World Ocean Weekly

The Catalogue of Life

Data Collection for a Sustainable Future

Data, data everywhere…the recommendation of every scientist is to collect more data. There are vast compendia, most everything caught up in a colossal search engine for information to fuel the even more demanding requirements of artificial intelligence which we will rely on more and more for how the future works, decisions are made, problems are solved, students are taught, and services are delivered. Our world has become a huge data sink with the intent to observe everything there is to see, to know everything there is to know, whether or not we can understand it.

Thus we have efforts to assemble a definitive record of our existence: material culture in museums and historical societies; documents and visualizations in libraries and archives; seeds and genomes in protected underground shelters; and penultimately, in a database called The Catalogue of Life, a digital community of users based in The Netherlands, defined on its website as follows:

“The Catalogue of Life is the most comprehensive and authoritative global index of species currently available. It consists of a single integrated species checklist and taxonomic hierarchy. The Catalogue holds essential information on the names, relationships and distributions of over 1.6 millions species.”

The justification for this endeavor reads as follows: “The loss and degradation of biodiversity are vital concerns for humanity. There is currently no single, universal and complete reference to what species we think are alive today. Without this we cannot sustainably use, explore, monitor, manage and protect biodiversity resources… The Catalogue of Life depends upon the contributions of more than 150 Global Species Databases, established at centers of expertise around the world, that continue to identify new data sources that address gaps…” So, what we have here is a database of data bases, everything we know about life on earth in every form everywhere in every time and place.

There is an ironic calculation embedded in this process. We add to our count of species by consolidated records and new research and discoveries, and we subtract our count by the disappearance of species at a disconcerting rate as a result of conditions created by the human species detrimental, terminally, to some others. Beyond toxins and other poisonous conditions for habitat, climate change is an additional major consideration as temperature, circulation, and other shifting conditions attack the distribution and survivability of species on land and sea.

Data collection in the ocean is growing exponentially through fixed and floating observations systems, underwater vehicles, research vessels, satellite analyses, and redirection of scientific interest from terrestrial to marine environments worldwide. Initiatives in the US, Europe, and Asia are receiving large investments by governments, non-governmental organizations, and private capital. It is as if the old frontier is either polluted or already known, and the research energy must shift to a new horizon where knowledge awaits, that is if you can see through the chemicals dumped, oil spilled, persistent organic pollutants circulated, de-oxygenating nitrogen concentrated, waste and plastic discarded, reefs and coastal nurseries despoiled, and all the other negative conditions now so evident in an ocean that no longer can be expected to infinitely heal itself.

Despite all this, the ocean and its nurturing watershed remains our planet’s most astonishing catalogue of life. If we are to know it, we must preserve it. And, to paraphrase what Jacques Cousteau so famously said, “If we are to sustain it, we must love it and act to protect it.” Yes, let’s collect the data as if that knowledge might be lost to memory, but yes, also, let’s join every political and social action locally, nationally, and internationally to restrict and re-order how we engage with the ocean and with that living data that is our inevitable sustenance for the future. Let’s collect what we know; let’s put our knowledge to use.

Citizens of the Ocean, unite!

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

About the Catalogue of Life
The Catalogue of Life is an online database that provides the world’s most comprehensive and authoritative index of known species of animals, plants, fungi and micro-organisms. It was created in 2001 as a partnership between the global Species 2000 and the American Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Learn more at

Tools for Understanding the Value of the Ocean

Publications, reports, and projects are integral to the evolution of ocean policy and science, including the Atlas of Ocean Wealth, published by the Nature Conservancy in 2016, which provides a tool for understanding the true value of what Nature provides in surprising and previously unrecognized ways.

We recently discussed an international cooperative project to create a comprehensive picture and profile of the sea floor as a baseline resource for further understanding of the world ocean. From that science we derive additional information through expanded, layered perspectives, and that knowledge finds its public expression in different publications and resources often independently conceived and executed, but taken together represent substantive progress in our awareness of the true value of the ocean on which the future of human life on earth will depend.

There are several other key publications and projects that I believe are seminal to the evolution of public policy, ocean science, and analysis of ocean value. The first is The Ocean, Our Future — Report of the Independent World Ocean Commission, published in 1998, the UN Year of the Ocean, in which a group of informed individuals assembled what is, in my opinion, still the best long-term outline of the issues confronting ocean sustainability and governance. The list of recommendations is fundamental, concise, prescient, progressive, and unequalled.

