The Future of Seabed 2030: From Vision to Action

As 2019 comes to a close, we reflect not only on our accomplishments throughout the year, but also the exciting challenges that lie ahead, particularly in the field of hydrography. In late October 2019, Rear Adm. Shep Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey and chair of the International Hydrographic Organization Council, delivered the keynote address at the Seabed 2030 Summit at the Royal Society in London, encouraging participation in the grand global challenge to map the world’s seafloor by the year 2030. The following is a video and transcript of this presentation.

Video transcript:

A whole generation of ocean scientists, explorers and leaders have repeatedly lamented that we know more about the moon — or even Mars — than we know about our own oceans.  It has become cliché in our circles. Today we are challenged to reverse this long-standing lament.  

We now have the tools and technologies to understand the geography and contours of the ocean, its physics, and the life it supports. We can use this understanding to inform critical decisions — locally, nationally, and globally.

If we are going to sustainably use more than 70 percent of the planet, and if we are going to be able to predict how the oceans will affect the weather, climate, and coasts, we need to build a better map of the ocean.

The pressure on the ocean is greater today than at any time in history. There are historic levels of fishing, offshore wind energy farms are being built around the world, seabed minerals are being mined to supplement those available on land, and maritime commerce is thriving. At the same time, climate change, ocean acidification and marine pollution are threatening the very functioning of the ocean and the ecosystems it sustains. The ocean represents food security, climate moderation, and the energy and chemical buffer for the atmosphere. It is what makes this planet habitable.

Early in this century, Admiral James Watkins, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, put it quite succinctly, “People care about what they know about; and people don’t know enough about our oceans.” Now is the time.

Personally, I’m all in. I’m all in because we need to better understand this “inner space” if we are to going to fulfill our ocean stewardship responsibilities. I’m all in because this challenge is difficult, bold, and important.  I’m all in because the changing oceans drive changing climate. I’m all in because the ocean both supports and threatens the world’s coastal communities. Understanding the ocean is the key for humans to thrive on earth.

The ocean and me, we go way back. I was raised on the rugged coast of Maine and got my sealegs early. I spent much of my spare time “simply messing about in boats.” My family had a sailboat that I used to explore the coast from Nantucket to Halifax. 

I found navigation fascinating and spent hours poring over charts, learning position fixing, finding places to go, planning routes, and imagining future trips. As a teenager, I embarked with friends on ocean adventures each summer, sleeping aboard a 21-foot sailboat and exploring the islands off the coast. 

Looking at the charts, I found myself amazed that waters were charted at such a level of detail. I was impressed with the skill and expertise of the chart makers. I also found myself asking, “When the chart says it is 70 feet deep, what does that mean? Just at that spot? What about the area between the soundings? How did they measure it?”

I soon discovered that the charted soundings were often in neat little lines, which led me to understand that the ocean was not as well mapped as I had thought. I knew from my dinghy time, SCUBA diving, and an occasional grounding that there is a lot more detail to the seabed than can be depicted on the charts.

Several journeys of personal discovery later, I found myself as a newly commissioned Ensign with NOAA. My first assignment was to a ship surveying the coastal waters of Alaska in areas where the chart was completely white, no recorded soundings at all. We were using what was then state-of-the-art paper-recording echo sounders and differential GPS systems, which automatically drew a sounding on a boat sheet with a pen plotter. 

Since then, I have been witness and participant in several dramatic leaps in technology, in sonar capabilities, positioning, motion sensing, data processing, and visualization. We can now “see” the fine details of the seafloor, rocky outcrops on a muddy bottom, shipwrecks, sand waves, coral reefs, iceberg grounding grooves, scours from trawling gear, derelict fishing traps, and even gas seeps. By further analyzing the sonar echo from the seafloor, we can even map seabed composition. We have come a long way.

People have been working to map the ocean since the first boats went over the horizon. Captains traded soundings with each other in a way that today we would call crowdsourcing, and we very slowly built navigation maps, charts, of the ocean. These charts enabled the first wave of globalization in the 17th to 19th centuries. It was not until 1903, when Prince Albert I of Monaco organized an international project called GEBCO, General Bathymetric Chart of the Ocean, that we systematically began to assemble these measurements for science. GEBCO assembled a global network of hydrographic offices and scientists to assemble as many depth measurements as possible and create a series of bathymetry maps that spanned the globe. Over the past century, this project contributed to the discovery of mid ocean ridges and to unlocking the secrets of plate tectonics.

Ever since Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp produced their first global ocean map in 1977, we have grown accustomed to seeing the global seafloor apparently completely mapped. Heezen and Tharp took a relatively few measurements and used them to imagine a whole seabed that was consistent with geologic processes. But, most of this map is art, not science. In 1997, Sandwell and Smith used global gravity anomalies and sparse soundings to infer general global bathymetry. This further improved our understanding of the seabed, but it is neither accurate enough, nor high enough resolution to meet our needs. There is no substitute for actually measuring the depth directly.

Our world’s ocean covers 72 percent of our planet but only 15 percent of it is directly measured to a resolution that supports modern science and societal needs.

