A United Front in Ocean Observation
By Kira Coley
As the world’s oceans become increasingly exposed to rapidly growing pressures, long-term data sets are fundamental for monitoring these processes and understanding the complex and vast oceanic environment. In July 2016, the European Marine Board (EMB), a partnership of major national marine and oceanographic institutes in Europe, identified critical gaps within ocean observation and seafloor mapping capabilities. Their mission, along with many organizations and networks, is to unite existing ocean observing capacity and launch Europe into a time of ocean erudition.
For 20 years the EMB has provided a unique platform for the successful development of marine research policy and strategy. The formation of partnerships and the birth of valuable networks has been a product of EMB activity, influencing marine research throughout Europe, and the world. Today, the EMB represents 35 member organizations and provides a united front enabling Europe to form a common vision and find solutions to address key global issues.
Deputy Director of Alfred Wegener Institute for Marine and Polar Research (AWI), Chair of Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) and EMB member Prof. Karen Wiltshire explains, “Observations are imperative for the earth systems future. The world is blue, so, therefore, the amount of knowledge that we require in order to survive and adapt to climate change is quite considerable. We cannot do this without ocean observations. Unless we know how our oceans are structured, which includes seafloor mapping, we can’t come up with good strategies for moorings or governance. We still don’t know what type of habitats we have in our oceans. It is because we lack this knowledge that we cannot yet know all the areas that should be observed.”
EU directives and policies such as the Integrated Maritime Policy, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Marine Spatial Planning Directive and the Common Fisheries Policy all rely fundamentally on marine observations, data and data products for their successful implementation. As most of the ocean lies beyond the jurisdiction of individual nations, coordinated international collaborations, such as the European Multidisciplinary Seafloor and water-column Observatory (EMSO) and Euro-Argo, are essential for developing and operating fit-for-purpose ocean observing systems and their integration into modeling and forecasting activities. The EU has also been active in implementing a Europe-wide effort to promote the accessibility and use by multiple sectors of marine data. The European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) is Commission action designed to implement the far-reaching strategic goals of the EU Marine Knowledge 2020 Strategy, which sets targets for vastly improved knowledge of Europe’s marine territories.
Since its establishment, the EMB has advocated for a more coordinated and effective European effort to monitor and understand the state and variability of Europe’s regional seas and the global ocean. The European Global Ocean Observing System (EuroGOOS) and the EMB are working together to promote and facilitate an overarching framework for advancing ocean observation across Europe, referred to as the European Ocean Observing System (EOOS). This comprehensive framework will connect more effectively the currently fragmented and complex ocean observing capacity and act as a single, well-organized voice for Europe.
Niall McDonough, Executive Secretary, EMB comments, “EOOS will not take ownership or control of ocean observing in Europe. Rather, EOOS will provide a light and flexible coordinating framework, making it more efficient and effective at different geographical scales and for different users. In this way, EOOS can help add value to existing observing efforts, empowering those who are already working to advance ocean observing in Europe, and catalyzing new initiatives in a strategic way, targeting identified gaps and communicating progress to a wide range of stakeholders.”
Marine ecosystems are already under considerable pressure from global climate change and ocean acidification as well as localized stressors from human pollution and commercial activities. Although international efforts are underway to monitor the ocean and these impacts, only 5% of the seafloor has been surveyed to modern standards. There are also significant issues in terms of spatial coverage, the parameters being measured, the frequency of collection and the availability and ease of access to quality controlled data in real-time, or near real-time.
According to the EMB, particular emphasis must also be placed on biological observing. While a relatively advanced operational oceanography capability collects physical data at a global scale from both in situ and satellite systems, the collection of chemical, biogeochemical and biological data remains ad hoc and much less developed. There are few sustained biological observatories, a dwindling number of taxonomic experts and limited funding opportunities to increase observing efforts for biological or ecological characteristics. The EMB has recognized this as an urgent aspect to address and will begin work in late 2016 to produce a policy paper with recommendations on future biological observing needs.
“It will never be possible to have a full picture in time and space, so it is critical to ensure that all ocean observation efforts are maximized in terms of the use and relevance of data across multiple users including science, industry and government authorities.
This is why we need close cooperation and coordination,” says McDonough. “From a scientific perspective, a particular emphasis must also be placed on long-term observing initiatives which deliver decadal time series, whether that be physical, chemical or biological. Understanding patterns of change and the impacts on marine systems is dependent on sustained operational observations.”
Geographically, there are still many areas which are in need of long term observation that has not long been realized. These gaps exist for several reasons including logistics, resources and funding, but also due to the evolving focus and shifts in modern concerns over time.
Wiltshire adds, “The Arctic is now an area of concern. Gaps in Arctic ocean observations have a lot to do with the evolution of needs of individual countries, such as transport and general governance questions. We also have a critical gap in the upper North Sea as it’s very hard for us to get information as to how the water moves there. We have to model it and we also have to set up a few more long term moorings. Maybe 20 years ago, we might not have thought about the Arctic as we do now nor realized how important the inflow and outflow of the North Sea is. The more information we have, for example with climate change, the more we realize we might be missing bits. It’s up to us to readjust some of our observation systems to current concerns.”
