Ocean Observation

Our challenge to learn everything we can about the ocean environment

Atlantic Ocean

The Importance of the Ocean and the Role of Ocean Observation

The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface. The ocean is critical to the Earth’s global systems by regulating weather and climate, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and nutrient recycling as well as by providing important food resources and rejuvenating the Earth’s fresh water supplies.

Today, the oceans face unprecedented pressure. More than 40% of the global population lives in areas within 200 km of the ocean, and 12 out of 15 mega-cities are coastal. The doubling of the world population over the last 50 years, rapid industrial development, and growing human affluence are exerting increasing pressure on the oceans.

The Atlantic Ocean is a crucial part of the Earth’s global ocean systems. Degradation of coastal habitats, increasing pollution, destructive fisheries practices, biodiversity decline, bleached and dying coral reefs, receding polar ice sheets, sea- level rise and ocean acidification are all real threats to a healthy, resilient, safe and productive Atlantic Ocean.

We all recognise changes in our immediate environment on land. Not so in the ocean. And we almost never intuitively notice the effects such changes have on ecosystems. Data from the ocean allows us to understand an environment that we don’t live in, but without which we cannot live. Not only is all life on Earth fundamentally dependent on the oxygen produced by algae, but we depend on the oceans for food and transport.

Effective observation and monitoring are central to improving our understanding of the Atlantic Ocean and its role in the global ocean systems and the resources it provides. This in turn is critical to managing the pressures and their impacts  through more effective global ocean policies and raised awareness of the rapid degradation and over-use of the ocean.

Ocean observation – A Brief History

Atlantic ocean map

For thousands of years humans around the world have collected information to explore, explain and exploit the oceans and their resources. The modern age brought with it technologies that enabled more regular, more intensive, less expensive and safer methods of exploration and exploitation.

In 1848 Matthew Fontaine Maury became the first recorded individual to systematically evaluate recorded information to create the first wind and currents map for the northern Atlantic Ocean. His aim was to make shipping between Europe and North America quicker, cheaper and safer.

In 1957 Marie Tharp created the first seafloor map of the Atlantic Ocean.

"The whole world was spread out before me (or at least, the 70 percent of it covered by oceans). I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities, a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to piece together: mapping the world’s vast hidden seafloor."

Her painstakingly detailed work provided the knowledge basis to validate the theory of continental drift; a theory which Alfred Wegner had proposed years earlier but was unable to prove.

While Maury's work had mainly commercial use, Marie Tharp's work was driven by scientific curiosity. Both relied on detailed data collected through observation in the Atlantic Ocean.

Atlantic ocean map

Ocean Observation - The Present

Although the principles and drivers of Ocean Observation have not changed, new technologies have enabled an explosion in the amount of data and information that are collected. Floats, buoys and other observation platforms that are mounted with sensors and collect data, which are then turned into maps and models.

The level of detail and precision has significantly increased since the early ocean observations. For example, a modern model describing temperature changes on the ocean surface may use several million data points and sophisticated, high-performance computing technology and algorithms. The outputs provide a range of products, such as sea surface temperature maps that are used by a variety of sectors e.g. commerce for plotting more efficient shipping routes and science for monitoring global warming and advising policy-makers.

We have the technology to collect an unprecedented amount of data using a range of observation platforms (e.g. Argo floats (see case studies 1 and 2), surface buoys, seabed landers, ships, satellites etc. The data can be used to generate models and products that are more accurate than ever before. However, it is not possible to observe the entire ocean, resources and investments are limited, and data is a valuable resource.

The challenge is to define the minimum number of data collection points that generate products and services that meet the short, medium and long-term needs with adequate accuracy.

One cross-discipline example is the improvement of long-term weather forecasts with better ocean data. Models of the marine environment are an enabling tool with which we can better understand the dynamics and relationships of the different physical and biochemical variables that are being measured. These models need to be able to make the most accurate and precise predictions based on the least amount of data to be as cost effective as possible.

The first step already taken to define exactly which data is needed at a minimum is to define a list of Essential Ocean Variables; a series of just over 30 parameters, which are relevant for supporting the study of climate change, provision of operational ocean services, and the monitoring of ocean health. These parameters are deemed to be collectable on a cost-effective basis with current technologies and scientific methods.

By tracking these variables and their interactions, we can understand the causes and effects of observed changes in the ecosystem. Verified by actual real-time observation, we can then build models to predict future scenarios, evaluate those and if necessary design strategies to mitigate against undesirable changes.

Case Study: Argo Floats

Arvor Pourquois Pas boat

The most advance global network of observing instruments is the international network of autonomous Argo floats measuring temperature and salinity along regular depth profiles of the top 2000m. Simultaneously, they transmit their position every time they surface, which allows to track ocean currents via GPS.

Scientists around the world have launched over 3,800 floats in all major seas and oceans. While this number sounds like a lot and the maps look impressive, it still means that the average distance between two floats is 300 km.

