understanding of these critical ecosystem services or our ability to sustainably support the $373 billion ocean-based economy is limited by timely and equitable access to data on rapidly changing ocean conditions.

As much as 80% of our ocean remains unmapped or underexplored, meaning there are holes in our knowledge that prevent policymakers from making informed and sustainable management decisions, whether it is siting offshore wind farms or identifying biodiversity hot spots that need protecting.

But investments in ocean data management lag far behind society’s ever-growing demand for these data, particularly as the shipping, fishing and offshore energy development sectors become increasingly important providers and users of ocean data.

These are among the findings of a report that Ocean Conservancy in partnership with the Center for Open Data Enterprise released today.

Ocean Data Report COVER

Ocean data needs are punctuated by the worsening climate crisis, which is driving changes in ocean conditions that must be monitored and studied closely for responsive and timely management actions. Marine species are shifting their distributions, disrupting fisheries and increasing the potential for vessel-marine mammal interactions in new shipping routes with less sea ice.

Equitable, public access to ocean data is also critical to helping coastal communities adapt to climate change and protecting marginalized residents. For example, Miami’s Afro-Caribbean communities living on desirable, higher ground could be displaced into lower-lying areas vulnerable to rising sea levels or storms as their neighborhoods are replaced by new commercial and residential developments. City officials must have access to ocean and climate data coupled with community needs and values to make informed decisions and enact policies to protect at-risk residents.

Climate Gentrification on Low Income Black Families
© Daniel Sebastian Padilla Ochoa/Ocean Conservancy

Technology is giving humanity an unprecedented window into ocean ecosystems, but the prolific amount of data generated by a growing network of disparate sensors, gliders and smartphones is not always comparable or analyzable because of the different systems and currencies used. The staggering amount of data collected each year are underutilized because the systems of managing and sharing data have not been standardized or modernized to support the exponential growth in data.

At a Congressional hearing last month, officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) echoed these and other concerns described in the report, testifying that the agency cannot keep pace with increasing demands for climate data due to lack of capacity and resources.

Recognizing the need to significantly deepen our understanding and management of ocean ecosystems, the National Strategy for Mapping, Exploring and Characterizing the United States Exclusive Economic Zone would fill large gaps in our knowledge about ocean ecosystems in U.S. waters. However, this undertaking and the equally massive data cataloging necessary to support it will require bipartisan support and sustained funding from Congress. New partnerships among federal agencies, private industry, academia and NGOs will also be a necessity to leverage survey assets, avoid duplication of effort and save taxpayer dollars.

Underwater view with tuna school fish in ocean. Sea life in transparent water
© Getty Images

Ocean data are a virtual commodity that the public and various stakeholders must be able to access to be useful and valuable while protecting the confidentiality of data providers. Lessons learned from the health care industry suggest private data can be aggregated or anonymized to protect proprietary claims and identities while maximizing their benefit for sustainably managing the ocean.

Solutions to these challenges are on the horizon. Led by NOAA, the federal government is positioned to usher in a new era of improved data transparency, access and use to advance marine conservation, inform the blue economy, and promote the sustainable management of ocean resources.

We must modernize and invest in ocean data management to inform our stewardship and sustainable use of marine resources during a critical time of rapid and accelerating change in our ocean.

Access the report:
Challenges and Opportunities for Ocean Data to Advance Conservation and Management

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