Government and Tech Companies Plan Exploration of Oceans

Joel Schectman, Wall Street Journal CIO Report

Government officials, scientists and technology companies are meeting today to tackle one of the biggest of Big Data challenges: mapping the oceans.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is meeting today with scientists and technology companies like Google Inc. , in Long Beach, Calif. to create a national plan to explore and map the 3.3 million miles of ocean that fall under America’s sovereignty — a size nearly equal to the continental U.S. That understanding could help the U.S. discover new fuel sources, better regulate the nation’s fishing resources and preserve endangered species.

The complexity and remoteness of ocean floors have stalled these efforts for decades, says Stephen Hammond, a senior scientist at NOAA. “Ocean scientists would be hard pressed to tell you what the sea floor looks like and what are the animals that live there. That’s very surprising to most people,” Mr. Hammond said. But new data systems, says Mr. Hammond, that allow for more collaboration and access by the world’s scientists are beginning to “blow the doors open” on the world’s ocean systems.

The complexity of ocean systems, with their interplay of tidal forces, animal species, and underwater geography, has frustrated previous efforts at understanding the ecology below 75% of the world’s surface.

The sciences involved in ocean exploration have been “stove-piped,” with researchers specializing in the migration of whales or ocean currents and not working together towards “an interconnected understanding of the system,” said Larry Mayer, a University of New Hampshire oceanographer, who is participating in the planning session.

For example, scientists were unable to fully understand the effect of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf’s sea creatures, Mr. Mayer said. “We’re not yet at the point where we have this overall view of the complete ecosystem model for a system as complex as Gulf of Mexico,” said Mr. Mayer, who sat on a National Academy of Sciences committee that advised government on the issue. “What we have are little models of subcomponents. But we don’t have comprehensive models of how the ecosystems interact — particularly in the deep sea.”

Advances in data tools, which allow scientists to layer maps with thousands of separate information sources, now make that three-dimensional understanding possible, Mr. Mayer said. “We are just now at the point where where we can use these tools to look at the system in its entirety,” Mr. Mayer said.

NOAA says the exploration will involve dozens of public and private partnerships, with technology companies like Esri Inc., the mapping software firm, and Google, which are both participating in the planning forum. For example, Esri Chief Scientist Dawn Wright, says sensors placed on whales, and data sent from vessels, will help policy makers and companies use Esri software to get real time information on whether a shipping lane is effecting an animal population.

Ms. Wright says Twitter feeds on water conditions, sent by recreational boaters, could also augment a greater understanding of oceans, while making sure that data is accurate. “The oceans have always been about Big Data,” Ms. Wright said. “And we’re still grappling with these issues.”

But managing the data is just part of the challenge, said Michael Jones, chief technology advocate for Google. Oceanographers have just a handful of vessels in the country dedicated exclusively to deep sea exploration. One of those vessels is run by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt’s Schmidt Ocean Institute. Mr. Jones says the ocean exploration project needs 10,000 unmanned torpedo-like vessels to collect more ocean data, an effort, he says, that will require a combination of public and private funding. “Understand the ocean is 2.5 times bigger than the land,” said Mr. Jones. “Eric and [his wife] Wendy are just one couple and one couple can’t solve this. Even a rich couple.”

CORRECTION: Eric Schmidt is Google’s executive chairman. An earlier version of this article referred to him as the company’s CEO.