Ocean science for sustainable development: Facts and figures

Data collected by monitoring buoys inform development policy Copyright: Flickr/d0ug&r0byn

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Sarah Grimes explores why we need good ocean monitoring, how to get it, and why it still fails Small Island Developing States.

Oceans are a critically important component of the Earth system, supporting ecosystem and human health. They regulate the weather and climate; are essential for producing freshwater; and soak up carbon. They also provide food and other resources, trade and migration routes.

Ocean science and monitoring helps us better understand the ocean and climate system, and make better decisions for sustainable development. We need this knowledge more than ever as we recognise how developing countries relying on ocean resources for survival are threatened by changing climate and ocean conditions.

Box 1. Oceans: benefits and threats to living organisms [1-9]

Oceans cover 71 per cent of the Earth. They contain 96 per cent of the Earth's living space, and 80 per cent of living organisms. 

The benefits:

  • Ocean plants produce almost half of the oxygen we breathe.
  • Oceans carry 90 per cent of world trade. 
  • Oceans hold an estimated 80 per cent of the Earth's mineral resources.
  • Oceans provide 60 per cent of dietary protein in tropical developing countries.
  • Fisheries support 170 million jobs.
  • Marine and coastal tourism, aquaculture and other uses of marine environments (excluding fisheries) provide livelihoods for millions more people.
  • Around 90 per cent of the energy from warming of the Earth system has been stored in the ocean over recent decades.

The threats:

  • Sixty per cent of the world's major marine ecosystems — that sustain the world's populations — have been significantly degraded or are unsustainably used.
  • Mean sea surface temperatures have risen by about 0.7 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years, and are likely to increase by over 3 degrees Celsius in some ocean regions by the end of this century.
  • Warm ocean temperatures are the driving force behind tropical cyclones and monsoons.
  • Models estimate that the oxygen content of oceans will decline over the next century.
  • Oceans could be 150 per cent more acidic by 2100.
  • An estimated 90 per cent of coral reefs will be threatened by 2030.

Ocean science history

In the early 1800s, ocean scientists used simple instruments and nets lowered from boats to measure ocean conditions or sample marine species. This initial ocean science was linked directly to European expansion and colonisation, which was driven by — and then fuelled — demand for fish and accessible trade routes across the world.

Despite earlier exploration, scientific progress remained fairly slow until the 1900s. Our capacity to understand the ocean improved after 1945 with technology initially developed during World War II (SONAR to detect underwater vessels, for example), and then after the war as countries turned their efforts to research. But still, little was known about major oceans such as the Indian and South Pacific, even by the late 1990s.

The ocean world, once only imagined, has now become more visible even to the microscopic level. Significant advances in modern technology, especially in the past 30 years, have opened up the depths of the ocean to observations that were impossible previously. Techniques such as remote sensing, acoustic monitoring, remotely operated underwater vessels (ROVs) and robotic free-flowing floats are being used to measure ocean temperature, salinity, the strength and direction of currents, and levels of plankton and acidification — to name a few.

Even so, much of the ocean remains unexplored in spite of our growing recognition of its role in sustainable development. Since the early 1990s, governments and researchers in both developed and developing countries have made strong commitments to ongoing ocean monitoring — especially of physical measures such as temperature and salinity and, more recently, the biological components.

This was prompted by the Second World Climate Conference (Geneva 1990) and the first UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit), held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That summit acknowledged the lack of information on (natural, or human-induced) environmental change within the basic Earth systems — including ocean, climate and terrestrial systems.

Twenty years ago, the Earth Summit also acknowledged that without long-term sustained monitoring of the Earth's systems, policymakers struggle to make useful and informed decisions for sustainable development. This led to unanimous agreement to launch a coordinated and sustained global observations network, which included the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) that has oversight in facilitating cooperation between countries in monitoring across all oceans and seas.   

Ocean science and sustainable development

Sustainable development must include coastal and marine management, especially where countries rely heavily on marine resources for food, transport and trade — as in the South East Asia and Pacific region. This is especially relevant in Small Island Developing States (SIDS) where most people live in coastal habitats. So governments and aid organisations need a good understanding of the role of ocean science data as the 'backbone' for appropriate management (see Box 2).

