- Melvin Mathews
Using vessel data to achieve the UN sustainable development goals (SDG)
Updated: Jul 22, 2020
The UN in 2015 with an aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all, unanimously adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) also known as ‘Global Goals’. Under the SDG, Goal 14 states: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”. The goal has a specific target to be achieved over 15 years, wherein everyone needs to do their part, i.e., governments, private sector, civil society and ordinary people.
With over 3 billion people reliant on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries globally is estimated at $3 trillion per year or about 5% of global GDP. But this also means that as much as 40% of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, loss of coastal habitats, etc. It is estimated that less than 5% of oceans are being monitored in some form and I would imagine that even this is perhaps mostly along the coast, where offshore exploitation of the ocean is relatively easier to carry out.
The reality is that most of the ocean is not only just not monitored, but it is mostly unexplored. Under the UN SDG, the private sector has not just an obligation, but a responsibility to play its part to protect and preserve the oceans. However, one cannot protect what one does not monitor and measure. With the oceans covering three quarters of the earth’s surface, containing 97% of the Earth’s water, and representing 99% of the living space on the planet by volume, this is no easy task.
unknowingly we have been monitoring the oceans in a rather unconventional manner. When coupled with the right technology, ships can play an enormous role in understanding the oceans.
There are high frequency data collection installations on hundreds of ships collecting not just onboard data but also data on the environment surrounding each of these ships. This means that as the ships criss-cross across the oceans they leave in their wake a track of information measured by the sensors on board. This information includes depths, currents, wind direction and speed, sea state, sea and air temperatures, humidity, salinity, etc. Analysing this information over time allows us to understand the changes in these measurements.
We use this information in many ways. To give one example, accurate depth information is vital for the safety of navigation. Depth data is collected from echo sounders on board ships and cross referenced with bathymetric charts and depth databases. The difference gives us the changes in depth at a given point, which could be due to several reasons such as, subsea plate movements or shifting of underwater sand dunes, offshore dumping, etc. But these changes in depth could also be due to inaccurate, historic or sparse depth data in the existing depth databases. Unlike others, having verified depth information gives us the confidence to recommend more efficient routes with greater accuracy and safety.
Ships today have communications systems capable of relaying information in almost real-time. This is a game changer in information sharing as it now allows identifying changes as they happen. This will grow exponentially as the number of ships with sophisticated data gathering platforms increase, each ship acting as a remote weather station, relaying information in real-time. When this valuable information is collated and further shared with relevant bodies dealing with and studying the oceans and climate change, it potentially has a huge impact on the outcomes of their studies.
There are data gathering platform on hundreds of vessels. However, if we were to cumulate the data from all such similar platforms, we could be potentially looking at a few thousand vessels acting as floating mobile weather stations. Issues such as lack of standardisation of equipment or not all sensors being calibrated equally could potentially be overcome with vast amounts of data, when sufficient vessels come online. In the near future, when data from all ships is combined with satellite data and data from weather buoys, it will give us significant coverage and capability to monitor the oceans.
Often the earliest and clearest indications of climate change can be observed in very remote parts of the oceans, by monitoring pollution levels, temperature levels, depth changes, etc. As the world sets out to achieve the SDG, we should look systematically at how ships can play a part and help us achieve the targets set by the UN. Current computing power & machine learning techniques, make it possible to easily monitor and analyse copious amounts of data giving us valuable insights. This is preparing us to not just meet targets, anticipate and deal with changes in the oceans, but practically equips us to address problems and tackle challenges facing the entire planet going forward.
Let me know your thoughts?
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