World Oceans Day has been celebrated on June 8th since 2009. According to United Nations data, in the last 150 years the planet has lost nearly half its living corals, and in the last four decades marine surface plastic pollution has multiplied by ten. Our oceans represent 75 percent of the planet’s surface and are home to almost 200,000 known species. The real number, however, could be as high as several million; experts calculate that 91 percent of oceanic species are still unidentified. The United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that almost 95 percent of the planet’s oceans remain unexplored. Still, plastic has already conquered much of both the marine surface and the oceans’ floor.
The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) estimates that 80 percent of marine pollution worldwide comes from land-based sources and that between 60 and 95 percent of all waste is plastic. Against this backdrop, the United Nations in 2021 will kick off the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, an international cooperative initiative to encourage scientific marine research. The decade-long program aims to explore hitherto unknown marine terrains and design the much needed, innovative solutions that will allow us to establish a sustainable relationship with marine ecosystems.
A scientific and ethical exploration of the ocean
UNESCO has recognized that despite the importance of marine ecosystems to our economic systems — not to mention to the very survival of the human race — we have not yet managed to reliably assess the impact of human activity on the ocean.
According to United Nations data, national spending on oceanic science research stands between 0.04 and 4 percent of total R&D investment made by individual countries. Still, the UN also tells us that almost three million people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. Let’s not forget that oceans also contribute to slowing global warming by absorbing almost one-third of human-generated carbon dioxide. At the same time, marine ecosystems are dominating conversations about future food supplies, the development of medications, and as new sources of renewable energy. They also play a key role in job creation and inclusive growth worldwide.
As a prelude to the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, the theme for 2020’s World Oceans Day is “innovation for a sustainable ocean”, putting innovation at the center of society’s response as it faces the challenges associated with developing a truly sustainable economy.
Goal 14 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Life Below Water, emphasizes the importance of marine biodiversity conservation, for which it is essential to preserve oceanic conditions such as temperature and chemical composition. Part of the goal is also to increase scientific knowledge about the marine environment. The challenge for 2025 is to reduce water pollution, which includes residual waste from land-based activity and nutrient pollution.
Nanotechnology, autonomous vehicles, and renewable energy: The ocean´s future
The OECD published a related report in 2019. “Rethinking Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean Economy” analyzes some of the innovations and technologies that are expected to bolster the efficiency of marine activities like aquaculture or wind energy produced from floating turbines. The re-purposing of gas and oil platforms into artificial reefs is another future objective on the horizon for our oceans. Although thousands of platforms have been dismantled, it is only the beginning of a long process. According to the OECD report, 120 of these structures are currently dismantled per year. What’s new lies in plans to “retrofit” these structures into reefs and rigging projects, which would be particularly relevant in the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, the United States is home to the most ambitious project, the Louisiana Artificial Reef Program.
To conserve ocean biodiversity and establish a more sustainable economic relationship with marine environments, the OECD points to some technological innovations that promise to be key. Self-cleaning materials and nanotechnology for energy storage are two examples. Genetics is also a powerful tool for improving animal husbandry and the development of aquaculture foodstuffs. The natural wealth of our oceans plays a major role in the development of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, cosmetics and food sources. Exploring ocean depths for these resources requires further development of submarine technologies, in addition to intelligent sensors and advancements in optical technology. In addition, like the trend in land transportation vehicles, self-driving aquatic vehicles (in this case submarines) hold significant potential for reaching the most unexplored corners of our oceans. In order to gain an understanding of the marine environment and at the same time harness the full potential of the oceans, a sustainable approach is imperative. To this end, political and economic decisions about the marine environment must be made based on scientific data. In this sense, the Decade of Ocean Sciences promises to to be a hopeful period for the blue planet.