In 2016, the Nippon Foundation convened a meeting of over one hundred of the world’s top bathymetric practitioners, including the alumni of their GEBCO Scholars Program. The Foundation challenged to us to map the world’s oceans by 2030, and kicked off a surge of effort now known as Seabed 2030. 

Over hundreds of years, we had managed to map only a few percent of the ocean, and now we are going to try to finish in just over a decade? Pretty bold. We would not have challenged ourselves to do this at the beginning of my career.  

But now this is possible. We have three things we didn’t have in the 90s.  We are in the midst of rapid growth in enabling technology. We have a renewed interest in the oceans, and a willingness to invest in this enterprise. Most importantly, we have a grand coalition, across the globe, across government, academia, and the private sector. 

This effort is essential. Here’s why. Many of our fundamental questions about the ocean remain unanswered. How is glacial ice melt affecting the global ocean circulation? How many species exist in the ocean? How much history is under the water that we have not discovered? The current answer to all of these is…we don’t know.

Seabed 2030 is part of our shared vision to conserve and sustainably use the oceans for this and future generations. It will help us provide answers to these and many more questions that society needs to know. What we do NOT know about our ocean, can hurt us. Fifteen percent is simply not enough and that is why we are here.  

Many of the world’s top scientists are engaged in understanding the earth system, in order to predict natural processes — from tomorrow’s weather to decades-long changes in the climate. The ocean dominates the earth system. The heat capacity of the ocean is around 1000 times that of the atmosphere. Major ocean currents redistribute this heat around the earth. The Gulf Stream alone is 100 times larger than all the rivers on earth combined. When we talk about global warming, we are mostly talking about ocean warming. Climate change is ocean change. The same carbon that acts as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere causes ocean acidification. 

Global ocean circulation cannot be fully understood without better bathymetry.  At the coarse scale, this is obvious — water flows where there is water, not where there is dirt. For bottom currents and those in shallow water, internal waves and currents interact with the seafloor, creating turbulence and upwelling, resulting in mixing between ocean layers. This disperses heat and carbon through the ocean. In order to better model these processes, we must have finer scale bathymetry. 

Local bathymetry can also have a critical impact on circulation and climate. In eastern Greenland, the sea water is in direct contact with the ice sheet. The rate of ice melt depends on the temperature of the water, and the rate of local circulation. An offshore bathymetric ridge constrains this circulation. Since we don’t know the bathymetry of the ridge, we cannot predict how fast the ice will melt.

Along the highly-populated coasts of the world, we model seawater movement to predict storm surges, tsunami runup, and harmful algal blooms. These models require high-resolution bathymetry to accurately predict these life-threatening events with enough accuracy to protect our coastal populations.

Mapping the detailed features of the seafloor also paves the way for discovery of unique and important seabed environments. Over the last 30 years, scientists discovered hydrothermal vents and entire ecosystems in areas previously thought to be incompatible with life. We had thought we understood the parameters of life until we were challenged by these unique observations. What other fundamentally new forms of life could be discovered that might help us understand our planet, or perhaps to recognize life on other planets?

Scientists are discovering new species every year in newly mapped habitats we did not know existed. Last year, NOAA discovered an 85-mile track of deep-sea coral reef. Known as “Million’s Mound,” it is the largest track of deep sea coral ever discovered in U.S. waters. 

A large, shallow-water sponge found in the Caribbean was first studied in the 1950s. Scientists isolated two chemicals which were used as models for the development of the HIV drug AZT, and a drug to treat leukemia. Among the millions of undiscovered marine species, what if just one or two of these species could be the lynchpin to curing diseases afflicting humanity?  Better bathymetry will focus our attention on the unique ecosystems that we can further explore to find these new lifeforms.

We have all witnessed the incredible advances in technology in our lifetimes, and we have the opportunity to apply these technologies to meet the mission of mapping the global oceans.

Rapidly growing technology enterprises in other sectors are doing things better all the time.  Just compare the information we have on land to what we had 20 years ago. Or what has been developed in support of space exploration or to build a self-driving car. The engineers and entrepreneurs involved in Google, NASA and Tesla didn’t just use existing  technology, they inspired new innovation to achieve the quantum shift they envisioned. 

For this project, we must have faith in our ability to make similar technological advances as we go along. We can’t wait until we have it all worked out. It is the very experience of progress and failure that will inspire our next round of innovation. That said, we are confident we can drive down costs because we are already on the precipice of new breakthroughs in ocean mapping technology. 

We are today doing final tests on several different types revolutionary unmanned survey vessels that could triple the productivity of our existing survey ships, and survey independently in remote areas for months at a time.  We are likewise automating bathymetric quality control and processing using artificial intelligence so that it can happen in near real time, reducing risk and speeding up data delivery. The next generation of satellites for communications will support remote control and monitoring of surveys at sea.

If we include the expected efficiencies of these advances, we can now begin to estimate a total project cost that is in line with the value of the resulting seabed maps. While it is tempting to think about a single massive mapping campaign organized and funded centrally, this is unlikely to happen, and would likely run into problems when operating in national waters.  Instead, we need to build a grand coalition.  All parts of this coalition need to feel invested in the project, be able to point to their contribution, and share in the recognition.

