June marks National Oceans Month, a month dedicated to spreading awareness of Earth’s oceans and coastal ecosystems.
Around 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is ocean. We play on its coasts, fish there, buy and sell products transported by ships, and depend on exploration and production of energy, mineral, and living resources.
A myriad of competing demands for our ocean resources calls for a sustainable balance between using resources and protecting and preserving a healthy environment.
Marine Planning: Balancing Competing Demands
Marine planning is a process for identifying areas most suitable for various activities in order to avoid conflicts, facilitate compatible uses and reduce environmental impacts. Through marine planning, officials analyze the current and anticipated status, use and vulnerability of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes areas. This effort also aims to preserve critical ecosystem services needed to meet economic, environmental, security and social objectives.
Start with Science
USGS scientists conduct research and provide information and knowledge needed to make informed decisions. In order to plan, it’s vital for managers and decision makers to know what they are planning for, and USGS science underpins those choices.
USGS expertise includes characterizing and mapping the seafloor, identifying habitat, hazards, and resources, and assessing how oceans and coasts have changed and could change in the future. USGS’s diverse science allows for a big-picture perspective on the interconnectivity between people and our environment.
A new report by the USGS outlines a set of marine planning data categories, which include a range of facets that are considered when making cost-benefit decisions about ocean use. This report is also valuable as it presents a clearly defined and consistent vocabulary that serves as a baseline and framework for organizing and describing complex information.
Dive in and Grab a Guide
The five top-level categories of topics in the new USGS report include living resources, non-living resources, ocean uses, governance and infrastructure. Current USGS projects illustrate these topics.
Living organisms along oceans and coastlines each have special characteristics that serve critical purposes to support our ecosystems. For example, coral reefs act as barriers to protect coastlines from hazards, provide habitats for fisheries and support tourism and recreational industries.
Since global degradation of coral reef ecosystems is prevalent, the USGS Coral Reef Ecosystem Studies Project is incorporating process studies and environmental monitoring to understand coral reef health and resilience. USGS scientists are studying current conditions and forecasting future changes in coral reef health, ultimately helping inform conservation decisions.
Many people may not immediately realize how essential non-living marine resources are to their lives and ecosystems. Ocean currents and water levels impact shipping costs, mobile seafloor features provide critical habitat and barrier islands and sand dunes serve as storm barricades for coastal communities. Also, underwater landslides can generate tsunamis as well as threaten offshore cables and infrastructure.
Another example is gas hydrates, which are “ice-like” combinations of methane gas and water that occur naturally in marine sediments and permafrost areas. Gas hydrates are a significant potential energy resource and influence the stability of the seafloor. USGS scientists are at the forefront in determining where gas hydrates are located as well as whether and how methane contained in gas hydrates can be used as a viable energy source. The USGS conducts field investigations and participates in national and international drilling expeditions. This research will allow decision makers to assess the occurrence and potential recoverability of gas hydrate resources as well as evaluate the hazards to ocean-bottom infrastructure, such as pipelines or cables, associated with underlying gas hydrates.
Since the earliest records, people have lived connected to the oceans and coasts. Take California for example, where the Pacific Ocean is a fundamental part of everyday life and where marine hazards can pose significant risk to communities.
A collaborative effort is underway to map all of California’s state waters through the California Seafloor Mapping Program (CSMP). The purpose of the maps is to create awareness of California’s marine resources and to understand the setting and processes that result in coastal change, sea-level-rise impacts, coastal erosion and hazards from earthquakes and tsunamis. This will help in planning for safer boat navigation, infrastructure development, evacuation plans, beach restoration, coastal erosion framework, assessing marine protected areas and mitigation of coastal flooding. The maps are in use right now, helping address questions about the movement of oil from the Refugio Oil Spill in California.
This program is the first of its kind and is a collaborative effort involving the USGS, the California Ocean Protection Council, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and fifteen other state and federal partners.
Governance refers to the management and authority over boundaries and geographic areas within ocean environments. USGS coastal and marine science is helping managers assess what processes, such as sea level rise, will greatly affect a large region or an ecosystem of concern. Florida’s Everglades is a focus for the USGS and a good example of science to support informed governance by state water authorities, the National Park Service, and other major landowners.
This area is vulnerable to invasive species, such as the Burmese python, as well as decreasing freshwater flow, water quality challenges, and declining species populations. USGS research is helping facilitate efforts to protect and restore the Everglades by assessing current threats and predicting future changes associated with weather extremes.
Infrastructure refers to permanent or temporary systems constructed in ocean environments. For example, consider offshore oil and gas drilling operations. An understanding of the positive and negative impacts on the movement of sediment around the base of structures built for extraction of energy resources will inform better design and placement of these structures.
In 2014, USGS scientists developed a computer model to track the movement of residual oil from Deepwater Horizon along the northern Gulf of Mexico. USGS scientists are also continuing efforts to monitor surface residual balls, which are rounded clumps of material that formed once the oil made contact with sand. Science is helping aid in the continuation of cleanup efforts and reducing effects of future oil spills.
National Ocean Policy
The National Ocean Policy (NOP) was established in 2010 in order to ensure that our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes are healthy and resilient. The NOP includes a set of priority objectives and guiding principles for policy and management actions toward sustainable coastal and ocean stewardship.
A keystone objective of the NOP is the establishment of marine planning as a framework for comprehensive management and stewardship. The NOP calls for cooperation among federal agencies, states, and tribes to develop regional plans for ecosystem-based management to sustain multiple uses and improve the conservation of these treasured areas.