Ocean science: Advising on the world’s oceans

Ocean science: Advising on the world’s oceans

Dr Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, speaks to SciTech Europa about some of the challenges facing the ocean sciences today and the actions being taken to address them.

The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) works to promote international co-operation and co-ordinates programmes in marine research, services, observation systems, hazard mitigation, and capacity development in order to understand and effectively manage the resources of the ocean and coastal areas. The IOC is the only United Nations body which specialises in ocean science and services.

The Commission aims to help its Member States improve their governance, management, institutional capacity, and decision-making processes with respect to marine resources and climate variability and to foster the sustainable development of the marine environment, in particular in developing countries.

SciTech Europa asked the IOC’s Executive Secretary, Dr Vladimir Ryabinin, about how the Commission is working to address its challenging tasks in the field of ocean science and services.

The awareness of ocean sciences

Given that the oceans and ocean sciences are now increasingly being seen as central to so many other environmental issues, not least those resulting from a changing climate, the IOC’s role is evolving, and along with it the challenges it faces. Dr Ryabinin explained to SE that the ocean sciences will be crucial to future sustainable development, and that this is something that goes far beyond the health of the ocean and its ecosystems themselves. One of the fundamental challenges stems from the lack of hard laws pertaining to issues such as the ocean’s health and climate change – despite the fact that there is a growing awareness of their importance.

He said: “We only have soft laws in place at the moment, and while things are progressing, this nevertheless remains a barrier. And while, in the area of climate change, for instance, we now have the Paris Agreement, this is still not completely legally binding.

“Regarding the oceans specifically, we have certain provisions in the Convention of the Law of the Sea that qualify the IOC as a competent international organisation, particularly with regards to the transfer of marine technology between Member States and the building of national capacities. This helps when it comes to working with other organisations and programmes. What is more, now, for the first time in the history of civilisation, there will be an international legally-binding instrument under this Convention on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.”
This, of course, is a significant step forwards in terms of moving away from soft laws. However, as Dr Ryabinin also pointed out, there may well be issues around enforcing this, once it is in place.

Dr Ryabinin also told SEQ that there is an increasing demand for ocean science and that while the IOC is an intergovernmental organisation, its decisions are not mandatory for its Member States. “This can pose a challenge as we rely on our members voluntarily taking up our advice and recommendations. Similarly, the IOC is a relatively small element of the UN, and while our staff are fantastic, we are nevertheless under-resourced and this can impact on our decision-making capacity. This is something that is further complicated by the fact that the capacities of our Member States also differ from country to country,” he said.

Indicator frameworks

The IOC works to develop indicator frameworks on the state of ocean health and the functioning of marine and coastal ecosystem services. And, as Dr Ryabinin explained, ecosystem-based ocean stewardship needs to be supported by science, and this management is done according to sectors. “For instance,” he said, “the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) does this for fisheries through a combination of central organisation and regional fisheries commissions. The same is true for UN Environment, which has a mandate in environmental protection and also has a certain set of conventions.
“In terms of marine pollution from shipping, and indeed some other types of pollution, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is active in this area.”

The need for ocean science

As Dr Ryabinin had demonstrated, the areas and activities are divided in meaningful ways (as he added: “there is a very good division of labour in the UN system when it comes to ocean issues,”), but all of these organisations require ocean science in order to inform their decisions.

With regard to the indicator frameworks, he also explained that the IOC tries to generate these indices on the basis of observations, and the Commission is therefore the leading UN organisation that facilitates the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).

Dr Ryabinin went on: “On the basis of ocean observations – and indeed other types of observations, too – we generate a better understanding of marine ecosystems, which also includes the so- called ‘large marine ecosystems’.”

Progress is thus being made, and while, traditionally, this work was based on the assessment of experts and on non-standardised observations, common languages are now being learned and new standards invented in order to develop a higher degree of synthesis. However, Dr Ryabinin also pointed out that the scientific element of that is still quite weak. He explained: “This is because we don’t know how many of the ecosystems actually function – this is something that is certainly true for ecosystems on the ocean floor, as well as others.” This, then, highlights an even further need for a boost in ocean science and the support it receives.

Dr Ryabinin also underlined the fact that past observations can no longer be utilised as an indication of the future due to the fact that the world and its environments are changing, often radically and rapidly, in the face of challenges such as climate change. As such, the IOC’s Executive Secretary said, “we need a prediction system, and to develop this we need to engage climate prediction science and then translate that into how rising temperatures and other changing variables will impact on the environment.

