Monitoring The Ocean’s Health – Prof Martin Visbeck

In the next All-Atlantic Conversation Joanne Sweeney speaks to Prof Martin Visbeck, CEO of Geomar, the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel. Martin also teaches at Kiel University. He’s a physical oceanographer by training, and very much interested in the ocean and ocean observing, and certainly conserving the ocean and sustainably using the ocean for us and for generations to come.


What are you observing about the ocean right now? What’s the current state of health?

So we are looking at the ocean with our robots, with research vessels, and obviously, we are seeing quite significant changes compared to what we had maybe 20 years ago or 30 years ago. The ocean is warming in many places already down to a thousand meters. We see the sea level rising from satellite data. We can also see it on our shores. It’s losing oxygen, in particular below the surface in the tropics. And obviously, it’s taking up things like carbon dioxide and changes chemistry to become more acidic. And what’s also quite worrying that we’re seeing less and less biodiversity, loss of fishes, and more pollution getting into the ocean.

So these are the concerning elements that we observe, but I will also say we observe not in the physical ocean space, but in the society and the policy community, much more interest in the ocean and in looking at the ocean, protecting the ocean and using the ocean in new and sustainable ways. So it’s really exciting times from that perspective, not so exciting from the status of the ocean, but very exciting about the attention, the awareness, and the interest that the ocean is receiving, not only with the experts but also in the broader public and the policy domain.


So, with that diagnostic of the ocean’s health, what’s the antidote or what’s the remedy. We’ve seen that in the past 15 months with the world stationary and locked down in their homes because of the pandemic. It’s almost given the earth and the ocean a chance to breathe. As we get back out into society, we may resume our activities and what we’ve been doing, but what are you trying to achieve, and how can we try and improve the health of the ocean?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So I would answer it in three different ways. First, indeed, the pandemic has in many ways shown us how non-resilient our societies actually are. It’s not a really, a very bad pandemic, but it really wreaks havoc, not only for the health system but also for the economic systems our teaching, education, meetings, and alike. We have seen in coastal regions as some resurgence where the stress has gone down just a little bit, but actually, the traffic is just going on at the same time, as it was before climate is still. The economies are still producing even more CO2 or just a very slight decline. So the growth isn’t quite as much as it used to be. So none of that is really going away, but what the pandemic has really showed us how sensitive our systems are to disruption and how much science and information and awareness can actually help, not only to deal with the pandemic, but really also to deal with longstanding issues like ocean pollution, ocean health, climate, and so on.

So, what we are learning here is that a lot of the stresses that the ocean is receiving, are not done on purpose. That is more neglect. People were thinking the ocean is too big to fail. What I do doesn’t matter; I can just take whatever I need; it’ll regrow and all of that. And I think we’ve become to realize that that is not true. The ocean is very much a finite space. It’s a sensitive space and it needs smarts to interact with the ocean, so we don’t affect it over duly. And so that it can actually use these changes or absorb these changes in a smart way. So that’s what I’m getting at. I think we need to raise awareness of what the ocean does for humanity and how by not looking at it were really destroying it or maybe overusing it out of neglect rather on purpose.

And there’s quite a few things we can change, and that’s what we’re working on. So it’s the awareness-raising on the first time and giving very concrete examples, for example, how we can reduce also the CO2 emissions by greening the ocean interaction there, that’s transport that is also the ocean can take up more carbon and help us there, but also using the ocean for food in smarter ways. You know, we tend to eat big fish, which is fine, but if you were eating smaller muscles and maybe seaweeds, that would be much better probably for our health, but in particular for the ocean. So there’s that element to it. And then really that pollution, most of it, 80% or more is land-based, it’s kind of neglect, it just gets out of our way. It goes into the ocean. We don’t care, but we should care.