Another key area within ocean observation, one EMB sees potential for immense opportunity, lies in the development of new observing sensors and platforms. Technology is advancing rapidly and with it the capacity for autonomous systems to be deployed for longer periods with lower energy demands. The support of innovation and advancement in future observing technologies will be key to achieving goals in ocean observation, both within Europe and globally.
Advancement through Unity
The EU Blue Economy provides over five million jobs and approximately 4% of Europe’s Gross Domestic Product. New technologies, including underwater engineering and DNA sequencing, offer possibilities to increase the contribution between marine industry and science sectors. To capture this potential, the European Commission has launched a Blue Growth initiative which explores new ways to contribute to the EU’s economy through technological, industrial and financial innovation while respecting the scarcity and vulnerability of marine resources.
Industry collects considerable amounts of ocean data throughout the process of offshore development, oil and gas, fisheries and aquaculture and ocean energy. Through openly sharing expertise and the creation of new opportunities for knowledge and data transfer, the EMB believe the benefits will be felt by both industry and science, forming a strong foundation to achieving a data-rich future for all.
Peter Heffernan, Chief Executive of the Marine Institute, Galway, Ireland and EMB member, describes the opportunities created by linking industry and scientific resources, “Ireland has existing expertise across a number of the key enabling technologies required to develop products and services that will support growth in emerging areas of the global blue economy while creating efficiencies and supporting sustainability across more established markets. Expertise in areas such as sensors, platforms, communications, robotics, informatics, computer vision and advanced materials can be harnessed in new ways to drive innovation in global marine markets with high growth potential. This will also support the sustainable development of our significant marine resource that is uniquely situated on the European Atlantic seaboard and a potential hotspot for developments in areas such as renewable energy, fisheries, shipping, marine security and surveillance and marine biotechnology.”
Against the Tide
The dream of an integrated ocean observation network, both internationally and across sectors will first need to overcome some key challenges. International cooperation is critical as is targeting appropriate funding in the right areas such as new biological sensors, training and reinvigorating Europe’s declining taxonomic expertise. High-risk projects must also be supported in order to develop innovation.
There needs to be more opportunities which allow for marine data sharing collected by private enterprise to be utilized by science and public agencies. Data collected through publicly-funded initiatives, including research, must also be accessible and useful for industry in support of Blue Growth. Both these aspects, however, will first need to overcome the associated legal issues. The Commission is moving toward this goal for data generated through EC-funded research projects. From 2017, Horizon 2020 is adopting an open data policy for all projects funded through the program.
Finally, making the case to decision makers of the importance to investing in ocean observing systems and infrastructure requires better economic cost-benefit arguments.
Europe also lacks a ‘seabed mapping research center of excellence’. Knowledge resources are spread across numerous agencies and research centers, and related expertise has not been mapped out to date. This is largely because seabed mapping programs have been nationally operated rather than international research focused, as is the case with ocean observation. Resource allocation to assess the current knowledge and expertise base, and encourage collaboration between operational entities is also required.
“Key seabed mapping data programs already in place don’t necessarily involve the key operational agencies or researchers. Partnerships are often developed through historical programs and initiatives, rather than bringing together the most appropriate expertise. Resource allocation mechanisms to bring all strategic stakeholders together is required, such as a network of marine data centers or active seabed mapping organizations,” explains Heffernan. “Ireland has built up considerable expertise in seabed mapping through INFOMAR, the national seabed mapping program carried out by the Geological Survey of Ireland and the Marine Institute. It is one of the largest civilian mapping exercises undertaken worldwide.”
EMB has recently met through a high-level delegation with the EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, to discuss needs and strategic actions to improve Europe’s ocean observing system. While the meeting on July 8, 2016 produced a number of follow-up actions, the EMB will continue to work with the Commissioner and DG MARE to develop and shape the next actions to promote and expand Europe’s ocean observing capacity.
Going forward, the EMB will continue to work with its partner network, EuroGOOS, to develop EOOS. A Roadmap for EOOS is currently in development and will be discussed at a special event in the European Parliament on September 8. This will be followed by an open consultation with all stakeholders on EOOS in autumn 2016.
“The global Ocean is facing multiple anthropogenic and natural stressors and consequently marine ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to exceeding tipping points which may lead to irreversible change. Society will rely on scientific information to tackle these threats and potentially even turn challenges into opportunities A particularly important goal is to achieve a balance between protecting the marine environment and supporting Blue Growth,” states McDonough.
Niall McDonough, Executive Secretary, European Marine Board
Prof Karen Wiltshire, Deputy Director of Alfred Wegener Institute for Marine and Polar Research (AWI) and Chair of Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO)
Peter Heffernan, Chief Executive of the Marine Institute, Ireland