Recognising the significance of ocean observing for climate change 

The recent publication of the sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and the launch of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) Implementation Plan are helping to put ocean observing at the forefront of climate action.

IPCC’s Climate, Change, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability report is acknowledged as the world’s most authoritative assessment of climate change. It includes a lengthy chapter covering the ocean and coastal systems and their services that clearly acknowledges the significance of the ocean for climate change.

For example, the IPCC reported that storms with sustained higher wind speeds – in the Category 3-5 range – have likely increased in the past 40 years. Ocean observations confirm that the ocean is absorbing over 90% of excess heat caused by greenhouse gases (GHG) from burning fossil fuels, and that warm water and heat energy feeds and intensifies hurricanes.

This latest IPCC report received wide coverage in the world’s media. It was called a “milestone assessment” and “an atlas of human suffering” by the UK’s The Independent. The publication also stated that “half the world is highly vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis”.

The IPCC and GCOS have a close working relationship. Climate observations supported by GCOS nurture the scientific studies that are the backbone of IPCC reports. IPCC reports are taken into consideration by GCOS in order to create a more fit for purpose observing system.

In March 2022, Sabrina Speich, Co-Chair of the Ocean Observation Physics and Climate Panel (OOPC) of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), was invited to help write the next GCOS Implementation Plan. Led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, GOOS brings together scientific and operational experts and networks to deliver the essential ocean observations needed for sustainable development and maritime safety. The OOPC is a scientific expert advisory group charged with making recommendations for a sustained global ocean observing system for climate in support of the goals of its sponsors and one of three GOOS Expert Panels.

Dr Speich’s involvement in the drafting of the GCOS Implementation Plan is excellent news for the ocean observing community, but there is still a long way to go.

Ocean observing needed to underpin climate change adaptation and mitigation

The essence of chapter three of the IPCC report is that anthropogenic climate change has exposed the ocean and coastal ecosystems to unprecedented conditions that have and are greatly impacting life in the ocean and along its coasts. This has already had a profound effect on marine life, economies, industry and communities. 
“All of the world’s population relies on the ocean including food, energy, transport, tourism and associated jobs, as well as the services it provides in regulating the global climate, storing carbon, buffering and protecting coastal communities from storms and sea level rise and providing recreational and cultural benefits to many connected to coastal environments,” Emma Heslop, GOOS Programme Specialist explains. “The ocean and the services it provides are set to become even more important because the blue economy is set to grow to $3 trillion by 2030 (OECD), and the ocean has potential to provide more food through growth in the mariculture sector.”

At the same time, Heslop says, “Existing populations that live by the coast and rely on the ocean for food or their livelihood via industries such as fishing or tourism are increasingly under threat from climate change, pollution leading to fish habitats all over the world being lost, and fundamental changes to ecosystems, including the migration of species because their food source is changing. If we don’t arm ourselves with more information so we can manage our oceans better, we will have even more of a crisis on our hands. We will lose an enormous amount of marine resources at precisely the time we need more from the ocean.”

But, while ocean observing being taken more seriously is a major step forward, there is still much work to be done.

Ocean observing, GCOS and GOOS

The Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) was established in 1992 to aid in developing and coordinating a system that simultaneously supports scientific understanding of climate change, policy development, public information and planning for adaptation and mitigation.

GCOS prepares regular reports on the state of the global climate observing system (so-called “status” or “adequacy” reports) and submits them to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

These status reports highlight advances in observational capabilities and identify outstanding issues and gaps. GCOS Implementation Plan responds to those findings by suggesting recommendations to improve the system.

The 2021 GCOS Status Report indicates that ocean observations are often supported through short-term research funding, leaving the development of long-term climate records vulnerable. It also highlights the critical gaps that still exist, in particular along continental boundaries, the polar oceans and marginal seas.

This is the context in which Sabrina Speich was invited to join the writing team for the GCOS Implementation Plan earlier this year. For Speich, the invitation heralds a sea-change in attitudes to ocean observing.

“In the past,” she says, “the ocean was seen as a passive component of the climate system. It was believed that the essential driver was the atmosphere. But, as the ocean has become increasingly more observed and we’ve learned more about its dynamics and how it and the atmosphere interact, we’ve seen it becoming more active.”

Increasingly, particularly after COP26, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) have been pushing for more ocean observing because this is the only way to mitigate against the impact of extreme weather such as hurricanes. Now oceanography has a voice equivalent to land and atmosphere in the writing of the Implementation Plan.

For Speich, while this is a great boost for ocean observing, there’s still a need for more in situ observing because, for example, satellite observation stops at the surface of the ocean. Also, she says, “Nations need to help build an observing system that is rationalised and can help with forecasting for extreme adaptation and other requirements relating to the ocean.”

Looking ahead, Speich will be chair of the scientists committee at the second Climate Observation Conference happening in Darmstadt, Germany in October 2022. Her hope is that this will raise the profile of ocean observing still more.

But, while this raised profile is great news for the ocean observing community, it’s important to be aware of the progress which has been made within ocean observing itself.

The current state of ocean observing

“I would say we’ve made great progress in the last 30 years,” says Emma Heslop. “We’ve developed a system that has helped the world make vital decisions about climate. But, as the latest IPCC report and our involvement with the GCOS Implementation Plan indicate, there is an urgent need for more information. We need to complete the global ocean observing system in areas that are not well sampled such as the Polar Regions, the deep ocean, and for an increasing range of variables such as carbon. We need to vastly expand in the bio-eco space. And it’s vital that institutions such as government and industry have the information they need to invest more widely in ocean observing.”

She also argues that “just having more observations is no longer sufficient. Ocean observing, modelling and integrated data systems are essential to help communities, nations and the planet make the tough decisions, financial and otherwise, needed to find solutions to adapting and mitigating against climate change. This is where the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030 (‘the Ocean Decade’)comes in and adds extra lift. GOOS was already working towards integration, but the Decade is like speed dating between the players who need to integrate.”

Launched in early 2021 after nearly four years of preparations, the UN Ocean Decade is rallying governments, scientists, civil society and the private sector to mobilise resources to generate knowledge and drive action around 10 key challenges standing between us and the aspirational vision of “the ocean we want”.

The Ocean Decade is a key mobiliser to muster the critical resources and political commitments we need to make GOOS truly “fit-for-purpose”. A strong GOOS is front and centre of the Ocean Decade Challenges. Challenge Seven is to “Expand the Global Ocean Observing System to ensure a sustainable ocean observing system across all ocean basins that delivers accessible, timely, and actionable data and information to all users.”

According to Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the IOC-UNESCO, “The Ocean Decade launch was a watershed moment in ocean science globally – and the achievements have been significant, including US$840 million initially secured to address the Ocean Decade Challenges, the endorsement of around 400 Ocean Decade Actions and the set up of a global governance structure and co-design mechanisms featuring dozens of National Decade Committees and seven regional task forces, to name a few. Although challenges remain, particularly in relation to investment in ocean science, a robust foundation is now in place for the next nine years of transformative ocean science.”

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