• Lauren Napier

United Nations World Oceans Day: Satellite Data Supports ‘Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean’


Today we are celebrating World Oceans Day, a United Nations (UN) International Day, celebrated each year on 8 June. This year’s theme – ‘Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean’ – is important for achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life Below Water. World Oceans Day is supported by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).


There are many ways in which space enabled applications support the oceans. Earth Observation (EO), Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) or Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and remote sensing offer data on coral reefs, climate change, weather, fisheries, sea travel, coastal zones, ocean disasters, and overall changes in the marine environment. “Space-based technologies are an invaluable tool for marine monitoring, with great potential to contribute to sustainable policy- and decision-making.”[1]

The continued support of space enabled applications toward the oceans is twofold: one aspect is that we cannot live without access and use of the oceans; and the other, is that we must protect the marine environment for life on Earth to survive. Which culminates into SDG 14 – Life Below the Water and the Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) initiated by the United Nations.


Space4SDGs, an initiative of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), is the international space community’s proof that though our work is off-world it doesn’t mean the world cannot benefit from space science and technology.

“Coordination of activities in space science, technology, and their applications and services can ensure solid partnerships are put in place to make accessible such innovative ways to support countries in the attainment of the SDGs.”[2]

Another initiative, from the Group on Earth Observations (GEO), is the Oceans and Society: Blue Planet Initiative. “GEO Blue Planet is a network of ocean and coastal-observers, social scientists and end-user representatives from a variety of stakeholder groups, including international and regional organizations, NGOs, national institutes, universities and government agencies. GEO Blue Planet aims to ensure the sustained development and use of ocean and coastal observations for the benefit of society.”[3]


These initiatives offer ways policy- and decision-makers can integrate space enabled applications into their marine policies. They also offer examples of how space science and technology can support various types of stakeholders and society through observations and data. Additionally, these initiatives offer examples and a starting point for communication, cooperation, collaboration, and capacity building.

The European Union’s Copernicus programme issued a third Ocean State Report for 2019 in order to provide “… a comprehensive and state-of-the-art assessment of the current state, natural variations, and changes in the global ocean and European regional areas”[4]. This report, “meant to act as a reference document for the ocean scientific and business communities as well as decision-makers and the general public”[5], is a powerful example of the kind of data space enabled applications can give us about the status of our oceans and the marine environment because of issues such as climate change.

One important point across the board was that satellite data was almost always paired with other forms of data collection such as in situ technology just showcasing that monitoring the oceans is a joint effort which supports communication as well as cooperative and collaborative project. Local, national, regional, and global policies and frameworks should consider that just as all the oceans are interconnected, so too is our reliance on them.


However, we also need to consider the oceans as a robust, vital, and diverse marine environment. One that hosts life and supports a sustainable ecosystem for humanity as well as all life on Earth.

“The ocean is the lifeblood of Earth, covering more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface, driving weather, regulating temperature, and ultimately supporting all living organisms. Yet for all of our reliance on the ocean, more than eighty percent of this vast, underwater realm remains unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored.”[6]

One critical example of supporting the marine ecosystem is by mapping or bathymetry (the study of beds or floors of water bodies) and is being done in order to learn more about various depths of the seafloor as well as monitoring the fast depleting coral reefs. The United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aids in mapping the seafloor as it is difficult to map given the physical properties of the water itself.

“Thanks to gravity, the ocean surface has broad bumps and dips that mimic the topography of the ocean floor. These bumps and dips can be mapped using a very accurate radar altimeter mounted on a satellite.”[7]
Credit: http://sci-web04.mgmt.science.uq.edu.au/RSRC/rstoolkit/en/html/marine/resources/what-is-remote-sensing.html

Monitoring and mapping coral reefs are crucial in the long-term. Most coral reefs threated today are done so by anthropogenic variables. We are the problem. This is quite counterproductive as we need coral reefs as much as marine animals need the reefs.

Coral reefs “support more than 500 million livelihoods worldwide and account for 15% of gross domestic product in more than 20 countries”[8].

The inclusion of space technologies and remote sensing are supporting the monitoring and mapping of the coral reefs in a cost-effective and real-time way.


According to Oceanographer Paul Snelgrove in his 2012 Ted Talk,

“We know more about the surface of the Moon and about Mars than we do about this habitat [the deep sea floor] despite the fact that we have yet to extract a gram of food, a breath of oxygen, or a drop of water from those bodies”[9].

With the support of space enabled applications and satellite data from the world oceans and marine environment we can eventually learn more about our oceans. This will better support the marine ecosystem, and humanity, and ensure the availability of the oceans for future generations of humans and marine beings.


The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.


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[1] Irianna Vlachopoulou, ‘Space Technologies’ Role in Marine Monitoring and Management’ Space4Water Portal <http://www.space4water.org/news/space-technologies-role-marine-monitoring-and-management> accessed 04 June

[2] Hui Du, Luc St-Pierre, Eirini Ioanna Vlachopoulou, Jorge Del Rio Vera, Niklas Hedman, and Simonetta Di Pippo, ‘Forging Parnerships Between Users and Space Solutions Providers’ (70th International Astronautical Congress, Washington D.C. 2019) 1

[3] Group on Earth Observations, ‘GEO Oceans and Society: Blue Planet Initiative 2020-2022 Implementation Plan’ (August 2019) 1

[4] European Union, Copernicus Marine Science, ‘Ocean State Report Issue 3, 2019’ <https://marine.copernicus.eu/science-learning/ocean-state-report/> accessed 03 June

[5] European Union, Copernicus Marine Science, ‘Ocean State Report Issue 3, 2019’ <https://marine.copernicus.eu/science-learning/ocean-state-report/> accessed 03 June

[6] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Ocean Service, ‘How Much of the Ocean Have We Explored?’ < https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/exploration.html> accessed 04 June [7] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ‘How Are Satellites Used to Observe the Ocean?’ <https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/satellites-ocean.html> accessed 04 June

[8] Adriana Humanes and Liam Lachs, ‘Remote Sensing in Managing, Maintaining, and Understanding Coral Reef Ecosystems’ Space4Water Portal <http://www.space4water.org/s4w/web/news/remote-sensing-managing-maintaining-and-understanding-coral-reef-ecosystems> accessed 04 June

[9] Paul Snelgrove, ‘A Census of the Ocean’, Ted Talk (28 February 2012) < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PcDftBVDSlc> accessed 04 June

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