Mapping the Deep

A New Age of Ocean Stewardship

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For decades, our maps of the ocean were largely limited to its surface. No human being had ever seen more than random snippets of what lies between that and the ocean floor. We have had far more accurate maps of the moon, Mars, and Venus.

Today, the world's first 3D digital ocean map sorts global water masses into 37 distinct volumetric regions, known as ecological marine units (EMUs), defined by the properties most likely to drive ecosystem health and recovery, and ultimately, ocean sustainability: temperature, salinity, oxygen, and nutrient levels.


Map of Alaskan Gulf shoreline showing geomorphic zones in red and orange on a blue ocean


The mapping and characterization of the EMUs represent a new spatial framework for organizing and understanding the ocean's physical, chemical, and biological properties and processes. Think of them as atomic elements for understanding the world's oceans as a complex system of systems.

With 4,000 ecological land units (ELUs) organizing the 105,000 ecological facets of our terrestrial systems according to land cover, rock characteristics, landform type, and climate, together with ecological coastal units (ECUs), planned ecological freshwater units (EFUs), and ecological benthic units (EBUs) that analyze the ocean floor, we have what amounts to a kind of periodic table, doing for earth science what the original periodic table of elements did for physics and chemistry.

This matters. Seeing the ocean in its true depth and complexity is exactly what we need in a world of accelerating climate change and population demands if we hope to reduce the risk of critically damaging or exhausting marine resources, preserve the world's fisheries, maintain ocean sustainability, protect marine biodiversity, or anticipate when a warm current will turn into a killer hurricane. It's what we need to stop the oceans from becoming more acidic, damaging coral reefs and other marine environments, and causing fish stocks to decline or shift to far less hospitable waters. It's what we need if we hope to achieve ocean stewardship by tackling the growing continents of plastic, waste, and other pollutants threatening marine life.


Photo of a small island surrounded by underwater plant life visible through clear blue water


And, of course, the ocean is the planet's climate engine—absorbing 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, capturing about 90 percent of the additional heat generated from those emissions, and generating about 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe. The ocean is the largest biosphere on the planet, home to 80 percent of life on Earth. 

Importantly, not only scientists, environmental managers, fishers, and shippers, but ordinary citizen scientists can now navigate the ocean virtually and observe what is happening to a wide range of its parameters, such as salinity and oxygen levels. For the first time, anyone can explore from the surface to the ocean floor. 

By enabling us to analyze, map, predict, and intervene in the emergent life of land, oceans, freshwater, and the planet as a whole, the EMUs and their brethren mark the birth of a new "hard" science—the science of ecosystems. It arrives not a moment too soon. Ecosystems are key to many urgent research and policy questions—ones to which we surprisingly have not had clear answers. As Roger Sayre, senior scientist for ecosystems at the US Geological Survey, puts it: "It's really important that we understand where our ecosystems are, what they are, what shape they're in, and what they're giving us as human beings in terms of goods and services that we might need for our very survival."


Map of the ocean surrounding Australia with ocean health indicators mapped in blues and yellows on a black background


Advanced location intelligence for the world's water ecosystems is empowering a broad range of ocean sustainability initiatives, including systems from Innovasea to help locate responsible fish farms; a Pacific Ocean Accounting Portal, which shows the ocean's impact on the gross domestic product (GDP); the Map of Biodiversity Importance, which models habitats for 2,200 at-risk marine species; the National Water Model, which estimates flow on 2.7 million streams across the continental US; and the annual Ocean Health Index.

When European adventurers set out across the Atlantic in the 15th century, the ocean was merely their highway, not their destination. It seemed the very model of timelessness, without limit, let alone vulnerability. It turns out that the ocean is not too big to fail—but it's also not too big to fix. As we begin to think long term about what lies on the other side of COVID-19—and as we enter the United Nations' Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, and possibly, an age of true ocean stewardship—we can do so knowing we have it in our power to turn the tide.

By Dawn Wright, an oceanographer and the chief science officer for Esri.

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Advanced location intelligence for the world's water ecosystems is empowering a broad range of meaningful initiatives to restore the ocean's health.