Box 2 Ocean-related monitoring activities, and benefits for health and development

Physical ocean parameters measured

Examples of monitoring technology (see definitions below)

Examples of areas where data improve knowledge

How monitoring contributes to sustainable development

Fisheries (open ocean and coastal)

Temperature; salinity; currents; water clarity; plankton species in a habitat (assemblages); human pathogens in water; water chemistry; harmful algal blooms; eutrophication and oxygen depletion

Argo; gliders; RAMA; TAO; SOOPS; CTDs; XBTs; continuous plankton recorders; individual monitoring buoys; satellites

Ocean currents and general circulation patterns. Water clarity and chemistry

Potential sources of fish food (indicated by plankton assemblages)

Presence of human pathogens or pollution sources

Improved forecasting of where fish stocks will be, based on physical conditions — for example, current direction/circulation, and optimum temperature and salinity.

Coastal fisheries and aquaculture stocks often depend on very specific water conditions, and the data can help in ensuring optimum water quality for survival, reproduction and production of healthy stock.

Data on probable location of fish stock, based on sources of fish food, leads to improved catches and profits.

Fish stocks can become depleted or unfit for consumption as a result of human pathogens in the water. Water quality monitoring can identify pathogens and sources of pollution, informing policies to manage risks. 

Climate: short-term variability and predicted climate change

Ocean temperatures and currents

Argo; gliders; RAMA; TAO; CTDs; XBTs; satellites

Ocean and sea surface temperatures and heights

Ocean circulation patterns

Strength and direction of currents

More accurate weather forecasts, better understanding of likely climate variability and change. For example, the TAO moored buoys provide data on ocean temperature and surface wind that can improve forecasting of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and early warning gives communities in the Pacific Islands a chance to plan ahead for conditions such as drought (e.g. by adjusting timing of planting crops).

Climate change impacts

Sea level heights; ocean acidification; ocean temperatures; currents and circulation

Tide gauges; Argo; RAMA; TAO; SOOPS; CTDs; XBTs; satellites

Sea surface and ocean temperatures

Ocean circulation patterns

Strength and direction of currents

Sea level heights

Acidification levels

Improved forecasting of climate change impacts and planning for adaptation. For example, information on how trends in sea level change over time inform construction of coastal settlements. This is especially useful in low-lying coral atolls.  

Flooding and storm surge (generated by tropical cyclones and storms)

Ocean and sea temperatures; currents

Sea level (through wave and tide heights)

Argo; gliders; RAMA; TAO; CTDs; tide gauges; XBTs; satellites

Wave heights at sea and on the coast

Predicted zones of coastal inundation, storm surge

Predicted rainfall and areas vulnerable to river or estuary flooding

Improved forecasting of the timing, strength and path of tropical cyclones, monsoons and storms — and their impacts, such as storm surges. This information gives early warning to communities on land and at sea, allowing them to mitigate loss of life and damage to property. 


Sea level (through wave and tide heights)

Tsunameter buoys; tide gauges; seismic equipment

Predicted height, location, impact and timing of a tsunami wave at the coast

Predicted water inundation on land

The predictions are part of an early warning system that allows local coastal populations to move inland or to higher ground (or if in a boat – head out to sea).

Water quality for ecosystem health

Temperature; salinity; plankton; coral reef health (bleaching); acidification

Argo; gliders; CTDs; XBTs; continuous plankton recorders; Individual monitoring buoys; satellites

Areas of visible and predicted bleaching (related to warm water temperatures)

Presence of pollution sources

Oxygen and eutrophication levels

Monitoring water quality in coastal areas (coral reef ecosystems, for example) helps protect biodiversity, food sources and tourism. Warmer temperatures of the coastal water can lead to coral bleaching; pollution, acidification and changes in water chemistry can damage coral reefs and their economic potential. Water quality monitoring helps local authorities identify problems, promote conservation and protection measures, and put in place regulations to control sources of pollution in the longer term.

Water quality for public health

Temperature; salinity; waterborne pathogens (e.g. E-coli bacteria)

CTDs; XBTs; individual monitoring buoys

Water temperature indicates optimum conditions for bacterial growth

Presence of human pathogens or pollution sources

Indicators of flushing patterns and movement (or settling) of water with high pathogen levels

These data warn of poor water quality; help identify areas where the water is unfit for human use; and allow management authorities to regulate water quality effectively.

