Adapting to climate change: the role of ocean data

From carbon dioxide removal strategies, to predicting marine heatwaves and managing ecosystems, ocean data will play an important role in nations’ climate adaptation plans.

As nations convene in Dubai for the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) on climate change, the world’s collective focus is on the most pressing environmental and societal challenge that defines our times. Amidst the complexity and gravity of discussions around how to tackle and adapt to these changes, experts agree: data-driven decision-making is no longer a choice but a necessity.

The ocean is both a source of enormous potential in mitigating climate change, and a frontline witness to its impacts. The need for reliable, timely, and comprehensive ocean data has never been more critical. 

At COP28, the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) outlines three areas that will heavily rely on more information from the ocean.

Carbon dioxide removal strategies

As atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to rise due to human activities, carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies will likely play a pivotal role in addressing the root cause of climate change by either directly extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or enhancing natural processes that sequester it. 

The ocean acts as a vast carbon sink, absorbing around a third of the excess carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A sustained flow of data on the ocean’s carbon uptake and storage processes is thus essential to scientists and policymakers working to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the ocean. Baseline data on ocean carbon will be critical to the optimization of CDR strategies and making informed decisions about the most suitable locations and methods for carbon capture and storage. 

“To achieve global net zero goals, it is essential to measure and report ocean carbon uptake,” says Anya Waite, co-lead of the GOOS Ocean Observing Co-Design carbon observing exemplar. “A co-designed ocean carbon exemplar will demonstrate the value of observing critical aspects of the ocean carbon cycle as we track atmospheric accumulation and fossil fuel emissions. Such coordination is essential to inform emission reduction targets and assess the feasibility of carbon dioxide removal strategies.”

Addressing marine heatwaves

Marine heatwaves are periods of intense, anomalously warm ocean temperature that have garnered growing interest over the last years as they increase in frequency and impact on the state of marine life due to climate change. As an increasing stressor to marine ecosystems, marine heatwaves can cause shifts in locations of economically valuable species, as well as high mortality rates of numerous marine organisms.

The impact of marine heatwaves expands far beyond the oceanic realm: they also influence extreme events on land, such as droughts, heatwaves and tropical cyclones. Governments, industry and science will need to rely on ocean data to monitor the onset and intensity of marine heatwaves, enabling the delivery of timely warnings and proactive measures.

“Coastal communities depend on timely warnings and measures to safeguard their economies and ecosystems, for example, by preparing for heatwave-related disruptions in fishing and tourism,” says Alban Lazar, co-lead of the GOOS Ocean Observing Co-Design marine heatwave exemplar.

The marine heatwave exemplar is dedicated to co-design tools for and with communities experiencing extreme ocean events. It is particularly the case for artisanal fishery communities, who seek help for facing the ongoing increase of coastal marine heat waves and other extremes in their environment. 

“Such co-designed tools are based on refined adaptation of state-of-the-art marine forecasts to specific needs expressed by the end-users,” explains Lazar. “They are then validated against both traditional and science-based remote and local observations, and broadcasted thanks to existing information systems by national institutions,” he adds. This innovative methodology is sustained by constant capacity building of young scientists and community leaders, as well as regular exchanges between end-users and scientists.

Managing marine resources and biodiversity under a changing climate

Healthy marine ecosystems offer crucial support in mitigating and adapting to climate change, including the uptake of carbon dioxide. Yet, marine life faces pressures from various human-induced stressors. Delivering the right ocean information to coastal communities enables them not only to protect the ecosystems vital to their livelihoods but also to preserve natural climate-regulating services, such as carbon sequestration and storage.

Recognized as a paramount strategy for safeguarding marine biodiversity, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have gained substantial attention during the last years. Their importance is underscored by the recently adopted United Nations High Seas Treaty, as well as the global ambition to protect 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area. However, to ensure that measures such as MPAs effectively serve their purpose, they must be supported by a continuous flow of comprehensive data coming from ocean observations.

Monitoring the health of marine ecosystems for effective management amid the challenges posed by climate change requires observations across physical, chemical, and biological aspects of the ocean. GOOS has developed a global framework of Essential Ocean Variables (EOVs), encompassing the key measurements within these three categories that provide information needed to understand and predict how species will be affected by their changing environment.

The GOOS Ocean Observing Co-Design marine life exemplar aims to work with local to global communities to understand perceptions and needs for biology and ecosystems information. “One of our goals is to document good practices in how we measure biodiversity and improve our capacity to model marine life, its distribution and diversity over time,” says Frank Muller-Karger, co-lead of the marine life exemplar. “The exemplar will allow us to predict where different species may be at any one time, where biodiversity hotspots occur, and what changes may affect fishing, shipping, recreation, mining, greenhouse gas fluxes, and habitat conservation and restoration projects,” he adds. This type of knowledge will help define opportunities for protection, sustainable use, regulatory frameworks, and jurisdictions.

Ocean data: a crucial ally in the face of climate change 

As climate change increasingly affects both the ocean and society, a fit-for-purpose ocean observing system becomes crucial to support mitigation and adaptation efforts. Through its transformative co-design exemplar projects that foster scientific advancement and global collaboration, GOOS strives to deliver an integrated system needed for navigating these challenges.

“Following the United Nations Ocean Decade’s vision of ‘the science we need for the ocean we want,’ we are aiming for a future where communities have the ocean data they need to make informed decisions for climate mitigation and adaptation,” says Emma Heslop, GOOS Programme Specialist. “But we need nations’ commitment in expanding and strengthening the ocean observing system that will deliver this data, for the benefit of our ocean and societies.”

Read more about ocean observations at this year’s COP28 on the GOOS website

About GOOS:

The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) is the global home of ocean observing expertise and systematic coordination. We lead and support a community of international, regional and national ocean observing programmes, governments, UN agencies, research organizations and individual scientists. Our Core Team of expert panels, observing networks, alliances and projects, supported by the GOOS Office, is in touch with ocean observing and forecasting around the world. We are a programme led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, with UN and science co-sponsors: World Meteorological Organization (WMO), UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the International Science Council (ISC).

About Ocean Observing Co-Design:

Co-design is about working with end-users of ocean information, be they climate negotiators, fishing communities or early warning systems, in collaboration with ocean observing, modelling and forecasting services, to understand what information is needed by whom, in order to design an observing system that can deliver it effectively. By 2030, Ocean Observing Co-Design will have advanced the maturity and robustness of global ocean observing and forecasting. We will have tools in place that allow funders to ask key questions about cost and benefit and receive clear answers so that investment can be targeted to have optimal benefit for society.
Learn more about Ocean Observing Co-Design and its exemplar projects here.

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