“We know how to do that because, for example, we understand how multi-stressors are formed in the ocean, but the predictive element remains underdeveloped.”

Thus, when it comes to research areas which should be prioritised in order to produce the ocean science necessary to bolster much of the management of the oceans, there is a clear sense that it is the development of a predictive system for the future of ecosystem-based stewardship that is required.

Ocean science and the Sustainable Development Goals

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14 is designed to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’, and the UN argues that ‘advancing the sustainable use and conservation of the oceans continues to require effective strategies and management to combat the adverse effects of overfishing, growing ocean acidification and worsening coastal eutrophication.’

For Dr Ryabinin, the establishment of the UN’s SDGs was the result of a political process based on governments’ understanding of the importance of multifaceted sustainability where the ocean plays a fundamental role. He said: “For the first time we now have a global objective focusing on the ocean. However, there are some 169 targets throughout the 17 SDGs – ten of those alone in SDG 14 – which makes it challenging.”

“The IOC is the custodian agency for this SDG, which means that we monitor it and are responsible for reporting to the UN specifically with regard to two targets – 14.3 which concerns acidification, and target 14.A, which concerns increasing scientific knowledge, developing research capacity, and transferring marine technology, in order to improve ocean health.”

The IOC is one of three organisations that are explicitly mentioned in the founding text of the UN SDGs, along with the International Labour Organisation and the World Trade Organisation. In addition, it works with UN Environment to develop the eutrophication index, a critically important reporting element in SDG 14.1 concerning marine pollution in general, and covering nutrient pollution from land-based human activities. The IOC and UN Environment will also use this index to report to the UN on the acidification of the oceans (target 14.3). However, Dr Ryabinin explained that while it is of course important to report on the pH levels of the oceans, the responsibility for implementing interventions and approaches to tackle this issue lies elsewhere.

Ocean acidification is on the agenda because it is a significant effect of carbon emissions, and yet, as Dr Ryabinin told SEQ, there are other equally important issues, such as oxygenation, which do not make it onto the list of targets. “We have to report on what has been agreed politically,” he said. “But the scope of the problem and the scope of research and what needs to be done has to be much wider.”

Regarding the aforementioned implementation of actions to tackle challenges such as acidification, the amount of action and level of success varies. However, the political attention required to catalyse existing efforts is there. Indeed, Peter Thompson, the UN Secretary General Special Envoy on the Ocean who was the President of UN’s General Assembly when progress was being made in turning attention towards ocean health problems, has said that awareness is rising, and that there is political will to change the tide, but in terms of the objective parameters, things are not necessarily going in the right direction.

Dr Ryabinin expanded on this: “For example, carbon content in the atmosphere has already stably exceeded 400 ppm, which means that acidification is getting stronger. And while there has been some progress in area of aquaculture and fisheries management, for instance, at the same time in terms of the state of the environment not much progress is being made.

“Awareness is being created, however, and groups such as Friends of Ocean Action have been established, as well as a group under the UN which are uniting the people who do business on the ocean to try to change things. But the reality is that the situation we are in is a very bad one, and while there may be an awareness of the problems, bringing everyone together in order to do something about it is proving to be almost impossible.”

Oil spills

In addition to acidification (and other effects of climate change) the IOC also works to monitor the effects of other human activity-related impacts on the ocean environment, such as oil spills and microplastics.

Regarding the former of these, Dr Ryabinin explained that there are special areas which are organised through the IMO and inside those areas there are certain centres which may help in case of an oil spill. Dr Ryabinin has previously worked within this area himself, and he told SEQ: “For example, if there is an oil spill and we know the quality and other parameters of the oil, and we also know the parameters of the ocean and atmosphere, then we are able to predict where the spill will go.”

Taking the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (an industrial disaster considered to be the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, with the US government estimating the total discharge at 4.9 million barrels), Dr Ryabinin argued that there is a very clear need for more transparency so that such calculations can be made and thus the environmental impacts minimised. He said: “Transparency is not only needed in the first instance but also in the long term; in terms of the pollution, we need to know where the mass of oil goes. And this is also true for other similar substances that go into the ocean.

“It should also be noted that, at the global level, this kind of pollution occurs at a much higher level from non-accidental activities, especially when it comes to oil, and we should be more transparent about that as well. Indeed, most people know about the incidents that happen on oil company-owned infrastructure and the effects that can have. Yet, much of the oil pollution in the oceans actually comes from such things as the (previously) common practice of washing out oil tanks whilst at sea. Thankfully, in Europe there are now regulations in place to stop that from happening – and the regulation is very strong, with serious consequences for those who deliberately pollute the environment in this way.”

