UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable development – Objectives and Planning (Part 1/2)

Hari Vishnuclimate change, Ocean Decade, Oceans, Original, Sustainability, United Nations

Oceans, cradle to life on Earth

This Oceans Week, lets ponder: Is there a way to reverse ocean health decline and continue to rely on it ? The coming Decade is an opportunity to seek a positive answer to this question.

June12, 2020

by Hari Vishnu

Oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface. They were the cradle of life millions of years ago, and have been a key element of development of all life on Earth. Understanding the Oceans holds the key to solving many problems facing mankind such as food shortage, social development, poverty, climate change and energy security [1,2].

And yet, as Gene Feldman of NASA stated, we know less about the depths of our Oceans than we know about the surface of the Moon or Mars [3] ! It's like stating that we know more about our neighbour’s house than we know our own backyard.

Today, Earth's Oceans have a sad story to say, bearing the brunt of mankind's unsustainable activities, which manifests as indicators like acidification, increasing temperatures, decrease in oxygen, coral reef bleaching [4], accumulation of plastic waste [5,6] and general biodiversity decline [4].

While we celebrate World Ocean Day this year, we have a lot to think about. Isn't it high-time we stopped treating Oceans as a dumpyard, thought about how to value it and use it sustainably ?

Introduction to 'The Decade'

The United Nations has proclaimed a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) (also referred to as Ocean Decade). This is to gather stakeholders worldwide behind a common framework to ensure science can support countries for sustainable development of the Ocean [1].

Story Index
  • Introduction and aims of the Decade
  • Panel at OCEANS Seattle
  • Role of societies in the Decade
  • Campaign Oceanography
  • Questions and discussion
  • Moving forward
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OCEANS Seattle

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Oceans, which once played cradle to life on Earth, are now facing a massive decline in health

Oceans, which once played cradle to life on Earth, are now facing a massive decline in health

The focus is on using science to answer the existentially important question: Is there a way to reverse the decline in Ocean health and to continue to rely on the Ocean for our needs, particularly under the changing climate [2]? The proclamation by the United Nations General Assembly is a clear message that 195 nations consider Ocean science a priority for our civilization at the beginning of the third millennium [2].

The Vision of the Decade is: The science we need for the ocean we want.

The mission: Generate and use knowledge for the transformation needed to achieve a healthy, safe, and resilient Ocean for sustainable development by 2030 and beyond. We aim to move towards "an Ocean we want":

  1. A clean Ocean where sources of pollution are identified and removed
  2. A healthy and resilient Ocean where marine ecosystems are mapped and protected.
  3. A predicted Ocean where society has the capacity to understand present and future Ocean conditions
  4. A safe Ocean where people are protected from Ocean-related hazards
  5. A productive and sustainably harvested Ocean ensuring the provision of food supply and stable livelihoods
  6. A transparent and accessible Ocean with open access to data, information and technologies


The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO is coordinating the preparatory process, inviting the global Ocean community to plan for the next 10 years in Ocean science and technology. Earthzine is supporting Decade efforts to reach out to people and spread the word on Oceans. In preparation for the Decade, several outreach activities such as town halls and panel discussions have been organized at conferences across the world. Two of these were: the IEEE OES/MTS OCEANS 2019 at Seattle (Oct 2019), and the Ocean Sciences meeting in San Diego (Feb 2020), which Earthzine covered. 

This article is Part One of a 2-article series on panel discussions on the Ocean Decade over the last year. In this article, we cover the aims, perspectives and plans of the Decade discussed at an OCEANS Seattle panel, and the involvement of technical societies and the private-sector. Part Two will discuss the involvement of students and Early Career professionals or Young Professionals (ECOPs/YPs) and how they can contribute to and become a part of the Decade. It will also discuss science communication and outreach for the Decade. The article will span coverage of panels held at Seattle as well as Ocean Sciences, San Diego.

The panel at OCEANS Seattle

The panel on Decade of Ocean Sciences at OCEANS Seattle 2019

The panel on Decade of Ocean Sciences at OCEANS Seattle 2019

The moderator of the panel session held at OCEANS, Seattle, was Craig McLean, acting Chief Scientist at NOAA. He introduced the panelists representing a wide spectrum of people from academia (professors and students), industry, government agencies, science outreach agencies and technical societies:

Role of technical societies in the Decade

Rick Spinrad was the first speaker. He elaborated the value of technical societies (such as MTS and Oceanic Engineering Society OES) in furthering the objectives of the Decade.

Technical societies are uniquely poised and can achieve some things that even government agencies can't. They can reach out to a large section of people and give detailed avenues for more people to get involved in these activities. They also have the advantage of being seen as and operating in a non-partisan and non-political way, so they can be considered as objective sources of information. They can also give quick and ready access to expert advice on the way forward for the Decade, and can involve diverse representation of people and technology.

Rick pointed out that there would be 20 OCEANS conferences being held this coming decade. What can MTS and OES do to promote the Ocean Decade during these conferences ? For starters, societies can work with the conference organizing committees to spread awareness. In this regard, the OES and MTS presidents have decided to make available 3 slots to the registrants at each conference for IOC representation, at no cost, allowing them to take the message further.

Campaign oceanography - a step forward for the Decade

Craig introduced the next panelist - David Millar, representing Fugro. He spoke on campaign oceanography, of which one example is Seabed 2030 [6]. This is a global initiative between Japan’s Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) to produce a definitive, high-resolution bathymetric map of the entire world's Ocean floor by 2030. Currently, less than 20% of the Oceans are mapped to modern survey standards. This is one gap that needs to be fixed by bringing stakeholders to a common table. In this regard, Seabed 2030 is a promising way forward. Fugro recently contributed more than 110,000 sq. km. of high-resolution bathymetry data in the North Atlantic Ocean to help improve the quality and coverage of seabed mapping in the region [7].

