Our oceans represent our single best opportunity to avert the pending climate crisis. However, oceans are suffering and underperforming as a result of human development. The warning signs are flashing red with rising ocean temperatures, new troubling migration patterns and dying underwater ecosystems. Further, the Arctic is melting before our very eyes, raising sea levels and threatening coastal communities.
While our oceans are suffering, they are not powerless in this epic battle for the health of our planet. We need to stop looking at our oceans as defeated, victims in this fight, but rather as young, still developing fighters that with a bit of training — and the right tools could ultimately be victorious. It’s our oceans with their amazing resilience and fighting spirit that may turn back this crisis and rescue our planet.
But in order to realize the full potential of our oceans, we need to see our oceans. The oceans cover 70 percent of the planet but most of those waters are still unexplored, unobserved and unmapped. While we are discovering more each day about the oceans ability to fight combat climate change, the truth is that there is still so much we don’t understand. We know that oceans have absorbed 90 percent of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions and without them our average world temperature would be 122 degrees Fahrenheit by some estimates, making our planet uninhabitable, but we don’t know how effectively oceans will continue to absorb carbon dioxide.
A 2021 MIT study indicated that we may have five years less time than predicted to cut emissions sufficiently to meet the Paris Agreement targets for less than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. This sort of lack of understanding could have catastrophic consequences.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We have the tools now to see and understand our oceans more clearly, more deeply.
The Blue Economy — which includes fisheries, transportation, offshore energy, tourism and more — is growing at a breath-taking pace. Within in this blue economy boom are some exciting developments in BlueTech; specifically in maritime robotics enhanced with high sensitivity sensors, computer vision, cloud computing and artificial intelligence. These very capable new drones, many of which are powered by wind, wave and solar are making it possible to see more of our oceans. Furthermore, these unmanned vessels don’t get seasick or cold in the extreme conditions that our oceans so often present. Instead, they soldier on, looking, listening and recording what our oceans are trying to tell us.
While there have been exciting innovations in this space, there has yet to be a united effort to gather this disparate data on a scale significant enough to truly understand our oceans. It is this level of knowledge we need to make informed decisions to coach our amazing young fighters, our oceans, to combat the threat which endangers our planet.
For this level of understanding, we need to bring together a vast global network of sensors, stretching from seafloor to the ocean’s surface to space, and across millions of miles. This global network would include unmanned surface vehicles, subsea sensors, satellites, ships, buoys and drones. It would build on the assets we already have and create an interconnected mesh of immediate data and communication fused together with AI algorithms, computer vision and acoustic analysis technologies powered by machine learning. Ultimately bringing together innovations and nations to create a global advanced ocean management platform — the “digital ocean.”
A digital ocean would provide the knowledge needed to enable our oceans to not only continue being the lifeblood of our planet but enhance our ability to deal with this climate crisis. According to the World Resources Institute, ocean-based solutions could close the emission gap by 21 percent. These solutions include renewable energy production, new carbon sequestration strategies, optimizing fisheries and aquaculture as well as improved ocean-based transport. Better ocean knowledge is the cornerstone of these capabilities, enabling us to leverage the ocean’s amazing ability to erase humans past mistakes and chart a new healthier path for our planet.
The creation of the digital ocean could be done in a sustainable way, powered by the ocean itself through deployment of millions of buoys, drones and sensors that derive their energy from wind, wave and solar. Relatively inexpensive and easy to deploy, the sheer numbers launched could help see more of the previously unexplored ocean. There is quality in quantity as the massive scale deployment would provide a treasure trove of data, to feed the data hungry machine learning and artificial intelligent tools to ultimately make deployment of larger more precise assets more targeted for greater return on investment.
Who could undertake such a massive and important expedition? This effort is more than any single nation could undertake; it requires an alliance approach.
With its 30 Allies and over 1 trillion dollars in annual defense expenditures dedicated to the collective defense of their nearly one billion citizens, NATO is uniquely positioned to lead such an effort. NATO has the resources and maritime proficiency to unite and lead these efforts, to create a digital ocean ultimately turn our young fighters into a climate champion. Such an effort would breathe life into NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg comments at the recent White House Leaders Climate Summit, “NATO must set the gold standard on understanding, adapting to and mitigating the security impacts of climate change.”
Whether or not NATO will lead such an ambitious effort remains to be seen. But if not NATO, someone must bring together a global network of sensors to truly see our oceans. A failure to act now, will result in the continued victimization of our oceans at a time when we need them most. The crisis is upon us, but so is the solution. We just need to see our oceans more clearly, deeply, comprehensively in order to realize their full potential to fight and win the climate battle. A digital ocean will help us do that more affordably, sustainably and effectively.
Julie Angus is the CEO and co-founder of Open Ocean Robotics, a marine drone company that is transforming how we understand and protect our oceans. She is a leading adventurer, bestselling author, scientist and entrepreneur, who was awarded National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year award when she became the first woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean from mainland to mainland.
Michael D. Brasseur co-founded and served as the first director of the NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation & Coordination Cell (MUSIC^2), which is the key integrator and accelerator for the NATO MUS Initiative which aims to enhance the Alliance’s capabilities through manned/unmanned teaming. Brasseur has commanded two U.S. Navy warships, served on four others and sailed the world’s oceans with friends and allies. His views are presented in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of any government or agency.
Angus and Brasseur both serve on the NATO Maritime Unmanned Systems Innovation Advisory Board (IAB), providing advice on how best to improve, accelerate and sca