Geospatial Technology Meets the Grand Challenges in Marine Science

What are the grand challenges in marine science, and how can geospatial technologies help meet those challenges?  You can read my interview with Prof. Dawn Wright in GEO:connexion International magazine here [PDF].  Because of space limitations, GEO:connexion had to do a little editing.  The (original) extended version of the interview appears below.

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Dawn Wright is professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  Her research interests include geographic information science, marine geography, benthic terrain and habitat characterization, and the processing and interpretation of high-resolution bathymetry, video, and underwater photographic images.  Wright received her Ph.D. in Physical Geography and Marine Geology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

GEO:connexion International:  You are one of the world’s experts in the application of geospatial technologies in marine science.  From your perspective, have these technologies helped to make important advances in marine science?

Dawn Wright: First of all, thanks for the opportunity to comment on this important topic!  “Geospatial technologies” is a very broad term that could now include not just geographic information systems (GIS), but interactive maps both on the web and the desktop, mashups of web mapping services and associated data, location based services that exist on your phone or PDA, other types of mobile mapping apps where you are connected to the Internet but not necessarily to the web, geobrowsers for the masses, high-end scientific geovisualization systems for the scientists, and more. For brevity I’ll focus mainly on GIS and remote sensing (but where “remote sensing” may be spaceborne or airborne as is familiar to most, but also waterborne).

First, some context on the unique environment of the ocean.  Sensors on satellites and aircraft are great at seeing the surface of the ocean but generally cannot look deeply into the water column where the electromagnetic energy that they rely on is dissipated. What can be perceived of the water column and ocean floor must be done mostly with the aid of sound (acoustic remote sensing), as sound waves are transmitted both farther and faster through seawater than electromagnetic energy. In order to “see” the ocean floor for instance, sound is essential not only for determining depth to the bottom, but for detecting varying properties of the bottom.  As the speed of sound in seawater varies linearly with temperature, pressure, and salinity, the conversion of travel time to depth must take this into account. In addition, the intensity of this reflection, or backscatter, can be used to resolve the shapes of objects or the character of the bottom (e.g., heavily sedimented and thus non-reflective or glassy with fresh lava flows and thus extremely reflective).

In short, remote sensing has made it possible to collect data on features and processes in the ocean over very broad scales, and GIS has made it possible to organize and integrate these data, make maps from the data, and of course to do analysis with the data. The initial impetus for developing a marine speciality in GIS was the need to automate the production of nautical charts and to more efficiently manage the prodigious amounts of data that are now capable of being collected at sea. GIS to synergize different types of data (biological, chemical, physical, geological) collected in multiple ways from multiple instruments and platforms (ships, moorings, floats, gliders, remotely-operated vehicles, aircraft and satellites) has provided the oceanographic community and policy decision-makers with more information and insight than could obtained by considering each type of data separately. GIS in this realm has moved from solely data display to multidimensional visualization, simulation and modeling, and decision support.

GEO:connexion:   What do you see as the big challenges in marine science today?

Wright: There are many, many challenges that will be facing marine science in the coming 10 to 20 years, and we’ve recently been hearing about some of them in light of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And stay tuned for a U.S. National Academy of Sciences report coming out soon that will discuss many challenges, as well as the infrastructure that will be needed to meet them, including geospatial technologies. This is also an exciting time for us in the U.S. because, for the first time in American history, we now have a comprehensive National Ocean Policy and a National Ocean Council. It received very little media attention amidst the horror of the Gulf oil spill and other issues, but on July 19, 2010, President Obama issued an Executive Order establishing this policy (, which is meant of course to meet many of these challenges. Implementation is a long way off, but we have the policy! At any rate, my answers here will in no way do justice to the depth and complexity of these issues, but for the sake of our brief discussion, I’d name four challenges: climate change, energy, ecosystems, and exploration.

GEO:connexion:   What does the ocean have to do with climate change?

Wright: The ocean has everything to do with climate change given that 71% of the planet is covered by the ocean, the ocean is in constant interaction with the atmosphere providing the “heat engine” that drives changes in climate. However, marine scientists are still trying to understand exactly how the ocean modulates Earth’s climate, and conversely how climate change affects ocean circulation, the distribution of heat, marine ecosystems, sea level rise, how changes in ocean temperature and CO2 concentration will affect the rate ocean acidification, etc. A huge question is how do we predict the outcomes and impact of climate change, and then adapt and mitigate accordingly?

GEO:connexion:   How can geospatial technologies make a contribution in meeting this challenge?