Definitions of Ocean Technology

Argo: (see Box 3)

AUVs: Autonomous underwater vehicles are essentially remote-controlled robots that can be tailored to meet the needs of the user. For ocean science purposes they may contain technologies such as sensors for depth and sonar, which are used to record ocean conditions as they move through the water. Argo floats and gliders are examples of AUVs. [10]

Continuous plankton recorders: A monitoring programme measuring phytoplankton and zooplankton at various ocean depths. Plankton are sensitive to changing ocean conditions and therefore indicate environmental changes or variations on food supplies. [11]

CTDs – Conductivity, Temperature and Depth Sensors: These record physical properties of ocean water such as temperature, salinity and density. Once collected, the data are transmitted in real time back to a central area (e.g. on ship or land). Traditionally, a CTD instrument is lowered overboard from a ship at a depth up to 2000 metres and for a 2-5 hour period. More recently, CTDs have been used on autonomous monitoring equipment (such as the Argo floats), where observations are transmitted via satellite back to a central database on land. Other instruments can be attached to a CTD to measure additional parameters; for example, oxygen sensors to measure the dissolved oxygen content of the water. [12]

Glider: a type of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) [see definition above] that is driven by a variable buoyancy system instead of a traditional propeller. [10]

Individual monitoring buoys: These are tailored to monitoring needs — usually below the water, and at the ocean surface. They often include instruments to measure wind speed and direction, air and ocean temperature and chlorophyll concentration. [13]

RAMA – The Research Moored Array for the African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction: A moored buoy array that advances forecasting and research for monsoons, placed in the historically data-sparse Indian Ocean. [14]

Satellites: Satellites allow a global view and measurement of certain ocean conditions. An example is the JASON satellite that can measure accurately the height of sea surface, which allows ocean scientists to calculate the direction and speed of ocean currents and ultimately improve understanding of weather and climate conditions. [12]

SOOPS: Ships of Opportunity is a programme that allows commercial, merchant or smaller vessels to volunteer to obtain oceanographic data as they carry out their core business at sea. SOOPS may carry instruments such as CTDs, XBTs and continuous plankton recorders. The data collected are usually made available via the GOOS for free and public use. [15]

TAO/TRITON – Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Project: Since the 1990s, approximately 70 moored ocean buoys placed in the tropical areas of the Pacific Ocean have produced real-time oceanographic and meteorological data transmitted to land via the Argos satellite system. [16]

Tide gauges: Usually located on the coast, these devices can detect changes in the height of coastal sea water relative to a standard level position on land (datum). Changes in global sea levels over much of the past century have been measured by tidal gauges. [17]

Tsunameter buoys: A deep ocean pressure sensor that can detect (to the millimetre) variations in ocean height in the deep sea — and therefore the presence of a tsunami wave generated far from the coast. It is integral to tsunami early-warning systems. [18]  

XBTs – Expendable Bathythermographs: These allow ocean scientists to record measurements of ocean temperature at a depth of up to 1500 metres and usually over a 24-hour period. Similar to CTDs, they are usually dropped over the side of a ship. Temperature data are transmitted back to the ship via a wire cable. [19]

Global observations

The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) is an international programme led by UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). It is a coordinated framework set up to guide countries around the world as they establish permanent ocean observation platforms such as tide gauges and ocean buoys, which collect ocean data from as many regions as possible.

Regional Alliances help to put these systems in place. For example, the Indian Ocean GOOS is made up of ocean and climate scientists as well as government officials from 10 countries within the Indian Ocean Rim. They collaborate to collect data from oceans and seas in the region, which are then stored in central depositories that are freely available for anyone to access.

As part of its service, the GOOS often processes the raw data into information products that are then available to countries around the world — for example, models of ocean sea surface temperature in the Indian Ocean can help refine forecasting for tropical cyclones. And trends in coastal sea level change across the South Pacific over the years can help identify the Pacific island countries that need urgent coastal adaptation strategies.

Both the raw data and these products inform environmental decision–making. They can also be used to identify where countries need capacity building in how to monitor the ocean, or how to use the collected information. And they can identify new research areas too.

Box 3: Robotic Ocean Buoys – the Argo Programme

The Argo Programme is one of the flagship ocean observation platforms of the GOOS. It is a pioneering endeavour to gather data, such as on salinity and temperature, from the upper ocean (from sea level to 2000m depth). A global array of monitoring equipment — or Argo floats — collects the data. Since 2000, more than 3400 floats have been deployed.

The Argo data let scientists characterise the upper ocean and patterns of ocean climate variability, including heat storage. They can also be used as starting points — and in combination with other oceanographic data — in ocean and coupled ocean-atmosphere forecasting models, so making more accurate predictions of seasonal to decadal climate variability.

For example, Argo data have been used to help refine predictions of El Niño and La Niña events, and their effects on communities in Small Island Developing States in the Pacific region. More accurate forecasting and understanding makes island communities better able to prepare for climate conditions that directly damage their fisheries and agriculture, and for natural disasters such as tropical cyclones.

As part of the GOOS service to countries, all Argo data are publicly available very quickly (in 'near-real time') and in a quality-controlled format within 6 months of collection.  