The second is the UN Atlas of the Oceans, a vast encyclopedia of ocean information accumulated by UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, that attempts to integrate all UN resources into a major database, augmented by links to other agencies and organizations. The site remains live, and the value of the resource is enormous, but it is not aggressively maintained and updated. Nonetheless, it contains very specific research and innumerable reports that are of great utility for anyone searching for international ocean policy and oversight from a global inter-governmental perspective.

The third project is the Ocean Health Index, a country-by-country evaluation of all aspects of ocean impacts on the national economy, the result of a multi-year research effort to gather such information according to consistent parameters and metrics that provides an annual “health quotient” number that can be compared with other nations and shift annually as information improves and circumstances change. It is a fascinating endeavor and well worth your interest.

Atlas of Ocean Wealth | The Nature Conservancy

The fourth effort is The Atlas of Ocean Wealth, published in 2016 by The Nature Conservancy. This report contains a concentrated survey of natural elements that contribute to the well being of civil society, be they marine-protected areas, fishing practices, certain species protections, and the impact of constructive (and destructive) human behavior. What is especially important about this project is its emphasis on “ecosystem services analysis,” that is, an inclusive calculation of the financial implication of the preservation or loss of a particular aspect of the marine world and its correlative economic consequence.

This is a radical new tool for understanding the true value of what Nature provides us in previously unrecognized ways. For example, take coastal mangrove swamps or dune-protected beaches that act as a natural barrier to storm surge. How do you measure or balance in economic terms the profit or loss should these be eroded or filled for waterfront development? When such storms occur we are familiar with the astonishing estimates of resultant costs — in human life, property loss, insurance pay-outs, rebuilding costs, lawsuits and conflict resolution, and the implicit certainty that these expenses will happen again and again as a result of not preserving the natural protection inherent within as a measurable service. Such calculation can produce very interesting alternative argument for certain actions, and are particularly helpful in the analysis in advance of any planned action that would intrude upon environmental resources. The Nature Conservancy is to be congratulated for its investment in this approach when applied to its own actions and those of every other ocean-related proposal still to come.

What follows this approach represents a telling fifth effort: the application of a changing, pro-active, realistically calculated evaluation to guide us in defense of the ocean and its contribution to our well-being, to be incorporated into all development plans and decisions.

Evident here are the core assumptions of an international policy and guide to best practice for the ocean — a principled, insightful plan; a full detailed map of the complete ocean; the aggregation of comprehensive oceanic research, science, and information; an integrated system of measurement of the full spectrum of societal behavior; an inclusive calculation of the ocean’s value in terms of all aspects of human life; and a resultant application of what has been accumulated as a progressive tool for the future.

Those tools are in place . Let’s use them.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

The Arctic, China, and the Blue Economic Passage

At the meeting of the Arctic Circle, the association of governments, non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, and civil society groups with interest in the Arctic, the ever-increasing presence of China continued to affirm the renewed geopolitical competition in the region, further amplified by the accelerating impacts of climate change and the melting of the circumpolar sea ice. Heretofore the Arctic, if anyone considered it all, was preemptively the concerns of the eight nations with direct Arctic access, a western focus, the east being excluded by natural barriers and focus elsewhere. China made its first important foray into this dialogue in 2013 when it was recognized as an Arctic “observer,” in 2016 when it announced a formal initiative, The Polar Silk Road, a strategic element of its larger Road and Belt Initiative, a declared strategy to assert it economic power from Asia into Europe by road, train, and shipping systems to accommodate expansion of Chinese production and trade, and in 2018 with the publication of an Arctic “white paper,” a major policy statement of justification and specific action.

The unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the Arctic are now very much more available, economic value enhanced by depletion elsewhere, new technologies, climate realities, and national aspiration. The prize as valued by ecosystem service analysis has been estimated at some $281 billion a year in terms of food, mineral extraction, oil production, tourism, hunting, existing value and climate regulation in a 2017 assessment. It is a shocking figure, filled with implication for the regional environment, the local communities, and economic development opportunities in the future. It is an inevitable locus for Chinese interest and investment. With the opening of the Northern Sea Route, more direct connection with its land links and target markets is reduced in time and space with financial advantage through a circum-enclosure of Europe and increased access to the US and Canadian North Atlantic.

