Driving the Blue Economy With Marine Geospatial Data

Cathrine Armour, Chief Customer Officer at the UK Hydrographic Office

Published Nov 23, 2020 12:19 PM by Cathrine Armour

For centuries, the oceans have been the mainstay of the world economy. From the earliest sailors and traders to the megaships and offshore activity of today, global prosperity and how we manage marine resources have always been inextricably linked. Now understood as a variety of sectors and industries that constitute the ‘Blue Economy’; including development, technology and sustainability, which we estimate to be worth £3.2 trillion by 2030.

At the same time, our oceans are under more pressure than ever before. Climate change threatens our ocean ecosystems and the way of life for millions around the globe. And with the world engaging in a drive for balancing economic growth with sustainability, it is vital that we find ways to use our ocean responsibly. 

The United Nations has placed the world’s oceans at the heart of its Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, the 2020s have also been marked as the ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’ – a reflection of the growing importance of ocean scientific disciplines including hydrography. Marine geospatial data is now emerging, with growing international recognition, as one of the core pillars that will support decision-making and policymaking when it comes to the ocean environment.

Oceans under threat

Today, more than three billion people depend on the marine economy for their food and livelihoods. Meanwhile, our oceans are under increasing pressure with advances in technology, busier seas and pressing environmental challenges. 

When it comes to ocean resources, rarely have we been able to balance growth with sustainability. As much as 40% of the world’s oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, acidification and depleted fisheries and coastal habitats. Meanwhile, sea level rises triggered by climate change are placing our coastal regions at an increased risk of flooding and coastal erosion – both of which significantly impact coastal economic development. 

Most worryingly, the truth is that the most acute effects and burdens of these significant sustainability challenges will not be experienced equally by us all but will instead be felt most harshly by vulnerable coastal communities in developing countries.

A change in stance that maximises the sustainable use of our ocean resources is therefore a necessity. The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) believes that marine geospatial data – from seabed to surface – holds one of the key pieces in the puzzle that will help us meet the challenges facing the marine environment. 



Marine geospatial data at the heart of the Blue Economic revolution 

Marine geospatial data is a wide term that spans a huge resource of information at our fingertips. From the bathymetric and seabed data depicted in the navigational charts that underpin maritime trade and safety of life at sea, to the tidal and marine habitat information needed for sustainable fisheries and renewable energy, the potential applications of this resource are varied and exciting. 

Technological developments seen over the past few decades have seen the breadth of marine geospatial data boom, revealing new insights about our coasts and oceans. By increasing our knowledge of the coastline, we can predict areas at risk of flooding, identify the regions impacted by rising sea levels, and pinpoint the areas most vulnerable to extreme weather. This information in turn can guide public and private sector investment in coastal defences, inform resilience measures and in turn provide for greater confidence in economic investment. 

Meanwhile, for developing nations, marine geospatial information can liberalise economies and open new avenues of investment, including in port infrastructure that can act as an economic lifeline and link to global trade. 

Around the world, we see examples of this kind of collaboration in action. For example, through the Commonwealth Marine Economies programme, the UKHO works with partners, such as the National Oceanographic Centre, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and commercial survey contractors, to support the Blue Economic development of 17 nations. 

Meanwhile, through the Overseas Territories Seabed Mapping Programme, we are working with 14 UK Overseas Territories to update navigational charts and products through a focussed survey programme, while also ensuring they meet international obligations, improve compliance, and sustainably develop their ocean economies. 

An example of where geospatial data can provide real change is in Kiribati, a small archipelagic nation with around 115,000 citizens. It is listed by the UN as an island that is at risk of sea inundation due to sea-level rise. Marine geospatial data, collected in close collaboration with our surveying partners, can help to inform coastal defence planning to mitigate against the effects of climate change. 

In Guyana, we have captured new geospatial data for the approaches to Guyana’s main port, Georgetown, which will make port calls much safer and more efficient, while reducing risk to key marine environments.

Meanwhile, in Anguilla, we have worked extensively to develop the foundation of a Marine Spatial Data Infrastructure (MSDI) to empower the local government with marine geospatial data, making it more widely discoverable, accessible and usable via an online Data Management Solution.

These are just some of the ways that marine geospatial data is being used to underpin the Blue Economy, but the potential applications are almost boundless. 

The knowledge to drive change

It’s encouraging to see that geospatial data and the collaboration driven by its sourcing, management and sharing is helping to spark change. But despite this, there is still a way to go with many coastal states subject to immense challenge: narrow resource bases depriving them of the benefits of economies of scale; high costs for energy, infrastructure, transportation, communication and servicing; long distances from export markets and import resources; low and irregular international traffic volumes; little resilience to natural disasters; growing populations; high volatility of economic growth; limited opportunities for the private sector and a proportionately large reliance of their economies on their public sector; and fragile natural environments. The list goes on…

Our role is to continue to gather, manage and share marine geospatial data, to give decision makers the vital information they need to develop safe, secure and thriving oceans. 

To learn more about  the capabilities of marine geospatial data for the Blue Economy, the UKHO is hosting the ADMIRALTY Blue Data Conference in January 2021, which brings together leading experts in ocean science, marine data, and the Blue Economy to explore the transformative power of blue data and address some of the defining questions for our ocean industries and for the marine environment. Find out more about the event by visiting https://discover.admiralty.co.uk/blue-data-conference 

This article is sponsored by the UK Hydrographic Office

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.