Oceans of Information: How Big Data Tackles the Sea

The planet is a vast expanse of ocean covering 70% of the globe. And that expanse is now awash in sophisticated sensors monitoring the water’s vital signs, tracking ship movements, and protecting the environment.

In the past two decades, the number of ocean sensors has grown exponentially. Planet OS, a startup that aggregates and analyses ocean data, estimates there are 250,000 instruments in the sea, with as many as 750,000 remote ocean sensors. Many are owned by governments, and their data are in the public domain. Others are privately owned by oil companies, shipping firms, and the like. Planet OS estimates the ocean data industry is worth $US5 billion.

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It’s a fast-growing industry because costs are plummeting just as needs for data are increasing. With cheaper sensors, and communications technologies, more companies and governments are measuring the waters.

“Our world is increasingly exposed to high risk,” says Rainer Sternfeld, CEO and founder of Planet OS. “Like unpredictable weather phenomena, climate change, changes in the air we breathe, and the water we drink.”

For oil and gas companies, sensors track the production of coastal refineries, or offshore oil rigs. They can tell if currents in a location are calm enough to build a rig, and predict environmental risks, like impending storms, or potential oil spills. And data from sensors helps offshore wind farms maximise their output, adjusting for conditions.

The plethora of sensors has opened many other uses, too.

University of Sydney scientists are combining thousands of data samples to map the ocean floor.

“The deep ocean floor is a graveyard with much of it made up of the remains of microscopic sea creatures,” Dr. Adriana Dutkiewicz, the University of Sydney’s lead researcher on the project said. “The composition of these remains can help decipher how oceans have responded in the past to climate change.”

There’s also Project Argo, an international effort with thousands of sensors around the world, measuring the details of the seawater like salinity, temperature, and pressure.

Sensors monitor sounds underwater, too. Big ships can cause big problems for migrating creatures, like whales. Using machine learning and mathematics, Rainer says instruments record how much manmade noise marine life is exposed to. If it’s disturbing, the system can recommend an alternate route for ships in the area.

Or say you run a fishing company. Sensors deep in the ocean test for dissolved metals, showing whether it’s safe to put down a line or net. Other sensors check acidity, which can be harmful to fish. Measuring phytoplankton, a kind of organism, makes it easy to infer how fish move through a patch of water. Computer analysis can determine if fish are spending too much time in a spot with harmful substances, making them unsafe to catch and eat.

And big data is helping reduce the scourge of illegal fishing worldwide, which is responsible for billions of dollars in losses for the industry. Nonprofits like SkyTruth and Catapult are using satellites to track ship movements, and combining that information with other data on ship behaviour to identify rogue fishing vessels. Artificial intelligence could be added to the systems in the future.


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