The “white paper” makes for interesting reading. It offers a list of the highest intentions, acknowledges existing national claim and international agreements, projects continuing serious investment in exploration and scientific study, and commits to cooperative bi-lateral treaties for specific intents, policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, what it calls “ blue economic passage” between China and Arctic states on almost every aspect of future development. The tone is responsible and collaborative; the rights of Nature and indigenous people are solemnly affirmed; and the sense of peace and harmony for these interactions assured. It appears progressive, reasonable, and inevitable.

To my view, the Chinese claim seemed overtly preemptive. The logic of their presence and influence goes against the certainties of the past, but they had expanded “observer” status almost to full and equal rights by simply being there. Further, in the list of Policies and Positions, below the blandishments and commitment to exploration, environmental protection, and cultural understanding, there was a key section on “Utilizing Arctic Resources” with several very specific implications:

1) Development of the Arctic Shipping Lanes

Calling for rights of use and freedom of navigation, a role in the establishment of security and logistical capacities, and infrastructure construction and operation of Arctic routes;

2) Exploration and Exploitation of Oil, Gas, Mineral and Other Non-Living Resources

Calling for participation in development of these resources through cooperation and forms of agreement; and participation and exchange in the study of clean energy sources such as low carbon technology, wind, and geothermal technologies.

3) Conservation and Utilization of Fisheries and Other Living Resources

Calling for access to the new fishing grounds of the future within the context of conservation and international agreements pertaining equally to all states; and access to the study and protection of marine genetic resources and the equitable sharing and use of the benefits of this exploitation.

The penultimate commitment pledges to the principles of “extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, emphasized policy coordination, infrastructure connectivity, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and closer people-to-people ties.”

In other words, a full seat at the Arctic table, like it or not.

The compelling interest in the natural wealth of the Arctic is not new news; it has been an underlying sub-text in all the prior meetings of the Arctic Circle, noble commitments to biodiversity, sustainability, indigenous communities, and traditional culture notwithstanding. What is interesting now is the arrival of a bumptious new player — with equal interest, advanced technology, more capital, autocratic decision-making, and fulsome determination. As genteel as it was all made to sound, it was a claim to power, pure and simple.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.

Marine Technology in the Information Age

by Peter Neill, founder and director, World Ocean Observatory

Stealth Nuclear Submarine |

Nations have been won and lost by war at sea. We think often of ships for exploration and trade, but those activities progressed into imperial reach and colonial expansion across the oceans to every other nation connected by the sea. The power was sea power, and for centuries the fleets of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, and later the United States projected global influence and aspiration, augmented and protected assets, and defined the intercourse of nations.

Certain technical achievements enhanced these powers: charts and navigational instruments, steam power supplanting sail, increased armament and accuracy of weapons on-board and along-shore, the airplane, nuclear power, the submarine. This latter advanced naval warfare from two to three dimensions, upset all the historical rules of engagement, and provided an invisible array of weapons for both offense and defense that demanded an entirely new way of waging war at sea.

Submarines, armed with torpedoes and missiles, belittled the scale of ever-larger warships - cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers - that suddenly needed protection by escorts and defensive weapons against the threat of attack by small, surprisingly unseen enemy vessels that could penetrate the deep water and lurk in the shallows. Counter-measures were required and a wave of new technical and tactical weapons evolved: sonar, satellite, and stealth as means to seek and destroy. The identification and monitoring of larger and more effective submarines became a modern fixation in response to the destabilized and contradicted conventions of naval engagement.

As technology has expanded on every other front, so too has this evolution of sub-sea activity reacted. A recent article in Marine Technology Reporter enumerates some of the advances now being deployed. They seem to manifest in support of two strategies. The first strategy is particularly defensive: to turn the underwater zone into a vital space enhanced by sensitive recording that provides complete information regarding detailed ocean conditions and the sea floor, the detected movement of any large object underwater (including whales), and the changing aspects of the water column that might provide better classification of threat and early warning, and affect the efficiency and accuracy of detection and delivery. The second strategy is primarily offensive: to use unmanned, automated, robotic vehicles that can be profuse, inexpensive by contrast to surface craft, carry larger and more effective payloads, and be operated autonomously using artificial intelligence and remote control from land-based centers, expanding "the battle space" at lower cost, higher success, and no loss of life - that is, unless you are on the receiving end of these attacks.