See below for a video that explains the Argo project and how floats work:

The Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) is a more recent GOOS programme, launched specifically to collect information on the chemistry and biology of the ocean. These data are then integrated with the physical ocean data, and an interactive interface allows users to explore how marine species use the sea. OBIS was originally part of the Census of Marine Life (CoML), a ten-year initiative set up to collect scientific information about the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life across the world's oceans — from the largest organism to the smallest microbe.  In total, 38,000 species of marine organisms have been included, of which more than 1600 new species were discovered from 2000 to 2010. More than 5000 new species are still awaiting identification. [1]

Also set up after the Earth Summit in 1992, the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) focuses on gathering the world's climate data and links closely to the GOOS in that ocean observations are also collected to inform climate forecasting and services. The Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM) helps collect, process and then provide marine and climate data from both the GCOS and GOOS.  

Much more to do

Twenty years after the GOOS was established, much of the ocean remains unexplored and many ocean characteristics are still unknown. Limited information can lead to poor decisions that limit countries' capacity to develop without damaging the marine environment and the health of local populations, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Developing regions, especially SIDS, face big challenges in establishing, collecting and processing ocean observations over the long term. Generally, SIDS and developing coastal nations have limited funding and human resources to buy equipment, establish monitoring, and repair kit damaged in storms or by piracy. Often, there is limited technical and human capacity to store, access and process the ocean data that do exist — or to design new monitoring technologies. Recent advances in ocean science techniques, such as remotely operated underwater vessels, tend to be used by — and for — developed countries.

Good governance at the country level, as well as support from developed countries with funding and technical capacity, are essential for even modest progress in collecting ocean data. GOOS and OBIS, together with regional alliances, have set a positive precedent for how developed and developing countries can cooperate in collecting and using ocean data. But much more needs to be done.

Focus on the Pacific

The Outlook Report on the State of the Marine Biodiversity in the Pacific Islands Region, produced for the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme in 2010, clearly shows there is insufficient information on fisheries stocks, nutrient loads and water temperatures — to name but a few topics. [6] Governments in the region face great challenges in making informed marine management and policy decisions for sustainable development. The challenge is greatest for SIDS in isolated areas of a vast ocean — most of the Pacific Islands. Without long term monitoring they are unable to spot environmental change over time.

The Australian and US governments have helped through their contribution to establishing the Pacific Islands' GOOS, which is building a platform for coordinated ocean observations across the Pacific islands region. As well as monitoring ocean and coastal parameters, PI-GOOS helps train people in Pacific island countries. Through these opportunities they learn more about how oceans affect sustainable development; appropriate monitoring techniques for local and remote areas; and how to process data so it can be used to inform sustainable marine management.

PI-GOOS provides IT equipment and runs training workshops. For example, the Pacific Islands Marine Data Training Workshop, held in Fiji in 2008, brought together Pacific Islander professionals from the fisheries, environment, meteorological and climate sectors to learn about ocean data and products already available and being generated from ocean and coastal observation platforms in their region.

The Argo contribution to developing an ocean and climate science curriculum (SEREAD) also comes under the umbrella of PI-GOOS. The programme teaches young people how the oceans and climate affect sustainable development in their region, and raises awareness about protecting the marine environment and using marine resources sustainably. It uses education material that is directly relevant to tropical Pacific Island settings.

There are other opportunities too. The international Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO) has joined with the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR) to offer fellowships that enable early-career scientists, technicians or graduate students from developing countries (not just the Pacific region) visit a developed country oceanographic institution for up to three months, for training on any chosen aspect of oceanographic observation, analysis and interpretation.  

Looking ahead to Rio+20

These capacity-building activities are just some examples of how commitments from the Earth Summit and from the development of the GOOS can improve knowledge of the oceans for sustainable development.  

But despite the recent efforts in ocean observations and monitoring, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) — 20 years after the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 — sees the Earth's ecosystems pushed to the brink.

The 'blue economy' and ocean issues will be a focus theme at Rio +20, alongside other ocean management issues including climate change, ocean acidification, marine biodiversity loss, overfishing and pollution (see Box 4). The conference is an ideal opportunity to review progress on commitments to ocean monitoring and GOOS, and to set the agenda for monitoring, management and sustainable development in the next 20 years.

The challenge will be to devise practical actions for developed and developing countries that address both the gaps and limitations from previous commitments, as well as new and emerging challenges. Progress has been slow for several reasons, including conflicting political priorities and insufficient institutional capacity. Other obstacles, especially for developing countries, include the severe limitations in human, financial, technological and educational capacity. And as noted in a blueprint preparation document for the Rio conference, there is a perception that fully implementing ocean monitoring and management measures will mean trade-offs and cut-backs to other pillars of sustainability (see Box 4). [5]

Developed countries will need to lead the way, and share new technologies to help less developed nations achieve targets for integrated ocean and ecosystem management. Practical actions need to be backed up with a strong and united commitment to sustain ocean observations. This is imperative for informed sustainable development policy, particularly for a 'blue economy'. Good ocean governance and decision-making for sustainable development needs timely and accurate ocean data.

