Why do we need a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development?

Oceanography is a relative newcomer to the long list of recognised disciplines studied by scholars across the planet.  We oceanographers assert that the first true ocean science was carried out in the mid 19th century. In 1872 HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth on the world’s first global oceanographic expedition. These early ocean scientists were often Naval officers serving on lengthy expeditions to far flung parts of the globe. They referred to their measurements as hydrography and only in the mid 20th century did we start to call ourselves Oceanographers.

Google NGram Viewer plot for the frequency of use of the words: oceanography, marine science, hydrography and oceanology in books 1800-2019 (English, case-insensitive, 2019 corpora).

Oceanography and marine science mentions (counted by Google) peaked in the 1960’s at the time of intense exploration and record breaking dives to the ocean depths (and of course the Apollo missions into space). The latter part of the 20th century was then characterised by sustained efforts to explore the ocean depths, with the discovery of deep sea hydrothermal vents near seafloor volcanoes and development of a new integrated understanding of how the oceans function, control the climate and how ecosystems operate in this vast, and largely invisible realm. This period saw the burgeoning of new science disciplines and cross-disciplinary efforts and the relative frequency of the words ‘oceanography’ and ‘marine science’ subsequently decreased systematically through to 2019 in Google search counts.

Ocean science has evolved as a specialist subject at a number of Universities in each country across most of the globe. This silo-ing of the subject has not helped its integration into the national psyche, broader society nor mainstream Sustainable Development. Marine science is only touched on in the UK National Curriculum and is taught in a relatively small number of Universities world-wide. To compound this lack of integration, policy making in the coastal, marine and deep-sea realm is distributed across a bewildering number of Government Departments, Agencies, Organisations and Bodies globally, making integrated approaches difficult.

The oceans control our weather, our future climate, supply much of our protein, hold many of our future energy and other resources and are the global highway for ships, cables and pipelines supplying the huge coastal cities across the globe. As the global population increases to well over 9 billion by 2050, our demands on the oceans will increase significantly, yet we have only limited understanding of how to do this sustainably. We know that human activity has already led to ocean-warming, acidification, sea-level rise, depletion of fish-stocks, increases in pollutants and wide-spread degradation. We also know that different combinations of environmental stressors hugely amplify these negative impacts in ways that are hard to predict or reverse.

We need an Ocean Decade to integrate ocean science into our global society, into our education systems, into broader academic research, into our policy-making at every level of Government, into our individual and collective actions.

We need an Ocean Decade to break down national barriers and to define ways to work together to identify regions of our ocean that are most at risk of irreversible damage and protect these as a priority.

We need an Ocean Decade to agree how to create the ocean we need to sustain life on this planet.

There have been 46 different United Nations Decades since the first UN Development Decade (1960-1970).  Our ambition is to make this new Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development one that transforms our discipline, our society and the future of our planet.

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