Welcome to the UN Decade of Ocean Science

The United Nations has launched a major international alliance for ocean science, undertaking a mission close to all our hearts.

If there’s one thing that humanity has always felt a deep sense of fascination for, it’s the ocean. Children read stories and imagine fantastic voyages by intrepid sailors fighting against ruthless pirates and monstrous creatures from the abyss. Meanwhile, adults are coming to terms with another, greater mission that is no less adventurous: understanding the oceans, protecting them and saving their future, and thus that of the Earth.

Unexplored oceans

It’s been over fifty years since humanity first set foot on the moon and, in the meantime, we’ve even been able to photograph a black hole. Yet it seems incredible that we still know so little about the ecosystem that covers over 70 per cent of our planet’s surface. More than 80 per cent of the oceans has still not been mapped, observed or explored according to NASA. “How can we protect areas where we have no clue what is there?” asks Ricardo Aguilar, leader of international organisation Oceana‘s European expeditions. This knowledge gap also explains the fact that only 7 per cent of oceans is currently protected.

A map of the ocean floor by 2030

The Seabed 2030 project has set itself a clear and ambitious goal: to create high-resolution mapping of 100 per cent of the ocean floor by 2030. How can this be achieved? Satellite imagery is inaccurate, while sonar and depth sounding devices on boats give better results but would require centuries of navigation. Thus, Seabed 2030 has divided the oceans into four large regions, assigning responsibility for each of them to distinguished research institutions. The latter will recover existing bathymetric data from previous depth sounding missions – which isn’t always in the public domain. New mapping campaigns will be carried out and the British Oceanographic Data Centre will collate all the information into a single map that will be free and open to all.

When the project was launched in July 2017, only 6 per cent of the world’s seabeds had been mapped with an acceptable degree of precision. Just over three years later, the figure has already increased to 19 per cent.

The UN Decade of Ocean Science

Getting to know these ecosystems is essential to bringing about the conditions for protecting them. “Action can only be effective if it is based on sound knowledge informed by science,” according to the UN’s statement announcing the launch of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, a commitment spanning from 2021 and 2030. “There is an increasing need to find scientific solutions that allow us to understand the changes taking place in our ocean, and to reverse its declining health”.

Ocean science has advanced in leaps and bounds in recent decades, but always with limited resources. To be precise, the UN has calculated that these amount to between 0.04 and 4 per cent of global investment in research and development. This decade, therefore, is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to strengthen international cooperation and give life to new partnerships between research institutions, policymakers, businesses, civil society and citizens. All of these actors will come together to give impetus to scientific research and technological innovation, and to achieve Sustainable Development Goal number 14, which aims to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) © UN

Under the umbrella of the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the UN has established seven objectives to be achieved by 2030:

  1. A comprehensive digital atlas of the ocean.
  2. A comprehensive ocean observing system for all major basins.
  3. Quantitative and qualitative understanding of ocean ecosystems and their functioning as the basis for their management and adaptation.
  4. An ocean data and information portal.
  5. An integrated multi-hazard warning system.
  6. Ocean in Earth-system observation, research and prediction, supported by social and human sciences and economic valuation.
  7. Capacity development and accelerated technology transfer, training and education, ocean literacy.

Our future depends on oceans

The stakes are high and time is running out. Our oceans are by far the largest ecosystem on Earth, inhabited by at least 200,000 known species (the actual total is probably in the millions). 40 per cent of this ecosystem is in poor conditions, as the United Nations Development Programme reminds us.

The polar ice caps are melting because of global warming, causing sea levels to rise. Areas that currently house up to 300 million people are at risk of ending up underwater. Atmospheric CO2, whose levels are by now disproportionate, is absorbed by ocean water, making its surface’s pH levels more acidic and causing irreparable damage to many life forms.

8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the seas and oceans each year. 35 per cent of fish stocks are being exploited at rates described as biologically unsustainable by the FAO. There are countless threats to our oceans, different in scope and type, but all share one common aspect: we’re causing them.

Through the 2030 Agenda, the UN wished to reiterates the three dimensions of sustainability: environmental, social and economic. All depend directly on the health of our oceans, as these are responsible for absorbing 30 per cent of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, therefore mitigating global warming as well as supporting the livelihoods of 3 billion people. Taking into consideration marine and coastal resources and the industries they sustain, their economic value is around 3 trillion US dollars a year, equal to approximately 3 per cent of global GDP.

A test of resilience for small islands

Among the priorities established by the UN for the next decade is that of improving scientific knowledge in the 47 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and in Small Island Developing States (SIDs). Here, the dramatic effects of climate change are felt with special force, but institutions lack the economic resources needed to study and confront them effectively.

Funafuti Atoll in the Tuvalu archipelago is made up of a strip of land that surrounds a lagoon © Mario Tama/Getty Images

Among them is Tuvalu, composed of nine atolls in the Pacific Ocean. Its 26-square-kilometre surface area makes it the fourth-smallest country in the world. It is at the centre of a surprising piece of good news: a team of researchers from the universities of Plymouth (UK), Auckland (New Zealand) and Simon Fraser University in Barnaby (Canada) created a virtual model of one of the atolls to simulate the impact of rising sea levels. The results, described in an article published in Science Advances, exceed the most hopeful expectations. The accretion of waterborne sediments could lead to the islands themselves rising, therefore avoiding submersion thanks to natural adaption, explains Gerd Masselink, one of the study’s authors. This textbook example of resilience could be a beacon of hope for many of those living in at-risk territories.

Ocean Words, stories hidden under the surface

Seabed 2030 and the discoveries in Tuvalu are two of the many stories told by Ocean Words, a new project launched in Italy to “give a voice to the world’s oceans and find a caring, conscientious public willing to listen” (the Instagram page is linked here).

If it’s true that ocean health is vital to the equilibrium of our planet, society and economy as we know them, this means we must take an active interest in the issue rather than leave a small group of specialists to worry about it. Increased awareness at all levels, including among the general public, will send a strong signal to those who have the power to determine where investments in research and development are channeled. Let’s amplify the voices of scientists, activists, explorers and forward-thinking companies in the hope that they might inspire the next generation of oceanographers.

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