David gave perspectives on how the private sector could participate in the Decade.

Before the Seabed 2030 Project, actual bathymetric data were available for only 6.2% of the global ocean, and the rest was obtained from models derived from satellite-altimetry and sonar soundings [8]. However, the recently released GEBCO 2019 data has almost 15% based on actual bathymetric data, which marks a large step forward [9].

The public can discover bathymetric data from the IHO DCDB Digital Bathymetry viewer.

David stated the example of the challenges faced during the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and its search. The difference between the GEBCO map and the one taken at the site was large ! In some places, the error was plus/minus 2 km, and 38% of the depth data collected in the area differed from our existing data by more than 100 m ! At the time of the search for the fuselage, sonar data known in the area was insufficient to deploy deep-water instruments to inspect the seafloor, so ship-based bathymetric data had to be collected eventually [9].

Questions and discussion

Opportunities/benefits to the Private sector by participating in the Decade

Opportunities/benefits to the Private sector by participating in the Decade

There was an active interaction with the audience during the Question-Answer session. We cover some of the important questions and discussions here.

Q: Is there a way that this can go towards building a global seasonal forecasting system , that can help forecast better like how many cooling days, heating days, etc we need to plan for ?
Reply: Indeed, it can. This is the sort of reach we are aiming for. If you have a 7-day weather forecast, you should thank an oceanographer because oceanography and ocean-interactions are a key input to seasonal forecasting. We hope the Decade's activities will take the knowledge further.

Q: Do we have an idea of how much of the ocean baseline we have a grasp on, to understand where we are one decade down the line ?
Reply: (Craig) There is some good data on baselines, but it is not complete. For example, we have done a good job so far of tracking the table-food fish ecosystem. But there are many more areas that need good baselines. The new blue economy will look way different from what we have been doing, it is going to be a very different construct, so a baseline is important indeed.

Q: Where will the money come from, for the initiatives under the Decade?
Reply (Panel): The answer is still being formed. Some examples are philanthropic organizations. The Decade gives us an opportunity to leverage across organizations around the world and spur more investment in this field using the message of the Decade.

Q: What is the implementation plan of the Decade ? Is there an action plan ?
Reply: We are starting off the preparation by trying to socialize the Decade, and get the community involved in understanding what is required and giving inputs on what is required.

(Update on this): A draft implementation plan for the Decade has been floated, and two webinars were held on and to discuss the draft. Earthzine attended this webinar and will soon report an article on this. Meanwhile, you can watch the webinar or take a look at the slides of the meeting.

Moving forward

The Decade will be kicked off by a Decadal celebration in 2021. The Decade has also been bringing in key players to realize its aims - one such event was an MoU signed with the International Science Council [6]. The renewed partnership stands to give the Ocean Decade important leverage and visibility within the scientific and technological community

Since November 2019, the ISC and IOC have been co-producing a series of blogs featuring new voices we need to hear from across human, natural, social and traditional sciences, if the Ocean Decade is to be truly inclusive and multidisciplinary. The series can be followed via this link.

Watch out for more upcoming Earthzine coverage on the Ocean Decade.


[1] United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), accessed Mar 20, 2020
[2] Zero Draft of Implementation plan, United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030), 18 Mar 2020.
[3] “Oceans: The Great Unknown”, NASA,  https://www.nasa.gov/audience/forstudents/5-8/features/oceans-the-great-unknown-58.html , Last accessed May 2020
[4] Chapter 5: Changing Ocean, Marine Ecosystems, and Dependent Communities - Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, Bindoff, N.L., W.W.L. Cheung, J.G. Kairo, J. Arístegui, V.A. Guinder, R. Hallberg, N. Hilmi, N. Jiao, M.S. Karim, L. Levin, S. O’Donoghue, S.R. Purca Cuicapusa, B. Rinkevich, T. Suga, A. Tagliabue, and P. Williamson, 2019. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N.M. Weyer (eds.)].
[5] Eriksen M, Lebreton LCM, Carson HS, Thiel M, Moore CJ, Borerro JC, et al. (2014) Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE 9(12): e111913. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0111913
[6] "The great Pacific Garbage patch", The Ocean cleanup, https://theoceancleanup.com/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
[7] Seabed 2030 - The Nippon Foundation and GEBCO
[8] Fugro supports two ocean mapping initiatives with large crowd sourced bathymetry contribution, , accessed: Mar 20, 2020
[9] Seafloor Mapping – The Challenge of a Truly Global Ocean Bathymetry, Frontiers in Marine Science, Vol. 6, 2019, DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00283, ISSN: 2296-7745, Authors: Wölfl Anne-Cathrin, Snaith Helen, Amirebrahimi Sam, Devey Colin W., Dorschel Boris, Ferrini Vicki, Huvenne Veerle A. I., Jakobsson Martin, Jencks Jennifer, Johnston Gordon, Lamarche Geoffroy, Mayer Larry, Millar David, Pedersen Terje Haga, Picard Kim, Reitz Anja, Schmitt Thierry, Visbeck Martin, Weatherall Pauline, Wigley Rochelle, 
[10] UNESCO, New agreement mobilizes global science for the Ocean Decade , 12 Feb 2020, Accessed March 20, 2020.

Image credit: "Life in Ocean" by guschen802 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0