Case Study: Deep Argo Floats

Workers on a boat

The newer deep Argo floats go much deeper (4-6.000 meters) and were deployed in 2014. This generation of Argo floats was developed to collect data about the deep seas. The technology was developed mainly in France and the US. The US floats were developed at NOAA in cooperation with Scripps and funded through a private donation from Paul G. Allen Philanthropies. The floats help us gain more knowledge about currents and physical characteristics of the deep ocean. Among others, climate scientists will be able to improve their models with this new data.

Ocean Observation - The Future

Ocean observation and our subsequent understanding has progressed a long way since the early days. However, our knowledge remains limited and many important science questions remain unanswered.

To get there, we need:

Better technology

Just like science developed ever more accurate measurement technologies for weather forecasting in the 18th and 19th centuries, today we need a network of the best sensors and instrumentation for ocean observation. In fact, a step-change is expected in the coming years with weather forecasting being improved massively by incorporating ocean data – this has never been done. The newest sensors need to be able to withstand the marine environment (high pressure, low temperature, difficulty to access and communicate, biofouling). They need to be reliable in their measurements over long periods of time, should ideally be interchangeable and possibly measure numerous variables at once in high resolution. The work to develop or improve such technology is a constant balancing act of trade-offs between feasibility, sensitivity, robustness and cost effectiveness.

More systematic data

Although there has been a lot of work and progress made towards standardising data from ocean observations, developing best practices guidelines, and making data easily and freely available, there is still more to be done.

At present, there exists a broad variety of sensors types, technologies, sampling procedures and measuring techniques. All this means that it is difficult to share data without concerns regarding compatibility, calibration issues or accuracy. In future, there should be a set of Best Practice Guidelines and manuals to ensure data validity and coherence across studies and projects. Following such guidelines should ensure that the obtained data can be used by anyone anywhere. In an era of big data, we cannot build a global understanding on a jumble of ill-fitting nuts and bolts many of which can't be found when they're needed. To support good ocean governance and fair use, data from ocean observing needs to be more findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable – the best-practice principles for making data as openly accessible as possible and only as closed as absolutely necessary.

Better Models

One of the biggest goals for science is to create a fully working model of the Atlantic Ocean. Such a model would include of all its dynamics, verified by direct measurements and observations at high accuracy and high resolution both in space and time. Like the daily weather forecast, ocean forecasts based on models and observations would be the biggest step-change in the way we understand and can potentially manage the oceans since humans first took the seas.

Workers on a boat

… and we need to recognize the ocean as a global concern.

The Atlantic Ocean extends from pole to pole. Everything in it moves throughout its length, breadth, and depth via currents, wind, and marine traffic. If we want to understand this physical space and its ecosystem in its entirety, it is crucial to observe and study this space in its entirety. For a long time, the North Atlantic has been studied mostly separately from the South Atlantic Ocean.

Ocean observation needs to be an inclusive effort. For the Atlantic, we are forging new partnerships from South to North and West to East. We want to exchange best practices, experiences, and knowledge openly and on equal footing. Building on these partnerships, we can create an ocean observation strategy for the entire Atlantic Ocean.

Improved Ocean Observation for science and for society and future generations

The added value of improved ocean observation is enormous. It can be applied to many different areas of activities, including tourism, coastal protection, fishing or conservation. A clear identification of areas at risk helps to inform management decisions and to develop lasting avoidance strategies.

One example is the improved monitoring through tidal gauges which can help to predict and avoid damaging floods. The improved mapping of coastal vulnerabilities against erosion, flooding, and harmful algae blooms serves all coastal communities.

Damen FRV 7417 boat

Case Study: Angolas Fishing Industry

Like many coastal communities worldwide, the fisheries industry in Angola is dependent on reliable information about fish stocks, catch quotas and good catch locations.

Ocean observation can support economic growth and good ocean governance to make fisheries more sustainable and fair. This way, we can still rely on the ocean as a food source in the future, while maintaining the best possible ecological status.

Ultimately, ocean observation can support good ocean governance and can help to ensure a healthier marine environment. This helps to protect and support coastal communities, thus allowing them to prosper and it gives us all a chance to take pleasure and inspiration from time spent at the sea now and in the future.

The priorities of the ocean observing community have recently been agreed in a High-Level Strategy for an All-Atlantic Ocean Observing System (AtlantOS).

AtlantOS logo



Laura Verbeek, Stefan Fritz (KDM)

Simon Keeble, Kathryn Keeble, Dong Wang (Blue Lobster)


Composite image of rough blue ocean (vectorfusionart)
Icelandic Seaport: Boats for fishing and for whale watching tours gather at the port of Husavik, Iceland. (wakr10)
Marie Tharp map: National Geographic
Operation if the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) (GEOMAR)
Gorick Illustration (GOOS)
Working on a ship (Peer Fitzek, GEOMAR)


This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 633211

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