So we should not have the land-based pollution entering into the ocean, or we should properly do a waste management recycling re-using of the resources on land so that we can really protect and safeguard the oceans and the ocean ecosystem. So it can remain purposeful and sort of productive and supporting humanity and moving forward. So that’s kind of what we’re doing at the sort of ocean literacy engagement way, and there’s many technical aspects that require observations, that require systems understanding, scenario development, to how to really optimize our interaction with the ocean. And that’s the technical work that me and my colleagues are doing was ocean observing, ocean modeling, ocean forecasting, ocean understanding.

In the context of this upcoming conference, All-Atlantic 2021, it’s about connecting, acting, and cooperating all around the north and the south Atlantic. Really it’s about the countries and continents coming together for one single vision. Do you think that that is having an impact already since we’ve had the Galway and the Belem statements?

Oh, very much so. I think the Marine community is always one of connectivity around the globe, that’s for sure. But I do think these policy agreements was the Galway statement and the Berlin statement have really helped to bring new energy, to renew motivation, to even ramp up the cooperation that we already had in new areas. So we’re much better now, in working together, for example, on integrated observing systems and sharing platform resources, sharing the data much more optimally, and it’s been really fantastic to see the Berlin agreement move forward by really roping in the global Northern countries, think of the European Union, United States, and Canada and the likes. It was countries from the global South, which again, we had some bilateral interaction but never really acting as a team. And I think now we’re seeing that the countries from the South Atlantic rim, that is Brazil, Argentina, but also South Africa, even small island states like Cape Verde, the Caribbean is more interested now, they’re coming together, forming alliances, teams, partnerships, and say, we want to team up together and then talk to you Europe, North America, US and Canada.

So I think that really has been the game-changer in many ways, because not only is it the collaboration at the scientific level, we had that before but also seeing the policy and the funding and the resources aligned to really forge our joint future in the Atlantic system together has been very helpful. So I’m really grateful for that political push that really then also generates the pull in the science community to actually work more together, to build capacity, capabilities, to exchange knowledge. And it’s been really a fantastic journey over the last six or seven or eight years in seeing the Atlantic community coming together and acting as a community rather than as a loose collection of individual nations.

Do you think that ocean literacy, so knowledge and understanding of the importance of the ocean amongst citizens? I mean, I come from a coastal community in Northwest Ireland (County Donegal), so I’ve always lived by the sea, appreciate the sea, but that realization that I also have a role in the protection of the ocean’s future and the Atlantic. Do you think people are now getting that message that we all can play a part? We don’t need to be a scientist or researcher or a Marine biologist?

I think that’s coming through somewhat, it’s not I wouldn’t say that we’ve been, really changed the game at a big level that we are working on that together, but the awareness is growing, and the telltale signs are that many more politicians are interested in ocean affairs than they have been in 20 years ago. I mean, they have been always the converted people who come from Ireland, lived by the sea, and so on. But actually, you have other leaders who are much more aware of ocean affairs. If you think about global diplomacy, [inaudible 00:15:52] much in the talking sphere, the connecting sphere, because people understand, maybe the ocean is really a global common that we need to work on together. So that realization is growing. I don’t think we’re at the end yet. There’s quite a few more things we can do together, but I think it’s happening.

And I think the other element that I want to bring in is also a bit of a change of perspective, quite a few of us from the environment or notion sciences, but maybe also from some of the NGOs, we are really interested in what we call ocean protection or the word that I don’t like so much ocean stewardship, but it’s really about, oh the ocean needs our help and being healthy and all of this. But actually, when you go to the global styles, it’s all about the blue economy, and these countries really need the ocean. And [inaudible 00:15:52] out of the ocean. And it’s actually also true in our countries. We don’t like to talk about it that much, but if you look where the subsidies are in fisheries, we look at the ambition that we have of energy from the ocean was wind farms and other types.

