Sustainable oceans series: using data to save our oceans

World Ocean Day, celebrated every year on 8 June, is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of oceans to our lives and livelihoods, and the environmental impact of human activity on oceans.

The University of Bergen (Norway), United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) SDG Hub for Goal 14: Life below water, is a center of scholarship, research and innovation for the preservation of oceans for the future of mankind.

In this series commemorating World Oceans Day, the University of Bergen explores various aspects of sustainable oceans and how universities can contribute to the stewardship of this natural resource. In this article, the university explores the use of data management to combat ocean acidification.

According to UNESCO, “the ocean absorbs approximately 26% of the CO2 added to the atmosphere from human activities each year, greatly reducing the impact of this greenhouse gas on the climate. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, carbonic acid is formed. It is this chemical reaction that leads to ocean acidification.”

When the amount of carbon dioxide increases in the oceans and the pH level becomes more acidic, it makes it difficult for marine life to survive, for example making it more difficult for them to grow their protective shells and skeletons. The consequences of ocean acidification extend up the food chain and may deeply affect economic activities such as fisheries, aquaculture and even tourism, and ocean acidification can have a negative impact on food security and livelihoods for people who depend on oceans and waterways for food and jobs.

According to the US National Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, over the past 200 years the world’s seas have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon from human activities. Currently, that’s a worldwide average of 15 pounds per person a week, enough to fill a coal train long enough to encircle the equator 13 times every year. CO₂ concentrations are now higher than at any time during the past 800,000 years, and the current rate of increase is likely unprecedented in history. Ocean acidification has been called climate change’s evil twin because oceans absorb CO2 like a sponge and once they become saturated the carbon dioxide they can’t absorb is left in the atmosphere, leading to a rise in temperature on land.

To address this critical issue related to conservation of oceans and the marine ecosystem, in 2005 Benjamin Pfeil, an engineer and head of the University of Bergen’s Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, started to specialize in data management for marine biogeochemistry data. His group reports specifically on ocean acidification and this directly supports science on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 14.3.

“Direct data access is key to understanding complex relations, patterns and principles,” said Mr. Pfeil. This data helps to change policies currently in place by incorporating science into the development, implementation and assessment of such policies and to better inform decision makers. The team of Mr. Pfeil and other laboratories have collected global carbon data that is reported to the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange, established by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.

This is an elaborate system with data flow systems based on globally set guidelines, including being able to compare ocean development in different parts of the world, which is then coordinated in the Global Ocean Observing Systems (GOOS), a collaboration created for ocean observations. “One of our tasks is to develop quality software to improve automatization of the flow of data” he explained. Such automatization allows a better management and understanding of that data.

As the world approaches the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, which kicks off in 2021, the need for this data is stronger than ever. Work is being conducted with the University of Bergen’s SDG Bergen Science Advice and Ocean Sustainability Bergen to provide data and research-based knowledge for the decade, including a contribution to the SDG Bergen Policy Briefs with recommendations for target 14.3.

UN Academic Impact, 8 July 2020. Article.

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