• 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.

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?

Our ocean covers 70% of the world’s surface and accounts for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without a healthy ocean - but it's more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our ocean means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organization interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

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.