Box 4. Rio +20 – Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability

Since the original Earth Summit in 1992, the world has made considerable progress in marine and coastal management issues.

  • Almost two thirds of the GOOS is now established.
  • Ecosystem-based, integrated coastal and marine management has progressed via the Large Marine Ecosystem Program, and guidelines for ecosystem based management of aquaculture and fisheries have been developed.
  • The 'Assessment of Assessments', established by decision of the UN General Assembly and launched in 2009, provided a new process for reporting and assessing the state of the marine environment.
  • New agreements have been established to protect threatened fish stocks (including via Regional Fisheries Management Organisations).
  • Substantial investment has increased capacity-building initiatives for SIDS.
  • Several new international treaties have been set in place to help protect the marine environment, for example from international shipping.

However, the Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability [6] reminds us that only a little over 1 per cent of the ocean is protected. Particularly, progress has been slow in meeting commitments to: restore fish stocks to sustainable levels; reduce marine pollution from land-based sources; reduce aquatic invasive and hypoxic (dead) zones; reduce marine biodiversity loss; and tackle coastal habitat degradation.

Issues emerging over the past 20 years include:

  • Increased nutrient enrichment leading to habitat loss;
  • Lack of ocean-based renewable energy use;
  • Threats to coral reefs, especially in response to increased ocean acidification and warming;
  • Increased marine debris (especially plastics); and
  • Lack of systematic ocean data exchange between countries.

This paints a bleak picture where human impact has increased the risk of food insecurity (especially in the fisheries and aquaculture industries).

Rio+20 will be an opportunity for the world to come together and work out realistic ways to achieve commitments through better ocean data gathering, cooperation between countries, improved legal frameworks and improved capacity building. But the proposed objectives and goals, intended to help countries' transition to a blue-green economy, require a combination of interconnected physical, behavioural and institutional changes. Countries urgently need to cooperate for successful outcomes.

Sarah Grimes is programme manager at the Perth Regional Programme Office of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in Australia. She has contributed to Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) activities for the Pacific and Indian oceans.


This article is part of a Spotlight on Ocean science for sustainable development.


[1] Ausubel, J. et al (eds.) First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery (Census of Marine Life Secretariat, 2010)
[2] Bernal, P. For the ocean. In: Holland, G. and Pugh, D. (eds.) Troubled Waters: Ocean Science and Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2010)
[3] Holland, G. and Pugh, D. (eds.) Troubled Waters: Ocean Science and Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2010)

[4] Hot, Sour and Breathless – Ocean under stress: How is the biggest ecosystem on Earth faring in the lead up to Rio+20  [810kB]. (2011)
[5] IOC/UNESCO, et al. A Blueprint for Ocean and Coastal Sustainability [2.24MB]. (IOC/UNESCO, 2011)
[6] Kinch, J. et al. Outlook Report on the State of the Marine Biodiversity in the Pacific Islands Region. (SPREP, 2010)
[7] Kullenberg, G. Ocean Science:An Overview.In: Holland, G. and Pugh, D. (eds.) Troubled Waters: Ocean Science and Governance (Cambridge University Press, 2010)
[8] UNEP. Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication — a synthesis for policy makers [3.08MB] . (UNEP, 2011)
[9] Oceans could be 150% more acidic by 2100 (RTCC, 2012)
[10] Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 2012)
[11] The CPR Survey (SAHFOS, 2010)
[12] Ocean Instruments(Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 2012)
[13] Water Buoy Monitoring Systems (FONDRIEST Environmental, 2011)
[14] McPhaden, M. et al.RAMA –
The Research Moored Array for the African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction. American Meteorological Society Journal 90, 459–480 (2009)
[15] Ship of Opportunity programme (JCOMMOPS, 2012)
[16] Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Project(PMEL, 2012)
[17] Tide Gauge Sea Level (Colorado University Sea Level Research Group, 2011)
[18] IOC/UNESCO and WMO Data Buoy Co-operation Panel International Tsunameter Partnership: Ocean Data Buoy Vandalism — Incidence, Impact and Responses [1.92MB] (2011)
[19] Upper Ocean Thermal Centre(NOAA, 2012)
[20] The Argo Programme (Argo, 2012)