We can live better by learning from our oceans


For centuries, the sea has sustained lives and livelihoods, divulged ancient and unforeseen treasures, and stirred our dreams of remarkable new discoveries. But never in history have we had the immense opportunities now beckoning from the sea.

On the horizon is a new blue economy, an exciting oceanic frontier that offers great promise of making our nation safer, healthier, and more prosperous. The new blue economy is a knowledge-based economy, looking to the sea not for extraction of material goods but for data and information to address societal challenges and inspire their solutions. It’s entrepreneurial and environmentally responsible, collaborative and competitive. And it puts science and predictive capabilities to work in a way that can fill critical, fast-rising needs across sectors, spanning two metaphorical shores of the vast blue frontier where there is often a divide.

On one side of the divide, we have an enormous amount of scientific knowledge drawn from observations and web-based platforms that let us synthesize and visualize data from innumerable sources in real-time. Through satellite and ocean-based systems, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, provides data and other information about the sea to inform a range of predictions, from currents, waves, tides and storm surge to water temperature, chemistry, and the marine biological system. The data and other “environmental intelligence” derived from observations provide timely, actionable and reliable information. They give us the foresight to make wise choices, hedge risks, and reduce the costs of uncertainty. We can, for example, anticipate a hurricane's track and intensity, evacuate vulnerable communities, prepare for stress to infrastructure, and make detailed plans should water, power, or other critical services fail.

On the other side of the divide, consumers are calling for distinct tools and solutions for particular market needs. From farmers, emergency managers, and corporate executives to heads of households and heads of state, users increasingly demand spot-on information at their fingertips.

They want to know whether their street, their business, or their favorite beach will be in harm’s way. To get ahead of medical emergencies, coastal communities and public health officials need an app to accurately forecast harmful algal blooms. Port-by-port fog and other forecasts could substantially cut shipping costs. Because, on average, U.S. floods, including those from ocean storm surges, kill more people each year than any other weather event, emergency managers must know precisely whom to evacuate and where the sandbags should go. Maps showing wide swaths of land and highways don’t zero in on such critical information.

The new blue economy has tremendous potential to bridge this divide, drawing on scientific and technological capabilities to infuse new solutions to fill customer demands with optimal specificity. Now, as never before, we have the know-how and technology to honor the sea’s fragile, finite resources while simultaneously spurring economic growth, new revenue streams, and jobs.

We can produce timely and accurate forecasts. We have sufficient observations to begin in earnest. Assessments can look at how the ocean affects current markets such as health and food security, but not shy away from more speculative sectors. Derivative markets, for instance, can use ocean science to foster financial innovation and build market resilience to shocks. Catastrophe bonds can rely heavily on environmental data to secure risk.

There also is much to learn from the commercial U.S. weather enterprise, estimated to be valued in billions and perhaps tens of billions of dollars. Weather and mapping tools are now used routinely to help untold numbers of people navigate their daily lives. But a half-century ago, the commercial weather industry was just a start-up, and many were skeptical about its business model.

Today the new blue economy is an entrepreneurial engine of similar promise. Since sound science and reliable, timely data are foundational to its success. NOAA is working to make more of this environmental intelligence available. Consumers need it to inform decisions. America needs it to have a competitive, sustainable edge. Each day, NOAA collects more than 20 terabytes of data — more than twice the data of the Library of Congress’ entire print collection.

With demand accelerating quickly, NOAA is partnering with Amazon, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and the Open Commons Consortium to bring great amounts of data to the cloud. We’re eager to get information out of our laboratories and into the hands of those just as eager to transform it into predictions, solutions, and customized value-added services. A 2013 McKinsey & Company report shows that public data can generate more than $3 trillion a year in added value, catalyzing cost savings, new and improved products, and convenience.

Envisioning value-added, tailored solutions opens enormous opportunity. What difference would better seasonal sea ice predictions make to Arctic navigation? And open ocean predictions of swirling eddies to cruise lines? How about forecasts of low-pH water intrusions to shellfish hatcheries? Or real-time observations ofdeep ocean health to support oil spill recovery?

We’ve learned that, depending on conditions, just 90 feet of salt marsh can stop 94 percent of wave energy.Yet, increasingly, coastal communities vulnerable to sea level rise are being hit with tough choices about what, where, and even whether to build. With most U.S. coastal land privately owned, most shoreline protection privately designed, and nearly five million people already living on land less than four feet above high-tide levels, “living shorelines” of natural infrastructure offer a resilient option to capitalize.

Enterprising private service providers will contemplate the coming sea change, recognize the opportunities, and roll up their sleeves. Markets imagined, and as yet unimagined, will open up.

Capital can be coupled to publicly funded science. Ever-expanding reams of public data, and an open toolbox of technological advances will be leveraged so that consumers reap personalized value from these considerable assets. And, in bits and bytes, the knowledge-based new blue economy will transform information into real profits, real jobs, and meaningful impact on lives and livelihoods across the United States and the entire global community.

Richard Spinrad is the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A version of this article appeared in EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.​