We can start by encouraging access to existing data.  There is an enormous amount of bathymetry that has already been collected by governments, private companies, and academia. Enough data that, if accessible, might double the existing 15 percent mapped figure.

I recognize that there are commercial interests, national security concerns, and scholarly prerogative associated with some data sets. However, we have already seen some examples where downsampling or delaying the availability of data sets can preserve the data holder’s interests while meeting the scientific need for bathymetry. 

Last year, Olex, a crowdsource bathymetry aggregator for the commercial fishing industry, has donated their data holdings to GEBCO at a reduced resolution. This single contribution represented a significant portion of the growth in data holdings in the sub-Arctic. This year, overcoming long-held concerns about misuse of their data, Canada released all their data holdings at 100m resolution to the IHO Data Center for Digital Bathymetry.  This should give us another bump this year.

We have already doubled the coverage of the GEBCO grid since undertaking the grand challenge of Seabed 2030 just a year and half ago. We need to talk with industry, academic, and commercial leaders, and gently challenge them. What is proprietary about this data? Can a subset be shared now? How about in five years?

In addition to efforts to tap existing data, we need to map the gaps. We have estimated the scope of this challenge, in both national and international waters.  It is clear that the level of effort expands significantly as the water becomes shallower, and that these shallower waters are overwhelmingly in national jurisdictions. As a result, the bulk of the mapping effort will need to be coordinated with national governments. 

In a recent analysis of US waters, we divided the unmapped area between deep ocean and continental shelf at 200 meters. The shallow side of this line represented 20 percent of the area, but 90 percent of the level of effort. And this didn’t even include waters less than 40 meters. 

While the US is still in the planning stages of a big campaign, Ireland has been leading the way by mapping the seabed in its waters.  The resulting high resolution bathymetry has been made readily available, and is being used broadly.  The 250-meter-resolution maps of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone provides the most up-to-date bathymetry in the deep-water seabed under its national jurisdiction. Many more national mapping organizations have recognized and accepted their part in this goal as well.

Working regionally provides opportunities to identify shared priorities, demonstrate near-term successes, identify crowd-sourcing partners, build capacity, and share best practices. 

In the Atlantic, there is a regional mapping effort called ASPIRE including groups from the United States, the European Union, Iceland, Russia and Canada, representing governments, academia, and industry. This past June, the 16 regional hydrographic commissions agreed to make Seabed 2030 an ongoing agenda item in their annual meetings. They will liaise with the Seabed 2030 regional data assembly centers, track regional progress on an annual basis and promote data sharing and crowdsourcing. This gives us an entree to nearly every coastal state.  

In addition, Seabed 2030 has inspired some key private organizations to contribute in substantial ways. Fugro, the world’s largest survey company, has committed to collecting bathymetry along their tracklines between jobs and has already delivered thousands of miles of high-resolution multibeam. Victor Vescovo and his Five Deeps expeditions has committed to donating all the bathymetry from their projects and transits to the IHO DCDB, where it will support Seabed 2030.

Each of these exemplary early participants has a community of peers, which could be similarly inspired to donate data. We are working with leaders in the offshore oil and gas and cruise ship industries and hope to have a few key partnerships there as well.

Finally, we have a passionate cadre of young professionals who are working together and within their own organizations to advance the cause. The alumni group of the GEBCO scholars program formed a multi-national team to enter the ocean mapping XPrize competition. They developed and successfully demonstrated an unmanned survey system capable of mapping the seabed at high resolution far from shore. To a packed house at the Monaco Oceanographic Museum, they won the grand prize and inspired a generation. 

The Seabed 2030 project structure itself has matured. All the Regional Data Assembly Centers are up and running, and are getting into a rhythm of compiling gap analyses that recognize progress and guide further action. I have known Jamie McMichael Phillips, the new project director, for a few years, and have seen his ability to lead groups and build consensus. He is well known and influential among national hydrographic offices and will be important to their ongoing support. 

We have aligned this project with the UN Decade of Ocean Science and with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, providing an opportunity to further build momentum in a larger community. The key to maintaining and growing this coalition is to use the one renewable resource we have in abundance.  Gratitude.  Every part of this coalition needs to feel valued and part of the team.  We risk the success of the project is if we allow the coalition to shrink. 

As human populations grow, we are increasingly turning to the ocean — for energy, minerals, food, or medicines — and this trend will only accelerate in the coming years.  We need to do this sustainably, but ocean-related management decisions can only be based on the best available science and information.  Detailed knowledge of the shape of the seafloor is a crucial, and currently missing,  piece of the puzzle. 

So, in the three years since our first meeting, we have laid the foundation for a decade-long global program. We have documented the benefits.  We have begun developing the technology. We have some early leaders in data sharing. We have built a global coalition. We have whipped up the passion of our youth. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to support an effort that will provide more information about our ocean in the next ten years than we have amassed in the last four centuries. That is the vision and the challenge of Seabed 2030.

Seabed 2030 is an idea whose time has come. In the spirit of the epic exploration campaigns, that united the lands of earth and explored our solar system and beyond, it is time to explore the ocean planet. I’m all in.

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