Davos Agenda

What is ocean literacy and why do we need it?

children play on a beach and look out to sea

Image: REUTERS/Lucy Pemoni

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Virtual Ocean Dialogues
  • The ocean has captured more than a quarter of human-generated CO2.
  • Yet most of us know too little about the ocean and why it matters so much.
  • Step forward the Ocean Literacy project.
  • It aims to educate all age groups on the ocean’s resources and how best we can manage them.

The ocean covers more than 70% of our planet’s surface. It is the last and largest unexplored area on Earth. Yet too few of us really understand how it is inextricably connected to all aspects of our lives.

The Ocean Literacy project is setting out to improve our understanding of the ocean by providing teaching materials for schools, from kindergarten to 18-year-olds, together with online resources to allow adults to learn more.

Have you read?

The intervention is timely. A report last year found marine science and ocean literacy topics were poorly represented in school curricula across the world and called for an integrated approach starting with the youngest students, supported by additional training for teachers.

a chart showing key stats about the ocean
The ocean provides half the oxygen we breathe. Image: NOAA

What is ocean literacy?

The project defines an ocean literate person as someone who understands the ocean’s influence on them and their influence on the ocean, is able to communicate about the ocean in a meaningful way and make informed decisions about their use of ocean resources.

Although we divide the body of water that covers 71% of our planet’s surface into separate oceans, the project points out that, in reality, there is just one ocean whose currents and influence flows around the globe.

a map showing where ocean sea floor exploration has taken place
Humans have explored very little of the ocean. Image: Visual Capitalist

More than 80% of the world’s oceans remain unmapped and unexplored and much of what we know comes from gravity mapping by satellites. The surface of Mars and Venus has been mapped in 50 times more detail than our ocean floor according to analysis by Visual Capitalist.

As well as recognizing that all seas are really one ocean, the Ocean Literacy project says we all need to understand how the ocean has shaped the land. Many of the rocks beneath our feet were laid down by the sea and many of the chemicals we take for granted originated there.

Our key ally against climate change

The ocean not only influences weather and climate but plays a major role in mitigating the worst effects of climate change by absorbing, moving and storing heat and carbon. The ocean has captured more than a quarter of human-generated CO2 – up to 2 to 3 billion tonnes a year.

Without the ocean, Earth would be uninhabitable by humans, says the project team. Most of the oxygen in our atmosphere originated in the ocean. Today, 80% of it is produced by phytoplankton – microscopic marine plants that drift across the sea.

a picture of Phytoplankton
Phytoplankton - tiny plants that generate most of Earth’s oxygen. Image: Pixabay/FotoshopTofs

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

The project emphasizes the diversity of life in the sea. The ocean is home to as many as 10 million different marine species and up to 2,000 new species are discovered every year, according to the United Nations.

“We have to recognize that the Earth and its oceans are finite,” said broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough in an interview with The Guardian last year. “We have to recognize that in the past we have destroyed whole fisheries, herring, cod, just destroyed them.

“We need a plan… We need to show restraint. Mutual restraint. We have to know we aren’t always in competition with one another.”

Interviewed by HRH The Duke of Cambridge at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in 2019, he warned: “It’s difficult to overstate it. We are now so numerous, so powerful, so all-pervasive, the mechanisms that we have for destruction are so wholesale and so frightening, that we can actually exterminate whole ecosystems without even noticing it.”

The Forum’s Friends of Ocean Action recently published their first report detailing the steps they have already taken to help end illegal fishing, expand marine protection and conservation, decarbonize shipping and encourage sustainable ocean food production.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaOceanFuture of the Environment
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