Keeping our oceans safe, secure and thriving with blue data

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May 24, 2021

by Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, Chief Executive and Accounting Officer at the UK Hydrographic Office

With environmental pressure rapidly intensifying on global ocean industries, newly appointed Chief Executive and Accounting Officer of the UK Hydrographic Office, Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes, explains how data and the blue economy could hold the key for safeguarding the world’s vulnerable oceans.

The world is changing rapidly. Our growing dependence on the ocean, and the emergence of new ‘ocean industries’ that will use the sea’s resources, heighten our collective need to understand better the fragility of marine habitats and the vulnerabilities faced by coastal communities around the globe.

This means that the decisions we make about our relationship with the oceans are becoming even more important. Our choices, today and tomorrow, need to be the right ones for the safety and security of our oceans, and our collective economic prosperity.

Effective decision-making is predicated on accurate information. For the oceans, our decision-making relies on sound marine geospatial data. Data helps to guide governments, shipping companies, navies, offshore energy producers, and new and emerging trades and industries to making the right commercial decisions. But data can also help to protect those nations and populations that are most exposed to extreme weather events and climate change and defend our marine habitats.

This data – ‘blue data’ – or marine geospatial information, has a central role to play in the future sustainability of the world’s oceans and ensuring Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). We have seen the power of this data to drive change first-hand, through our international work as part of the UK Government’s Commonwealth Marine Economies (CME) and Overseas Territories Seabed Mapping Programmes. 

In recent years, it has been a key aim of our Hydrographic Programmes team to support blue economic growth and to help small island developing states to fulfil their international maritime safety obligations under SOLAS. 

To do this, we’ve had to invest in the most modern ways of gathering information. We’ve realised considerable success with LIDAR technology on CME and Overseas Territories surveys, including two tasks in Turks and Caicos Islands and Belize, which covered 5,867km2 and 2,271km2 of inshore, shoal waters, respectively.

Moreover, advances in satellite derived bathymetry (SDB) surveying techniques are enabling us to survey shallow coastal regions that are remote, often inaccessible and hazardous, safely and with a coverage rate that has been previously unattainable. 

This is a tremendously exciting technological development that greatly improves our accessibility to marine geospatial data. In turn, we can help to provide small island developing states with the foundational information they need to enable them to harness their blue economy and offer protection to their precious marine environment. In doing so, we will help to improve our collective understanding of the ocean and our dependencies on it.

Teams across the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) are also supporting Seabed 2030, an international effort that aims to bring together all bathymetric data to produce a map of the ocean floor by 2030. This includes work with regional centres and Teledyne CARIS to develop a tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and reduce acoustic noise in bathymetric data. Use of this tool will help to significantly reduce the time it takes to process bathymetry collected through the programme and allow teams to spend more time on adding value to the raw data they receive.

Our teams are also working on many other initiatives, from employing computer visioning techniques to understand coastal erosion, to using machine-learning to plot changes to the global coverage of mangroves, which play a vital role as a natural carbon sink. 

Our collective history is inextricably linked with our oceans, stretching back thousands of years – from fishing and trade to transportation and exploration. And for the past 225 years, the UKHO has produced the charts and publications that have helped keep ships, seafarers and cargo safe.

With new and emerging technologies, we have developed the ability to analyse rapidly billions of data points to track the movement of global shipping, and process more than 20 years of tidal data to generate future ephemeral predictions that mariners can trust.

As a leading hydrographic office and marine geospatial information provider, our mission is to unlock the power of maritime data in the support of safe, secure, and thriving oceans. This means safe for mariners charting new, more fuel efficient sea routes, secure to enable continued use of the global commons, and safe for coastal communities at risk of extreme weather events and rising oceans. We help to enable UK maritime operations around the globe and to deliver humanitarian and disaster relief operations when the worst happens. 

In taking on the role as Chief Executive at UKHO, I will continue to lead the organisation’s important work in support of Defence and merchant shipping. We will further develop our commercial portfolio of ADMIRALTY Maritime Data Solutions and support the International Hydrographic Organization’s development of the second generation of electronic charting and digital services. We also continue to work with global partners in driving forward the S-100 product suite, building a new data framework that will further improve safety and optimise operations, not just in shipping but across all industries in our increasingly diverse maritime sector.

Blue data is both information and knowledge. It is fundamental to the safety, security and sustainability of our oceans. We look forward to working in partnership with like-minded organisations and individuals to make this vision a reality. 

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