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Mapping the deep: A new age of exploration

The new developments in mapping and analysis — paired with emerging consciousness about our impact on the environment — provide the knowledge we need to sustain life on both land and sea. 

Esri Ocean Health Index

Did you know that we have far more accurate maps of the moon, Mars and Venus than we do of our own ocean? It wasn’t until 2017 that we were able to help advance the exploration of the world’s ocean with the launch of the world’s first 3D digital map.

For the first time, the new developments in mapping and analysis — paired with emerging consciousness about our impact on the environment — provide the knowledge we need to sustain life on both land and sea. 

A profoundly new geospatial consciousness is being propelled by new technologies, principally location intelligence, infused with artificial intelligence and turned into a new generation of digital maps. Together, they transform our sense of place. 

In every previous ocean map before 3D cartography, we had seen primarily the ocean’s surface. We had measured sea surface temperature. We had tracked movements of wind over that surface. Very few human beings had ever seen more than random snippets of what lies between the surface of the ocean and its floor.

But seeing the ocean in its true depth and complexity is exactly what we need, in order to formulate a response to accelerating climate change and population demands. It’s what we need if we hope to reduce the risk of critically damaging or exhausting marine resources, if we hope to preserve the world’s fisheries or to anticipate when a warm current will turn into a devastating hurricane. It’s what we need to stop the ocean from becoming more acidic, damaging coral reefs and other marine ecosystems and causing fish stocks to decline or shift to far less hospitable waters. It’s what we need if we hope to tackle the growing continents of plastic, wastes and other pollutants threatening marine life. 

We can think of the ocean today as a critical solution for, not just victim of, climate change — through such renewable energy sources as wind, waves and tides.

And, of course, the ocean is at the center of global warming. It’s the planet’s climate engine — absorbing 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, capturing about 90 percent of the additional heat generated from those emissions and generating about 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. The ocean is the largest biosphere on the planet, home to 80 percent of life on Earth. We can think of the ocean today as a critical solution for, not just victim of, climate change — through such renewable energy sources as wind, waves and tides.

The 3D digital ocean sorts global water masses into 37 distinct volumetric regions, known as Ecological Marine Units (EMUs), defined by the properties most likely to drive ecosystem health and recovery: temperature; salinity; oxygen; and nutrient levels. They include the deep, cold, low-oxygen waters that encompass roughly one-quarter of the world’s ocean, as well as others that are much smaller, such as the upper waters of the Red Sea or the estuaries of several Northern Hemisphere rivers. 

The mapping and characterization of the EMUs represent a new spatial framework for organizing and understanding the ocean’s physical, chemical and biological properties and processes. They are found at all the ocean’s known depth zones: the epipelagic (0 to 200 meters); mesopelagic (200 to 1,000 meters); bathypelagic (1,000 to 4,000 meters); and abyssopelagic (more than 4,000 meters deep). They are derived from 52 million global measurements of those key properties, gathered over a 50-year period. Multivariate statistical methods clustered the data, and the EMUs then were verified by leading oceanographers. Think of them as atomic elements for understanding the world’s ocean as a complex system of systems. 

The 3D basemap and underlying data, available to all, also makes it easy to overlay data from any domain, such as fisheries or shipping. Importantly, not only scientists, environmental managers, fishers and shippers, but ordinary "citizen scientists" can navigate the ocean virtually and observe what is happening to a wide range of its parameters, such as salinity and oxygen. For the first time, anyone can explore from the surface to the ocean floor. 

Along with parallel "atomic elements" for land and coastal regions, we now have a kind of periodic table for ecosystems. It enables us to analyze, map, predict and intervene into the emergent life of land, ocean, freshwater and the planet as a whole, marking a major step in the evolution of a new "hard" science — the science of ecosystems. 


NatureServe's map on biodiversity shows that 90 percent of Americans live within 30 miles of an area of high biodiversity importance.

It arrives not a moment too soon. Ecosystems are key to urgent research and policy questions — questions which have no clear answers. What are the impacts of climate change on ecosystems? Which ecosystems are vulnerable to climate and other disturbances (invasive species or land and sea use)? Which ecosystems should be prioritized for conservation? What are the economic and social values of ecosystem goods and services? What role do ecosystems play in global food and environmental security? Fundamental knowledge of the types and locations of global ecosystems is necessary to address these questions, yet that knowledge is generally lacking.

Advanced location intelligence for the world’s water ecosystems is empowering a broad range of initiatives, including:

  • Location intelligence systems created by Innovasea help select prime locations for responsible fish farming. Farmers can reduce overfishing, encourage aquatic ecosystem restoration and help endangered species recover. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the global aquaculture industry is pivotal to food security, as global population grows to an estimated 9.7 billion humans by 2050.
  • The Pacific Ocean Accounting Portal spatially integrates public data about the protection, rehabilitation, restoration and governance of the Pacific Ocean, capturing its real-time condition. It employs the System of Environmental Economic Accounting, from which gross domestic product and other economic measures are derived.
  • The Map of Biodiversity Importance, or MOBI, is a comprehensive set of habitat models for more than 2,200 at-risk species, both flora and fauna, in the contiguous United States. It features AI "predictor layers" that anticipate species viability based on both development plans and environmental factors. 
  • The National Water Model, run by NOAA and driven by about 7,000 observational measurements, hourly precipitation forecasts and landscape characteristics, estimates water flow on 2.7 million stream reaches across the continental United States. Whenever there is a major event — from a broken dam to a hurricane — users can model what the flooding would be within minutes of getting the data. 
  • Seabed 2030, a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation of Japan, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) and International Hydrographic Organization, aims to remedy by 2030 a longstanding and dangerous gap in our understanding of the planet, that less than 20 percent of the world ocean floor has been mapped in detail.  
  • The Ocean Health Index annually assesses ocean health by looking at the social, ecological and economic benefits that oceans provide. It is based on more than 100 global datasets, which serve as the foundation for Ocean Health Hubs, which display these global datasets with local data and speed nations’ and regions’ progress on establishing ocean policies and setting priorities.

As we begin to think about what lies on the other side of COVID-19 and returning to normal, it is time to reassess what we were doing as stewards of the earth. As we enter the United Nations' Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, we can do so knowing we have it within our power to turn the tide.

Geospatial consciousness — a "sense of place" — is more than a subjective feeling. It’s an evolving science that enables us to nurture and sustain the world’s places so that they in turn nurture and sustain us. 

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