Wright: Perhaps the clearest way is how GIS can be used to show sea level rise scenarios and potential impacts (e.g., sites of potential flooding, coastal erosion, bluff failure, adequate presence of dikes or levees, impacts on wetlands, etc.), and to calculate how sea level rise may increase the frequency of tidal floods. Three great examples are the tools featured in NOAA’s Digital Coast initiative: the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (or SLAMM,, the Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flood Frequency Viewer (, and the myriad tools, documents, and remote sensing/GIS datasets in the NOAA Coastal Services Center’s Coastal Climate Adaptation site (

There are many GIS tools but also portals that help meet this and the other challenges that will be mentioned. One example is a coastal web atlas, which organizes and coordinates interactive web mapping, pre-made digital maps, GIS datasets, and remotely-sensed imagery, often with supplementary GIS decision-support tools, tables, photography, and other kinds of information, all through a single web portal. As such, many of these atlases play an important role in informing regional decision- and policy-making across several themes, including climate change impacts, but also marine spatial planning, coastal conservation and protected areas management, resource availability and extraction, and more.

GEO:connexion:   You mentioned energy as another big challenge…

Wright: The nightmare of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the scare of the recent fire on Mariner Energy’s Vermillion rig, also in the Gulf, have many thinking again about the urgent need to find alternative forms of energy. Is it possible to develop viable sources of alternative energy from the ocean that could meet, say, 10% of U.S. energy needs? So an exciting marine science, as well as marine engineering challenge is the development of ways to produce electricity from ocean wave energy, offshore wind-on-water energy, and tidal energy. A related challenge is the development of ways to power the many devices in the ocean that are used for scientific and military purposes (such as wave or solar energy for underwater gliders, autonomous underwater vehicles, and other kinds of “robots”). So with the potential proliferation of these devices in the nearshore and continental shelf (e.g., wave energy buoys, wind-on-water turbines), what are the ocean space use conflicts that will arise? One needs to consider commercial and recreational fishing, shipping lanes, conservation areas or protected habitat, military training and uses, shipwrecks and other obstructions, recreational boating and sailing, liquid natural gas sites, scientific and telecommunication cables, and more. Ocean space is definitely a human dimensions research problem as well, where one is examining people’s perceptions, biases, and prejudices, economics comes into play, and politics are non-trivial.

GEO:connexion:   And you see the potential for geospatial technologies playing an important role in the future of energy in the ocean space?

Wright: Well, this might be considered essentially under the umbrella of marine spatial planning (MSP) that we hear so much about now (and that is a big part of the U.S. National Ocean Policy). GIS in general (and coastal web atlases in particular) provide the “engine” to implement MSP: in this case, the necessary data and interactive, collaborative environment in which to map out the potential use conflicts. MSP needs to be guided by specific policies and regulations governing usage of the ocean, the conditions that apply, and with an eye toward those possible conflicts that may arise. Therefore MSP experts may not always be GIS experts. So for many of us in the mapping community we see ourselves as providing the enabling technologies that the MSP experts and policy makers need, along with cautionary advice about how to use the data and technology properly.

When there is a crisis involving offshore energy extraction such as the recent Gulf oil spill, satellite/aircraft remote sensing and GIS have been key for tracking the spill on the surface and mapping out areas of risk and where response efforts are taking place. Two web GIS sites of note are the federal government’s web GIS at (mainly proprietary data) and ESRI’s interactive social media site, (non-proprietary, citizen mapping). As we know, the Gulf oil spill has been quite diabolical because it emanated not from the surface as with a tanker spill, but from the well on the ocean floor. So it’s not just a matter of dealing with the slick but with the underwater plume which has been extremely difficult to track (see Exploration below).

GEO:connexion:   What are the current and future questions we must answer relative to ocean ecosystems?

Wright: A continuing challenge will be understanding how various ecosystems function and inter-relate—from microscopic primary producers at the base of the food chain to coral reefs to large marine ecosystems (e.g., the California Current)—as well their biodiversity. And further, how will these ecosystems respond to factors such as human uses and waste input, coastal development, coastal storms and flooding fueled by climate change, as well as invasive species? What is the resilience of coastal ecosystems (plant and animal species), as well as coastal communities of humans? The marine science community appears to have coalesced now on the efficacy of an ecosystem-based approach where biological elements are not studied in isolation, but with physical factors and human presence/human impacts as well. This has led to the establishment of ecosystem-based management (EBM) as a core principle guiding marine resource management decisions (again, a big part of the U.S. National Ocean Policy).

GEO:connexion:   Geospatial technologies are well known for their tremendous contributions to the study and management of terrestrial ecosystems.  Do they offer similar benefits to ocean ecosystems?

Wright: Here is where GIS has made a real impact as scholars and developers worldwide have developed scores of GIS tools for the implementation of EBM. A terrific example is the EBM Tools Network (, where tools are organized under several categories such as data collection/processing/management, stakeholder engagement, conceptual modeling, visualization, project management, monitoring and assessment, modeling and spatial analysis (with several subcategories therein), and the all-important decision-support.

