A new decade of UK ocean science

A new decade of Ocean Science

Executive Director, Prof Edward Hill, from the UK National Oceanography Centre talks to SciTech Europa Quarterly about the issues the ocean is facing.

There is only one ocean, and public and political consciousness is growing about the condition of its health. It is the Earth’s ‘life support system’ with microscopic marine plants re-cycling half the oxygen we breathe and providing essential protein and nutrition for humans. With population set to rise to nine billion people by 2050 – growing fastest in low-lying coastal regions – it is inevitable the ocean will be called up to provide even more food, clean energy, minerals and to support economic development and international trade. The ocean economy is already projected by the OECD to double to $3 trillion per year by 2030.

Unprecedented changes are taking place at the nexus of the ocean, climate and biodiversity. For example, the ocean is now recognised as central to the question of mitigation and adaptation to climate change. It has absorbed 93% of the excess global warming heat and its physical and biological process are taking up 25% of marine species CO2 emissions. However, the question is for how long? Some of the biggest and most visible impacts of climate change are sea-level rise and increased flood risk from extreme events as well as rapid reduction of Arctic sea ice cover and thickness.

Meanwhile, ocean ecosystems are under unprecedented pressures from climate-linked changes (warming, acidification, growth in oxygen-depleted zones) compounded by the cumulative impacts of other human pressures – about one third of the world’s fish stocks is over-exploited. Most of the world’s coral reef habitats, home to 25% could disappear by 2050 and plastic pollution is just the most visible sign of the use of the ocean as a waste sink. Ocean ecosystems are in declining health and some, like coral reefs, are in a critical condition.

Finding solutions

As Jane Lubchenco, former Head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has said: the ocean, once seen over-optimistically as ‘too big to fail’ or pessimistically as ‘too big to fix’, needs now to be understood as simply to be ‘too big to ignore’.

The key to finding solutions to these monumental challenges these will be scientifically informed sustainable development. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) explicitly call out the ocean, seas and marine ecosystems through SDG 14, and the health of the marine systems is integral to at least 11 of the 17 sustainable development goals.

The scientific community is urgently called upon to address this great challenge of our age. To galvanise global scientific endeavour, the United Nations (supported strongly by the EU and its Member States) declared the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) and tasked the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO with the planning phase.

The Decade has a transformative vision to deliver the ‘science needed for the future we want’ where that future is painted by the following outcomes:

  • Clean ocean – pollution identified, quantified, reduced, removed,
  • Healthy and resilient ocean – ecosystems mapped, protected, multiple impacts measured reduced ecosystem services maintained,
  • Predicted ocean – society has capacity to understand current and future ocean conditions, forecast their change and impact on human wellbeing and livelihoods,
  • Safe ocean – human communities protected from ocean hazards and safety of operations at sea and on the coast is ensured,
  • Sustainably harvested and productive ocean – ensuring the provision of food supply and alternative livelihoods,
  • and Data transparent and accessible ocean – all nations, stakeholders citizens have access to ocean data/information, technologies have capacities to inform their decisions.

The Decade challenges us to work globally, think big and think solutions. The identified priorities are to:

  • Generate knowledge of the ocean system, biodiversity, seabed and their role in the earth/climate system, including the human component to support sustainable management,
  • Develop and provide access to a comprehensive evidence base and capacities for ecosystem-based management to improve ocean health and support a blue economy,
  • An accelerated programme of research and development supporting integrated multi-hazard early warning systems with improved community preparedness and awareness,
  • Enhance ocean observing networks, seafloor maps, data systems and other infrastructure,
  • Transform the scientific and technical capacity of Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries,
  • and Enhance cooperation, coordination, and communication between stakeholders.

Conservation and sustainability

The First Global Planning meeting for the Decade took place in Copenhagen from 13-15 May 2019. But it will not be good enough just to plan and to wait until 2030 for research results to roll in. Policy and investment actions are underway now. These need to be informed by the best available scientific information available today, and then aim to close the gaps and uncertainties going forward.

For example, one of the actions being advocated is to designate 30% of the ocean for protection by 2030. Progress has been made in the Exclusive Economic Zones of some countries where they have authority under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to do so. However, 60% of the ocean is beyond any national jurisdiction – an area greater than the entire land surface of the earth!

Conserving and sustainably managing biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction will need a new international agreed legally binding instrument. Those negotiations are already underway at the UN, with scientists providing valuable advice – even though knowledge, especially about the deep sea remains limited (there may be two million species awaiting discovery and the surfaces of Mars, Venus and the Moon are already far more accurately mapped than the seafloor – only about 15% of which is mapped to minimum standard required using modern methods).

The European and international science community is preparing to respond. On November 20-21 the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg convened the ‘Science for Ocean Actions’ conference to inform the High-Level Panel on a Sustainable Ocean Economy which she chairs, comprising twelve heads of state and government. It will present its report in 2020 and thus set the global ambition and recommendations for how governments, the private sector, and civil society can create an ocean economy that contributes to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The European Marine Board

On the 11 June 2019, the European Marine Board published its foresight document ‘Navigating the Future V’. It is explicitly framed in the context of science for sustainable development and contributing to the Decade. It explores future research needs through the lenses of:

  • The four-dimensional ocean i.e. a three-dimensional volume that changes over space and time, arguing that the four-dimensional structure and function of marine ecosystems should be better integrated into management and conservation practices,
  • Multiple stressors (e.g. climate change, pollution, overfishing) and their impact on the functioning of marine ecosystems, including their interactions, evolution and adaptation over time and the need for models that include uncertainties and that help develop early-warning indicators for multiple stressors and tipping points,
  • Climate-related extreme events and geohazards including marine heat waves, storm surges, meteo-tsunamis and submarine earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions and their associated tsunamis – to better understand their characteristics, probability, impacts and potential changes under climate change and to develop early-warning systems for these events that will include enhanced observations and forecasting,
  • Ocean technologies, modelling, data and artificial intelligence needed to understand, predict and manage human impacts on the ocean. This includes the Ocean Internet of Things where next-generation ocean observations are transferred in real-time to communication networks combined with enhanced local data processing i.e. machine learning and artificial intelligence,
  • and Sustainability science for the ocean and the training of a new generation of sustainability scientists to focus on a holistic vision of the marine ecosystem.

Inspired by the Apollo 11 mission to put a person on the moon 50 years ago, the European Commission in July 2019 launched work on five major European research and innovation missions that will be part of Horizon Europe. These missions aim to ‘deliver solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing our world’, such as cancer, climate change, climate-neutral cities and healthy soil and food – and of course healthy oceans.

The challenge is big, the ocean is too big to ignore – and the science and innovation now required will need to be open and reach out beyond the traditional disciplines and practitioners of marine science – to rapidly assimilate and bring to bear in the ocean context advances in disparate fields of human endeavour.


Prof Edward Hill OBE

Executive Director

National Oceanography Centre, UK

+44 (0)23 8059 5106


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