“Of course,” he added, “there are some areas in which it is not so easy to prevent harmful activities taking place, and these are the areas which require the most protection. Take the Arctic as an example: there are now two emerging shipping routes that cross into Arctic waters, and because of the harshness and fragility of the environment there, if something like an oil spill were to happen then its impact would be huge.”

There are some strong limitations on activities that can and cannot take place in the Arctic, but there is more to be done to ensure that the Arctic environment is protected.


The regulation designed to prevent the washing of oil tanks at sea and, indeed, the limiting of Arctic activities, is indicative of the progress that is being made in terms of oil spills and the pollution of the ocean environment by petrocarbons. However, when it comes to microplastics – a topical issue which has been covered by numerous news outlets around the world in recent months – this seems to be a wider societal issue and one that needs to be addressed in a more holistic way.

Dr Ryabinin explained that it was the UN’s Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Protection (GESAMP) who first brought the issue of microplastics to the attention of the world, and that, since then, much research has been done on the area to understand the nature and the mass of the plastic, and initiatives have also been established to remove some of the plastic from the ocean. He added: “We are now seeing positive consequences of bringing that issue to light, with many countries banning certain substances and even single use plastic. We also now know about the many ways that the plastic actually gets into the water, and we know the regions and the countries who are responsible for the majority of it.

“The science here is now quite well established, except perhaps for that which is required to understand the fate of the plastic. Indeed, the long-term impact of not only microplastics but also nanoplastics needs to be studied, and this is very complicated because it involves industry, fields such as chemistry, and research into ocean ecosystems.”

Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development

The United Nations’ Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) is on the horizon, and there is an increasing sense that the science of the future will be driven by societal demands. As such, for Dr Ryabinin, there is hope that there will be better support for ocean observations and more focused ocean science on the part of governments moving forward – and this could build on the data made available by the 2017 IOC report on global ocean science, which has outlined how much money is spent on ocean research. He argues that this is very small for such an important area, and is keen to work to raise these numbers.

Dr Ryabinin continued: “We now have a process to address the most glaring gaps in knowledge and technology, and we anticipate a design process that will take something of a top-down approach in seven key areas.” Those areas are:

  • Mapping of the ocean. Dr Ryabinin said that this will go beyond what is currently done in order to produce maps of ecosystems, human activities, and so on;
  • To complete the development of the global ocean observing system. According to Dr Ryabinin, this is already a quite meaningful system for the physical part of observations, but this doesn’t work optimally beyond depths of 2,000m, in the polar oceans, for biogeochemical, biological and ecosystem variables, meaning that this needs to
    be completed;
  • The science of ecosystems;
  • Data – in this domain, Dr Ryabinin hopes that by the end of the decade it will be much easier and more beneficial for stakeholders to observe and share data;
  • Coastal protection. The IOC runs a special system for tsunami warnings, but this has to be integrated into the civil protection systems. Dr Ryabinin added: “The Global Tsunami Early Warning System has to be supported by the preparedness of people, and the recent Tsunami in Indonesia demonstrates that this is currently not the case;
  • Co-ordination and co-operation with the Earth System science. Dr Ryabinin said: “We cannot facilitate or control or co-ordinate in the ocean sciences in isolation from other scientific actors; we must have good connections to all the research that is happening in adjacent domains;
  • Capacity development. Dr Ryabinin highlighted this final point as being of particular importance. This area included ensuring that the wider public is more aware of the important role of the ocean science and the ocean’s services to our daily lives. The IOC hopes to achieve this through the concept of ‘ocean literacy’.

These seven breakthroughs will occur proactively and will change the technological situation in the ocean sciences, enabling much better coastal zone management, co-ordination of offshore activities through maritime special planning, and facilitating adaptation and mitigation efforts in the face of climate change.

Dr Ryabinin told SE: “This is a two way process, and our role is to make sure that all these elements, top-down and bottom-up, are generating value. We will work together because everything that we would like to design requires support, but that support comes from those people who benefit from the downstream use but they may not necessarily understand that benefit, meaning that we have to make it explicit, which is very difficult.

“We hope that by the end of 2030 the ocean sciences will be much better supported (hopefully we will see a dramatic increase above the 0.4-4% that is currently allocated by national governments for the ocean research within their budgets for ‘natural science).”

Dr Vladimir Ryabinin
Executive Secretary
Oceanographic Commission
Tweet @IocUNESCO

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