Home Articles Long voyage ahead with the ocean

Long voyage ahead with the ocean

Sumit Sen
Head, Training & Policy Research,
GIS Development Pvt. Ltd.
[email protected]

Ocean imaging refers to acquisition, processing and analysis of aerial and satellite- derived data related to oceans. Ocean covers two-thirds of the earth and about half of the world's population lives in coastal areas. So, the monitoring of health, resources and the 'tantrums' of global ocean is by no means trivial and by all means, work-in-progress. Conventional field monitoring of ocean environmental conditions is difficult and an expensive enterprise.

It has been rapidly replaced by satellite imagery, which is a cost effective alternative for monitoring ocean processes at different time and space scales. Kevith, Alverson, Director – Global Ocean Observation Systems (GOOS) observes that ocean observation programmes are often accused of concentrating on in situ observations at the expense of, or without full recognition of the value of remote sensing. However, the scenario is rapidly changing, with satellite data being used in an increasing number of commercial applications of ocean observation, ranging from locating favourable fishing areas to tracking dangerous ice, currents and sewage effluent.

With rapid developments in information technology and the distributed nature of emerging trends in GIS, ocean imaging faces important challenges in the utilisation of geospatial technologies to realise its major goals. In an editorial, Ted Lillestolen from NOAA observes, "Advanced technology is both helping and hindering the process (of modernising ocean observation)". He discusses how new technology such as databases and Internet mapping software enable the capture and use of ocean data across systems, time and regions, which would have been deemed impossible earlier. Still, issues such as interoperability (rather the lack of it) and the absence of proper documentation or distribution mechanisms often restrict the utility of such information. Ocean sciences has been recognised as one of the important application areas of geospatial technologies for a long time now. Relatively speaking, however, ocean conditions are inadequately captured, described, predicted and understood and although this has much to do with the complexities of models, it does point to the lack of shar-

ing of information across the globe. The Earth itself is an integrated system, and all the processes that influence its conditions, whether ecological, biological, climatological or geological, are linked.

Ocean temperatures from satellite imaging

So it makes sense that interoperability standards should be developed to make it easy for practitioners from oceanbased earth observing systems Ocean observation systems that help describe and predict important changes are often single purpose and owned by a variety of government agencies, academic institutions and private sector companies that cannot share data and information. For example, to comprehend how such changes will impact the nation's oceans, coasts, estuaries and great lakes – and the people who live and work in, use and enjoy the coastal zone, it is necessary to integrate systems across the globe and efforts such as Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS) and Global Ocean Observation Systems (GOOS). Such efforts usually go unnoticed.

Polar ice cover images/magazines/2008/sept at the north pole Source: EUMETSAT© 2008

Apart from prediction of disasters and protection of human life in costal areas, ocean sciences also provide vital tools for sustainable exploitation of ocean resources. It's used for transportationboth travel and shipping. It provides a treasured source of recreation for humans. It is mined for minerals (salt, sand, gravel, and some manganese, copper, nickel, iron, and cobalt can be found in the deep sea) and drilled for crude oil. Monitoring the health of oceans is often a regional activity and requires the participation of all stakeholders from multiple countries to contribute. This is critical for the sustainable use of ocean resources. In the absence of legislative and economic tools for sustainability, updated and accurate information serves as the only basis of efforts. Earth observation in relation to global environmental problems such as climate change or overfishing, or in the scientific purpose of understanding the structural changes in oceans beyond anthropogenic causes, faces challenges of global nature. In an increasingly global economy, the need for ocean observation and hence investments in ocean imaging will be governed by such globalisation challenges. This is seen in form of major investments by the fishing industry in ocean imaging or the sensor networks laid by deep ocean engineering companies engaged in laying optical fiber cables. It signals a new era of investment in ocean observation by multiple stakeholders quite similar to the heterogeneous scientific investigation projects in earlier years. The platform needs to be ready to reap the benefits of such investments beyond the individual commercial goals in order to further our understanding of oceans to realms that remained unattainable earlier.

As outlined by Jan Seys et al, humanity has brought on itself, problems and economic challenges such as global warming and depletion of fish stocks. The need for information at a global scale requires integration of all local datasets which in turn are collected on local scales and over short time spans. Satellite imagery and sensor data combined with distributed computing advances now present a strong possibility of our understanding of oceans. As Toste Tanbhua (IODE) describes the role of Coordination action Carbon Observation System (COCOS), the trick is to get different components to 'speak the same language'. The challenge of integration, which, by no means is trivial, now provides us with a direction to go ahead.