September, 2018 | Marine Technology Reporter

We know that we live in an information world. He who has the most data wins, right? We seem to be heading for a new kind of warfare where comprehensive measurement arrays provide strategic awareness of the battlefield; computers recognize classifications, potentials, and false signals; multiple systems provide analysis of specific tactical options and response; artificial intelligence calculates the probabilities, concludes, and issues the command; and algorithms on- and off-board execute the offensive or defensive action; and the engagement is won.

I often walk along the ocean edge, stimulated to think about what is out there, in a dynamic space that I cannot see. I think of the food chain, a constant feeding up and down of creatures that need each other to survive. It is a hard world out there, lots of threats and enemies, in the deep ocean and lurking in the shallows. But what else is there that is invisible to me? The beams of searching electrons, the devices fixed to the dark soundings, the sleek engineered constructs that float and glide, follow paths of directed light, listen and feel the marine environment around, collect and evaluate the data that even in its minutia contributes to the great geo-political conversation and the exercise of power? Is that what is going on the great world ocean? Or is it something else?

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Climate Change Refugees: Reaping the Whirlwind

Here in New England, summer is gone. We are having a perfect fall: the calendar colors, magnificent sunsets, wide night sky, and crisp temperatures. In the harbors, the boats are being down-rigged, sails off, heading for the winter yards where they endure the cold, sufferable winter.

What a summer it was. Here in Maine we had fog for much of it, followed by several weeks of intense clarity, sunshine and revolving winds. But what about the rest of the world, where the consequences of climate engendered hurricanes and wildfires, droughts and tsunamis destroyed the lands and inundated the coasts? It was a summer of extremes, blowing in the air and in from the ocean. Those of us protected from those things this year could only react with awe and admiration for the response and resilience evinced by those affected worldwide.

There is a Biblical phrase that signifies the reality of consequences for human action: They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. We experienced one whirlwind after another this summer, and one wonders if it can be anymore possible not to equate the contribution of human intervention to these unnatural natural outcomes. The results are tragic, counted in the loss of human lives, community destruction, broken systems, inadequate response, and the inequitable distribution of the cost, the pain, and the loss among those who could afford it least.

Why is it that those who are the most vulnerable are made to bear the burden of bad policy, indifference, and willful governance that fails them over and over again?

Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters

What results is a measurable shift of population and finance. As an example, let’s take the people of the Virgin Islands or the people of Puerto Rico who remain still without adequate power, water, and services a year after struck by a similarly devastating storm. And then consider the irony of the most recent hurricane (Florence) hitting the southern United States coast just weeks ago. It caused the evacuation of millions, comparable destruction, and the prospect of equally prolonged restoration of home and health in a state where government had determinedly legislated against even the mention of climate change and willfully offered no plans for preparation and protection for probability predicted for years. Just how foolish is that?
Houses surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Florence. North Carolina. Jason Miczek/Reuters

But this is old news, sad to say. Today we see displacement everywhere: homes in California; farms in North Carolina; coastal villages in Indonesia and Japan; insects and birds changing their migration patterns; fish moving to different water; ice and permafrost melting; aquifers drying up and rivers disappearing; rains coming in torrents that defy the land to absorb, its irrational descent to the ocean taking with it topsoil, homesteads, occupations, whole towns, social stability, and optimism for the future in a mass flow that erodes the basic foundations of our living.

This displacement makes refugees of us all. Think about it: all these extreme weather events as resultant, not-so-subtle movements of people bereft of their belongings and their occupations, looking for shelter in another place that may not be prepared for or interested in their arrival. We see it in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Asia, South and North America: climate refugees, entire societies disrupted and made to move away toward uncertainty and the unknown.

Joanne Francis on Unsplash

The most challenging, underlying social, political, and economic conflicts in the world today revolve around refugees. Where can they go? How will they survive? What will they do once they arrive at a place that will not accept them? If we are not experiencing the outcome of our willful ignorance and mindless consumption of natural resources, if we are not proving the necessity for a revolutionary shift in our values, structures, and behaviors, if we do not change our ways wherever we may be to address the causes for all this misery, then we will continue to reap the whirlwind we deserve.

Summer is gone… We enter the autumnal time, and the winter is coming.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.