Tech helps protect ocean life and livelihoods

Last year, the world’s oceans reached their hottest temperatures in recorded history.

Heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions is absorbed by the oceans, disrupting marine ecosystems and communities that depend on them.

According to the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even if humanity manages to stabilize global surface temperatures at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be gone by the middle of this century.

Already, nearly 90 per cent of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.

How ICTs can help

For ocean conservation, technological approaches and innovations are key. Monitoring and reporting on the state of the world’s oceans, enhanced by cutting-edge information and communication technologies (ICTs), can strengthen accountability, raise awareness, and spur action to protect and preserve marine environments.

For instance, satellite-based monitoring delivers timely and accurate ocean measurements and data globally, while local sensors called “profilers” can deliver precise, in situ measurements in real time.

Artificial intelligence (AI) can then sift through this “big data” to identify short- and long-term trends in biodiversity, pollution, weather patterns and ecosystem evolution, helping to plan mitigation measures.

According to Alexia Barrier, a skipper who circumnavigated the world in 2020’s Vendee Globe sailing race, drops profilers along her route to help calibrate satellites. “I am like an opportunity boat for science,” laughs Barrier. Together with partners like UNESCO, Barrier is working to put more scientific instruments on racing boats, deploying profilers to close data gaps in the southern reaches of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Protecting data sources

While only a few countries operate Earth exploration-satellite services (EESS) systems, the resulting data and data products are used globally by national weather services, as well as by all organizations studying climate change. Climate data systems are vital global resources – which also need protection.

Earth observation satellites carry both active and passive space-borne sensors, notes Joanne Wilson, Deputy to the Director of the Radiocommunication Bureau at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Spaceborne passive sensors measure the electromagnetic energy emitted and scattered by the Earth and by chemical constituents in its atmosphere. These very weak, naturally occurring radio signals occur at specific frequencies determined by molecular physics. As such, passive sensors are highly susceptible to interference from radio transmitters on or near Earth’s surface.

If detected signals are corrupted by interference, the sensor cannot switch to another frequency, and the data so crucial to protecting the world’s oceans, forecasting weather, and assessing climate change is corrupted or lost.

Spaceborne receivers rely on the allocation of specific frequency bands to EESS (active) or EESS (passive) radio services. The requirements for protecting the different bands are regulated and protected by the Radio Regulations – the ITU-managed international treaty governing transmission frequencies and satellite orbits.

While the Radio Regulations establish maximum levels of radio emissions allowed to avoid infringing on passive bands, national authorities may set more stringent levels.

Rapid advances and big investments in new active and passive sensors, growing numbers of satellites, and new applications consuming more bandwidth requirements are intensifying the demand for satellite-based remote sensing spectrum.

Satellite symbiosis

One satellite-dependent project is The Ocean Cleanup, which operates 600-metre-long floating collectors to pick up plastic waste, each equipped with two Iridium broadband terminals that relay critical data including position and location information, 360-degree video and system performance information.

The system is supported by a constellation of 60 low-Earth orbit satellites, explains Tatiana Lawrence of the satellite communications firm, Iridium.

As the autonomous Ocean Cleanup system collectors move around in the harsh ocean environment, their operation requires continuous real-time communication with Iridium terminals and anti-collision systems to avoid passing ships.

Reducing plastic flows

Much of the plastic that ends up polluting oceans comes by way of rivers, notes Stephanie Avalos of Ichthion, a company making technology to reduce such pollution.

The world’s estimated 320 million metric tonnes of annual plastic waste output, less than 5 per cent is recycled. Marine pollution costs over USD 3.5 trillion each year.
Born out of a University College London lab in 2017, the company developed a system to capture and extract plastic waste from rivers.

Its mobile, land-mounted conveyor-belt technology extracts up to 80 tonnes of plastic per day.

The UK company is now cleaning up Ecuador’s Portoviejo River, where plastic pollution threatens a mangrove ecosystem with over 50 species of birds and reptiles. Debris from the river mouth also harms the biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands, says Avalos.

AI image tagging helps to sort out what is collected – from soccer balls to shoes, tires to cutlery, and lately, disposable face masks. The resulting analysis, Avalos says, “helps communities understand which areas to tackle with policy interventions like pollution regulation and control.”

Joanne Wilson and other speakers took part in a WSIS TalkX panel hosted by the Permanent Missions of the Dominican Republic and Portugal to the United Nations, ITU, and UNESCO.


Header image credit: Denes Farkas via Getty Images