Looking Beneath The Surface

The ocean is still largely unexplored and often unpredictable. A few months back, the search for the missing Malaysian airliner MH370 by a deep-sea exploration vehicle revealed 220 underwater volcanoes of heights up to a mile, previously unknown to mankind. And if we know little about the topography of the oceans, we know even less about the rich variety of marine life that they support. Each deep-sea survey turns up species that have never been seen before. And the ocean is changing.

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Superimposed on its natural rhythms are a long-term warming, an inexorable acidification and a rise in level. The warming, acidification and raised level are not uniform over the ocean but rather depend on topography, circulation, ice and weather. Understanding the impact of these changes in the future is crucial if the ocean is to continue to act as a life support system for a global population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Navigation, food supplies, energy security and coastal erosion are only some of the issues directly affecting us.

This is why governments invest in observing the ocean. Hypotheses and models of future behaviour can only be developed by testing them against what has already happened. These regular observations must be maintained. Gaps left in records cannot be filled in later.

In Europe, these records are currently held by hundreds of organisations. Until recently, finding out who held data that had been collected at great expense was hard. Obtaining permission to use them took extensive negotiation and putting together data from different sources with different terminology, different baselines and different formats to create a common picture required so much effort that many potential applications or studies never got off the ground. Unlike on land, where maps of topography and geology are universally available, some scientists and engineers have found it easier to resurvey areas that had already been surveyed but for which the data were too difficult to get hold of. This creates extra work, increases research costs and makes offshore development more expensive.

The EU's "Blue Data Network", also known as the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) is now beginning to change things. About 160 organisations are working together to create a portal where stakeholders can search for, visualise and retrieve with one single command key oceans data concerning a specific place within a certain time. All European sea basins have been completely covered since the end of 2015. Most importantly the information is publicly accessible, without restrictions from any source, and free of charge.

The data currently cover six broad categories - water depth, geology, habitats, physics, chemistry and human activity. The category on "human activity" offers useful insight on our impact on the sea. It reveals the nature, position and characteristics of structures such as aquaculture facilities or sites producing energy from the seas and oceans.

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EMODnet has various concrete benefits. Here are three examples: First, habitat descriptions covering European waters help to determine how to set up a coherent network of marine protected areas or assess the impact of trawling on seabed ecosystems. Second, it saves substantial time and effort required in planning for and deploying offshore or coastal infrastructure, such as harbours or wind turbines, and to determine their environmental impact. Third, it reduces uncertainty and therefore risk. For instance, a national meteorological office improved its forecasting of storm surges due to the improvements EMODnet made to the knowledge of water depth.

In 2017, we will further improve our portal and extend its potential. A new phase will begin with higher resolution images, increasing the emphasis on emerging issues such as the distribution of marine litter. We will also engage more with business; partly to ensure that the services delivered by EMODnet meet their needs but also to bring in more of the data they collect for their own purposes. Many data that are collected for the purposes of licensing projects or assessing their impact are lost afterwards. Not because the data have a commercial value but because there are no easy ways to hand them over. We will start making this possible in 2017.

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Finally, EMODnet is contributing towards greater transparency and public engagement in ocean management. Previously only governments and large industries could give informed opinions on developments that affected everyone. Now all citizens concerned can have their say. This can only be a step forward in good ocean management. Just like better knowledge, public involvement too will help us preserve the oceans for mankind.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Ocean Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here. Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #MakeASplash.