There is this blue economy as well. That drives a lot of decisions, sometimes not very good ones. And I think here the idea is can we also support a blue-green growth in economy? So make sure that the ocean economy is not seen as a bad thing but a good thing. And how can we imagine an ocean economy that, on the one hand, protects the ocean and uses the ocean at the same time. So they need not to be in conflict that can have joined futures. And I think this is the exciting opportunity where I see a lot of interest in and Marine protected areas are part of that equation. We’re not talking about protecting a hundred percent of the ocean, but we’re talking about protecting the right level of the ocean so that the other parts are productive, give us food, and all of that.

So it’s this combination, this thinking together, the use of the ocean, and protecting the environment around it is where I think the exciting science and insights is. And when you tell that message to the community, it becomes even more interesting. But I also think citizens are very much aware these days of ocean issues, partly because of the plastic challenge. I mean, it’s maybe not the biggest stressor, but you don’t need to be a Marine scientist when you go to the beach, and you find bits of plastic there, you say like, whoa, that shouldn’t be here. What, or you would not notice the sea level rise. You might not notice the warming or the loss of oxygen, but that stuff you see, and then you think, oh, maybe we are not really treating the ocean in a nice way. So it’s a wonderful conversation starter. And then it shows us in a very visible way how we’re neglecting the ocean and what we’re doing with the ocean that’s really not very smart.

And so I think we should get our act together, do it better. And I think these are part of the ocean literacy. So we can take some of these hooks as it were, that are really, that don’t need deep expertise to see that there’s a problem. And then, we can build on that understanding and not only deal with plastic in the ocean but also with the other stressors.

And, you know, it’s never been easier to reach citizens in every corner of the world because we live in a democratic internet. We have social media. And in fact, I’m not sure if you know this, but the number one social media trend in 2021 is the rise of the socially conscious consumer and citizen. So it’s really off it’s time, this conversation. So despite the huge challenges, my last question is, are you optimistic for the future of the ocean and the All-Atlantic ocean?


Well, I am known; in the Twitter-sphere for hashtag ocean optimism. I use that quite a bit. And the reason why I say that it’s a bit of a glass full, half-full, half-empty. I’m always a half-full guy. And the reason why I am optimistic is, we have a lot of interest in the next generation community in ocean affairs. We have so much more understanding of the ocean system now than we ever had before. We have better performing ocean observing system that give us an ability to see the health and the state of the planet. And I would say since the pandemic the tide has shifted a bit from a society that maybe was less interested in facts and was even talking about alternative facts. I think that’s been almost eradicated with the Coronavirus affair where everybody is now watching the facts, looking at the infections and hospitalizations and all that, and seeing what power it has to actually have the data to see how the environment around us is changing.

And I see that same as now, much more happening on the environment. When you just look at how the coalition forming to deal with climate change, which seemed impossible a few years ago. So I think the community has come around and is really more interested in sustainability and resilience. And they’re also seeing that the ocean is part of that equation. So that is why I’m optimistic. It’s not that I’m optimistic about the state of the ocean right now, there’s still a lot of stresses and work to do, but I am optimistic because we’re raising the awareness. We’re getting citizens, people interested in the ocean as such. And I think when you start to like and love the ocean and the sea, you’re going to be more mindful about the actions and the negative side effects. And I think that is what I’m building on my optimism, plus innovation, next-generation thinking, working, and also changing of behavior.

This is all coming in. We should harness that interest and projectors onto ocean, and the ocean dimension just work with citizens, work with decision-makers and show them the way how we can actually interact with the ocean in a much more sustainable way. So I think that’s where my hope is. And I do see it coming together, in particular the exciting engagement of the South Atlantic countries is really something I’m really keen and excited about how much interest they are and how much learning there is and how much they want to be part of the global ocean community. That gives me hope. And I think the All-Atlantic process really helped in that regard.


Well, you’ve given us so many insights, and really, I think a flavor off just a little bit of what we can expect at All-Atlantic 2021. So Martin, respect, thank you so much for joining us in this All-Atlantic conversation. And guys, don’t forget hashtag ocean optimism, right?

Thank you very much. And I’m quite looking forward to more exchange and see many of you at the All-Atlantic conference.


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