Dr Wendy Watson-Wright is the Executive Secretary of the International Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the Assistant Director General at UNESCO.

In which ways are space-based services helping us to understand and monitor the changes occurring to our oceans?

So much of the ocean is over the horizon, and inaccessible to direct observation. When the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission was formed more than fifty years ago, sea going oceanographers were confined to a view of the ocean which stretched barely 7 miles to the horizon. Now, satellite images of a wide variety of ocean properties, like ocean temperature, sea surface color and sea surface height, routinely reveal to scientists and the public an ocean of infinite variety, marked by swirls and colors driven by complex currents and eddies. We can see the warm tongue of water extending along the equator marking the El Nino, monitor upwelling along the coasts of California and Chile through chlorophyll color, or image a harmful algal bloom moving toward the beach. The ocean is no longer simply the uniform blue area on globes between the continents, but is appreciated for its complex role in our world’s climate and biosphere. The most iconic image of Climate Change today is probably the time series of Arctic Ice Coverage built by satellites since 1978 and continued today with Cryosat-2. These images have shaped our understanding of the remarkable changes occurring in the Arctic Ocean and have spurred the public and government to support new initiatives for Polar Research. In a less visually obvious way, satellite communications have transformed our ability to monitor the ocean. In just over one decade, the Argo array of over 3000 drifting profilers has returned more than a million Salinity and Temperature profiles, each one made possible by the ability to transmit data from the most remote parts of the ocean via satellite.

How does this improve on the accuracy and reliability of previous terrestrial methods?

There are many examples, but let me mention one of concern to IOC. As you know Sea level rise is one of the major indicators of climate change. The IOC for decades has coordinated the Global Sea Level Observing System of coastal monitoring stations, most of which now deliver data in real time, often by satellite connections. But coastal sea level measurements are notoriously difficult to interpret as measurements can be dominated by local geophysical changes. Satellite imagery and altimetry, when combined with coastal ground truthing has been used to map sea level change across whole ocean basins. With millimeter accurate altimetry data, effects of changes in local wind forcing can be accounted for and global sea level rise is accurately determined. Without satellites, coastal measurements would not be able to deliver this key index of climate change.

How can this understanding be used to slow damage to oceans and our environment more widely?

The slow damage to our ocean and environment will not be solved easily. Probably our most potent weapons in the struggle are information, knowledge and public awareness. Too often, solving problems which are over the horizon are postponed to another day. It is essential that the problems of the ocean be understood to be the problems of all humanity. The understanding that satellite imagery brings to the public discourse has been essential in raising the visibility of the ocean. Ocean problems are beginning to be addressed in the UN process for the UNFCCC and UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Satellite data and imagery were essential in making the case that the ocean is being impacted and will impact society. We hope the attention will now translate into action.

How can we help emerging economies who would benefit from such technology and data, access it more readily?

Emerging economies, including Small Island Developing States (SIDS), have an urgent need to monitor and manage their coastal waters and EEZ’s. Pollution, fisheries exploitation, sea level change and coastal hazards such as tsunami and storm flooding have outsized impacts on these nations. Many have limited abilities to make direct observations and find great value in their ability to access satellite products which cover their territorial seas. The IOC has programmes which seek to develop the ability of SIDS to work with the advanced technologies and opportunities available from satellite services. Training and consistent maintenance of basic communication facilities are high priorities for these countries.

What are the socio-economic benefits of space-based services in relation to ocean research?

Going to sea in ships is still an extremely expensive way to do science. And a ship can only observe what is immediately below it. Satellite information has, from the beginnings of space imaging, filled in the areas between ship tracks, allowing extrapolations of on-board measurements to be made to wider areas of the ocean. On the other hand we recognize that in-situ measurements made by those ships are essential to calibrating and ground truthing satellite data. Ocean research has grown with satellite technology but satellite products will always require those data that can be obtained only with a water bottle and ocean going laboratories.

What is being done to enhance collaboration between observation, research and user communities?

International collaboration is what the IOC is all about, in fact being articulated in our statutes where it says, “The purpose of the Commission is to promote international cooperation and to coordinate programmes in research, services and capacity-building…” The variety of sciences which come together to form oceanography have always required a high level of collaboration between researchers and observations. Today, society requires more from the oceanographic sciences. User communities are learning of the valuable products now available to help nations manage their marine resources. Satellite products are an important aspect of marine services and must be integrated into any Marine Spatial Planning programme or Ecosystem Based Management plan. The IOC, through its programmes such as the Global Ocean Observation System (GOOS) and the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE), responds to user community needs by assuring that marine observation and data systems are coordinated at a global scale and that gaps in our monitoring systems and understanding of the ocean are eliminated. Planning also involves the space based component of these systems. These IOC programmes help identify national and international needs and campaign for continuity in the mission of key satellite observation components.