Draft Position Statement on Ocean Research and Education
This position statement is currently under revision by a writing panel of experts from AGU’s community as part of a recurring four-year review process to reflect current research and understanding of the issue. The community comment period for this position statement ran from 5 December to 20 January 2023 and is now closed. The expert writing panel will now work to incorporate the community’s views to finalize the draft and ensure that the science is reflected accurately. The draft statement will then go for review before the AGU Position Statement Committee, Council and Board.
Achieving a Productive and Sustainable Ocean Demands Integrated Research, Extensive Education, and Effective Management Actions
Significant and bold investments in trans-disciplinary ocean research and education are needed to sustainably govern ocean resources and address the inequitable impacts of climate change and other anthropogenic activities. AGU calls on decision makers, agencies, educational and research institutions, private organizations, and individuals worldwide to forge a collaborative path of action to a sustainable relationship between our global society and the global ocean.
What is at Stake
The ocean and its resources are vital to life on Earth.[i] More than a third of the world’s population lives in coastal regions. The livelihoods of over three billion people depend on the ocean for food, energy, and transportation. Clean and productive seas play a central role in many cultures, especially among Indigenous Peoples. The ocean and coasts inspire artists, provide recreation and tourism, and contribute to physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
The ocean’s ability to provide these societal benefits, however, is threatened by growing and more affluent human populations accelerating anthropogenically driven pressures including climate change. These hazards disproportionately impact vulnerable populations. Continued stress on marine systems reduces the resilience of communities, perpetuates environmental injustice, and undermines prospects for sustainable development and a stable climate. The stakes have never been greater, and the need for research, education, and effective management never more urgent.
What We Know
Based on historical and contemporary observations, modeling, systems understanding, and cultural knowledge, we know that the ocean plays a central role in the physical-ecological-social Earth system. The marine environment drives global weather and climate, serves as a carbon sink, and regulates the hydrological cycle. The ocean supports biological diversity, provides food and energy, sustains marine transportation, tourism, and other ocean-based industries, and is central to national security.[ii]
Ocean health is declining at an unprecedented rate due to climate change and other anthropogenic activities. Sea level is rising,[iii] Arctic sea ice is thinning and receding,[iv] and waters are acidifying. Hypoxia, pollution from chemicals, noise, and plastics, and the drastic reduction of natural resources and ecosystems are widespread.[v], [vi] From the loss of coral reefs in the tropics to warming of the abyssal ocean and microplastics detectable in the most remote regions, all parts of the ocean have been affected by humans.
What We Expect
Unless significant change is made, the problems we see today will continue and worsen. Computer simulations based on expanded observations predict that past, present, and future greenhouse gas emissions, overuse of ocean resources, and ocean pollution will continue to degrade the overall functioning of the ocean. This will disturb natural cycles and likely trigger unpredictable feedback loops. The severity of future ocean change depends on the choices societies make today regarding greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable resource extraction, and pollution management.
A growing and more affluent world population will impose greater demands on those marine resources currently exploited. As a result, use and extraction of resources are growing into new regions and new forms of extraction such as the use of genetic resources and deep-sea mining. Rising sea levels will increasingly challenge coastal infrastructure and contaminate shallow water aquifers, compromising the livelihoods of billions of people in coastal and island communities. Future demands on the ocean must be balanced through sustainable harvesting and green energy production, supporting cultural and recreational practices and the ocean’s role in mitigating climate change. Without a commitment to effective management of human activity that is grounded in a sound understanding of the changing ocean, these competing factors will further degrade the ocean and further exacerbate environmental injustice locally and globally.
What We Need
To reverse the decline in ocean health, improve understanding and appreciation of the ocean, and foster inclusive stewardship, bold action is needed. This is echoed by several global calls to action including the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.[vii] Protection of life, cultural heritage, and critical infrastructure requires objective scientific analysis. It also necessitates engagement with decision makers, stakeholders, and social scientists to address our vulnerabilities to both natural marine hazards and those being caused by climate change. Effective policies and practices in ocean stewardship will need integrated management approaches that span all sectors with links to the ocean and that are based on what we know and anticipate in the ocean and in the watersheds that flow into it.
A transformation in ocean research will be needed to fully understand changing ecosystems, rigorously predict impacts from emerging threats, and to produce practical, near-term solutions to the challenges facing the ocean. This agenda requires significantly increased funding of ocean sciences including transdisciplinary research. This must be supported by open science and data practices that integrate physical, biogeochemical, biological and socio-ecological knowledge and recognize cultural knowledge systems. Accelerated translation of science and other forms of understanding the ocean into adaptive management that supports resilience is critical to delivering these solutions.
Sustained vision and action for resilience requires broadly educated generations of ocean researchers building passion and skills through learning experiences both in and out of school. Investments must break down rather than reinforce the structural barriers that limit participation of marginalized communities in STEM and narrow the divide between the global north and global south. The development of all types of learning opportunities as well as science communication to reach broader audiences will enable future generations to effectively study, use, manage, and steward ocean resources.
The ocean is vital to our planet and human society. Investments in research, education, and integrated management policies can improve, share, and apply new and solution inspired knowledge to sustain the health of the ocean and all it provides.
