Nature and Biodiversity

The hidden downside to ocean data and how to make it more sustainable

Image: Unsplash

Linwood Pendleton
Executive Director, Ocean Knowledge Action Network International Project Office
Asgeir J. Sørensen
Director, Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems, NTNU (NTNU AMOS)
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  • Data technology can help us monitor and preserve the ocean.
  • But it comes with a high environmental cost in terms of emissions and waste.
  • Here are some immediate steps we must take to realize the benefits of more ocean data while mitigating the costs.

Scientists and planners are increasingly turning to digital technology to save the ocean. Data is needed to map and monitor ocean conditions, assess the impacts of climate change, warn about ocean-related natural disasters, and manage the ocean’s valuable economic and ecological resources.

Yet the same data technology that could help transform how we study and manage the ocean may also be unsustainable and environmentally damaging. As a result, at least some of the benefits of a more digitized planet and ocean may be offset by the environmental impacts of these efforts.

Fortunately, there are readily available solutions that could allow us to enjoy the benefits of a more digital ocean while limiting the negative environmental consequences of doing so. Here are the top environmental consequences and how to reduce these impacts.

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The carbon cost

Government agencies are putting enormous amounts of environmental data into the cloud, and ocean scientists are in the process of creating arrays that will generate terabytes of new data. The hope is to unleash the power of big data to drive scientific discovery, ecological restoration and sustainable development. Yet processing this data requires large amounts of energy, potentially increasing emissions.

To reduce carbon emissions, we should look to increase the efficiency of cloud computing for ocean data by employing simple software improvements and hyperscaling. We should also store ocean data on data centres that use green energy and batteries for back-up instead of fossil-fuel generators.

In addition, priority should be given to cloud providers and data solutions that take a “blue economy” approach to achieve net positive impacts on the ocean by creating, for example, underwater data centres that use natural ocean cooling to cool data centres, use these centres to collect ocean data and video, and have exteriors that are designed to promote eco-friendly reef-building.

Other energy-saving techniques include capturing heat energy from data centres and using it, and replacing old, carbon-emitting research vessels with autonomous sensor-carrying platforms while also pursuing a greener research fleet.

Image: NTNU AMOS Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems

The mineral dilemma

Ocean sensors and the platforms that host them are full of materials that need to be mined from the Earth. The demand for these metals has led to global-scale efforts to explore and potentially mine minerals from the seafloor.

To reduce the impact due to newly mined materials, and to thus reduce the environmental damage and biodiversity loss associated with mining (especially the sea floor), we suggest using recycled metals in ocean data sensors and platforms.

The debris problem

Many ocean sensor-carrying platforms are launched without any plans for recovery. Compounding the rise in the number of ocean sensors is the fact that many of these ocean sensors simply don’t last very long. While planned obsolescence is a frequently acknowledged downside of the digital economy, the problem in the ocean world is uncontrollable senescence - the ocean is a harsh and unforgiving environment for technical hardware.

As a result, non-recoverable ocean sensors contribute to the growing morass of ocean litter and plastic. When their batteries and metal parts corrode and fall apart, these sensors also release toxins and pollutants.

And don’t forget about the senescence of satellites, always a mainstay in ocean data collection. As more satellites begin to clog space, the debris created by these satellites multiplies and much of that space junk falls back to Earth where it becomes ocean litter.

To reduce the marine litter created by ocean data collection, we must improve the durability of ocean sensors and platforms and regulate satellites with the ocean in mind. We must also democratize data harvesting - and reduce marine litter - by focusing on more recoverable ocean sensors like small autonomous underwater vehicles and saildrones and putting more ocean sensors on mounted on maritime platforms that are either fixed (e.g. cables) or ships of opportunity that return to port (ferryboxes and ship-based sensors).

Finally, we must liberate ocean data. Countries should share more of the ocean data they already have.

The transition to sustainable ocean tech

It is easy to argue that the environmental impacts of a more digital ocean pale in comparison to potential benefits, including environmental benefits, of having more and faster ocean data. That’s not the point.

There are concrete and readily available steps that can be taken to reduce the environmental impacts of ocean data and technology. Adoption of some or all of the options we present here will only serve to increase these net benefits and reflect our shared commitment for a sustainable ocean data enterprise.

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