Also, remote sensing of ocean color radiance from space (e.g., SeaWiFS/MODIS) will continue to make a huge contribution in this area as this is how marine scientists can assess the amount and type of phytoplankton in the ocean, which also gives indicators of ocean nutrient levels (ocean health) and ocean currents. And phytoplanktonare at the base of the marine food chain, so as they go so go the various ecosystems depending on them. With budget uncertainties and the like, future international collaborative efforts will be needed to sustain and bring online new satellite sensors, to calibrate and validate data, develop new sensor algorithms, and to integrate with geospatial observations from ships, buoys, and aircraft.

GEO:connexion:   You also mentioned exploration as a challenge.  Is there still that much we don’t know about the ocean?

Wright: Yes indeed, and I think a recent quote from Luis Valdes and colleagues of the United Nations Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) sums up the issue brilliantly: “Put into a larger context, more than 1,500 people have climbed Mount Everest, more than 300 have journeyed into space, and 12 have walked on the moon, but only 5% of the ocean floor has been investigated and only two people have descended and returned in a single dive to the deepest part of the ocean. On the other hand, no part of the ocean remains unaffected by human activities, such as climate change, eutrophication, fishing, habitat destruction, hypoxia, pollution, and species introductions. Therefore, the scientific study of ocean should be an international priority.”  [from Valdes, L., Fonseca, L., and Tedesco, K., 2010. Looking into the future of ocean sciences: An IOC perspective. Oceanography, 23(3): 160-175.]

How then can we understand and mitigate the impacts of climate change, clean up oil spills, protect species, sustain fisheries, etc. if we still have not explored and fully understood the deep water column and the deep ocean floor? What about governance of these areas (Law of the Sea, deepwater marine protected areas, fishing and mining outside of Exclusive Economic Zones, etc.)? Again, the recent Gulf oil spill has shown how much ocean exploration is needed, especially in acknowledging that there was indeed an underwater plume of oil and how to track and understand its impacts.

GEO:connexion:   How can geospatial technologies aid in this exploration?

Wright: This question brings us back to the start of our discussion where remote sensing in and on the ocean will make further exploration possible. Examples of remote sensing in the ocean include towed acoustic sensors, vertical line arrays, omni-directional acoustic sensors that can sense in all directions with one acoustic ping, multibeam sonars on ships, upward-looking sonars (towed under ice). In the water column as well as on the ocean bottom there will continue to be small autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), larger remotely-operated vehicles (ROVS), and still larger human-occupied vehicles (HOVs, aka submersibles), all with the ability to georeference observations and samples for many things geospatial.

For ALL of the aforementioned challenges we’ll need interdisciplinary data collection coastal upwelling regions, seafloor spreading centers, where tropical storms and hurricanes form, where oil spills occur, etc. And the data will be collected from various platforms, instruments, at different study sites, at different scales and resolutions within these study sites. So we’re going to continue to need ways to organize, mine, and translate between data (translation: data models, vocabularies and ontologies coming from our metadata). This will allow us to maintain and exchange data and information over large distances and long time scales.

GEO:connexion:   Is there anything else you would like to share about the relationship between marine science and geospatial technologies?

Wright: This discussion has been about what geospatial technologies can contribute to marine science, but I’d like to bring forward a point that I think is still true, even after its first appearance in a 1997 paper ( GIS and remote sensing are indeed an “enabling technologies” for marine science, but marine science also can help to improve GIS and remote sensing. For instance, the ability to better handle and visualize time has been a long-standing research issue for GIS. We know the adage “location, location, location.” But in the oceans “time is of the essence,” as it is often only by time that we can get location, especially on the deep seafloor or in the deeper parts of the water column that are out of reach of satellites, global positioning or otherwise. Accurate clocks and accurate timing of the travel of acoustic pulses are critical.  History buffs may be interested in the story of the development of the world’s most accurate clock that made possible the first  determination of longitude in the 1700s (book and PBS movie,,

So we have many research issues endemic to marine science applications of GIS, such as the handling of spatial data structures that must vary their relative positions and values over time (e.g., a question of spatiotemporal dynamics such as: “How does one represent combinations of geometric objects and scalar fields, especially when the data are, “in flux”?), geostatistical interpolation of data sparse in one dimension as compared to the others, the analysis of volumes (the elusive Gulf oil spill plume?), and the input and management of very large spatial databases (can you say “LIDAR”?). I think these and many more will continue to advance the body of knowledge in GIS design and architecture, as well as the body of knowledge in the broader field of geographic information science.

GEO:connexion:  Thank you for sharing your insights with our readers.

Wright: Thanks again for the opportunity to comment on this important topic!