[i] NORC, 2022: Ocean protection in the United States: exploring the public’s thoughts. NORC, University of Chicago. https://marinesanctuary.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/09/National-Marine-Sanctuary-Foundation-Survey-Report-FINAL-1.pdf
[ii] United Nations 2016: The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment. World Ocean Assessment 1. United Nations. https://www.un.org/regularprocess/content/first-world-ocean-assessment
[iii] Sweet, W.V., B.D. Hamlington, R.E. Kopp, C.P. Weaver, P.L. Barnard, D. Bekaert, W. Brooks, M. Craghan, G. Dusek, T. Frederikse, G. Garner, A.S. Genz, J.P. Krasting, E. Larour, D. Marcy, J.J. Marra, J. Obeysekera, M. Osler, M. Pendleton, D. Roman, L. Schmied, W. Veatch, K.D. White, and C. Zuzak, 2022: Global and Regional Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States: Updated Mean Projections and Extreme Water Level Probabilities Along U.S. Coastlines. NOAA Technical Report NOS 01. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, Silver Spring, MD, 111 pp. https://aambpublicoceanservice.blob.core.windows.net/oceanserviceprod/hazards/sealevelrise/noaa-nos-techrpt01-global-regional-SLR-scenarios-US.pdf.
[iv] IPCC, 2019: 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.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, 755 pp. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009157964
[v] United Nations 2016: The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment. World Ocean Assessment 1. United Nations. https://www.un.org/regularprocess/content/first-world-ocean-assessment
Ocean Research and Education Are Foundations for Economic Growth
Investments in ocean research and education benefit the economic well-being of nations through greater understanding of devastating environmental hazards, sustainable use of ocean resources, safer and efficient maritime transportation, and a healthier ocean environment for a changing world. AGU calls on policy makers, agencies, educational and research institutions, and private organizations worldwide to forge cooperation and make bold investments that enable scientific discovery and solutions in ocean science to support the global economy.
The ocean and its resources are vital to life and to our livelihood on Earth. The ocean provides efficient global transportation routes and important food and energy resources. It modulates weather and global climate, regulates the supply of fresh water on land, and supports a wealth of biological diversity. This diversity is a source of novel pharmaceuticals and the fisheries which provide essential protein for people the world over. Clean and productive seas play a central role in many cultures and are pivotal for recreation and tourism in coastal communities.
Growing human populations and accelerating environmental change challenge our ability to provide food, energy, and materials, as well as security from natural hazards. Our ocean plays a central role in meeting all of these challenges. AGU advances collaboration and international relationships across the sciences, works with private and government entities, and informs the public on the role of a changing ocean in our lives.
The ocean is a major economic asset for most nations. For example, in 2016 in the U.S., 52% of the population lived in coastal watershed regionsi generating nearly 57% of the nation’s GDPii. Most imported goods (over $1.1 trillion/yr) and exports move through coastal waterways and portsiii. Commercial fishing generates over $36B in income and more than one million jobs, while recreational fishing supports $14B in income and hundreds of thousands of additional jobsiv. In 2015, over 22% of U.S. domestic oil was produced from coastal and offshore watersii.
Internationally, energy infrastructure, military installations and assets, rail and road networks, all crucial for national security, energy, commerce, and transportation, are concentrated along coasts. In our globally connected world, land-locked nations derive many benefits from the ocean such as general commerce and ocean products, and they are impacted by the ocean’s influence on the distribution of rainfall and heat. Innovative opportunities exist in ocean resources, technology, energy, transportation, and tourism.
Nations, people and economies worldwide face mounting risks from rapid changes in the ocean. Protection of life, property, and critical infrastructure requires objective scientific analysis, but it also necessitates an engagement between decision makers, the public, and scientists to address our vulnerabilities to rising sea level, extreme storms, floods, droughts, and tsunamis. We need to know how the atmosphere and ocean function together to affect weather and climate through the exchange of heat and moisture. We need to understand the influence of land use on pollution in coastal seas as well as the transport, fate, and effects of plastic debris in the ocean. We need to understand how deep-sea mining might affect unique ecosystems. Science provides the new knowledge we need to respond to rising sea levels and ocean temperatures, the decline of fisheries, expansion of low oxygen zones, and changes in the chemistry of the ocean caused by increased carbon dioxide such as ocean acidification.
The ability to predict and prepare for changing ocean conditions will depend on scientific research programs, disciplinary and interdisciplinary, international in scope, and involving the ocean sciences with other Earth and social sciences. Greater knowledge and prediction skills are urgent when we consider the effort, time, and costs of protecting infrastructure along coasts, rebuilding fish populations in our seas, developing new water resources for manufacturing and agriculture, and restoring communities in the wake of hazards. Education and engagement of the research community, policymakers, and the public will promote the advancement of shared goals for a healthy environment and vibrant economy. Enhanced international cooperation is required to observe, understand, and predict the ocean on a global scale for the near future and over decades of change ahead, and also to help sustain the well-being and economic benefits provided by the ocean. Public-private-academic partnerships can empower the robust research and education programs needed to understand natural processes and the intersections with human activities. Increased investments in ocean science, technology, and education will be needed to decrease vulnerability of coastal communities; improve safety at sea for the transportation industries; produce new medicines from unique marine bioactive compounds; and improve weather and decadal climate forecasts. These investments will build a foundation for healthy environmental and economic futures of nations around our world.
Adopted by the American Geophysical Union December 2005; Revised and Reaffirmed February 2012, June 2013, September 2018.
iii U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Division. 2012. FT920: U.S. Merchandise Trade: Selected Highlights December 2011. http://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/Press-Release/ft920_index.html#2011 (accessed April 17, 2012)
iv National Marine Fisheries Service. 2011. Fisheries Economics of the United States, 2010. U.S. Dept. Commerce, NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS-F/SPO-118, 175p. Available at: https://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/st5/publication/index.html.