About 80% of the deep ocean remains unexplored. Scientists have been captured by its mysteries for many centuries and more recently there is a growing understanding of its role in combatting climate change. As we make technological advances allowing us to travel thousands of kilometres into the ocean depths to adventure with our own eyes, we are uncovering both the untapped resources it offers, but also the past and potential human impacts on this vast ocean landscape.

How can we continue to discover and benefit from the resources of this final frontier while ensuring that its rich biodiversity is safeguarded for future generations?

Ocean Decade Actions that Explore the Deep

The 2021-2030 UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (“The Ocean Decade”) has endorsed four transformative programmes developed by global partnerships of ocean scientists, governments and industry to explore the deep parts of the ocean, for both humanity and ecosystems.

These programmes have been endorsed as part of the first set of flagship Decade Actions that will contribute to achieving the vision of the Decade of the ‘science we need for the ocean we want. Coordinated by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the Ocean Decade is a framework to facilitate transformative ocean science solutions, connecting people and our ocean.

Deep Ocean Observing Strategy (DOOS)

Members of the Deep Ocean Observing Strategy (DOOS) know there are many unknowns in the ocean depths and plan on finding answers over the next ten years. Their activities cut across regions, much like the deep sea, to bring together stakeholders and collectively establish a scientifically rigorous system of deep-sea indicators (also called Essential Ocean Variables – EOVs). These EOVs allow us to observe many environmental dimensions, and build a better picture of the deep ocean as it stands now – little explored, yet heavily impacted.

“Through its chemical composition, circulation and mixing, deep ocean water masses hold secrets we have yet to uncover to fully grasp the workings of the global climate system and to represent these processes in Earth system models.” Says Patrick Heimbach, Co-Lead, University of Texas.

The deep sea is a complex environment which plays a key role in sequestering excess carbon dioxide and heat, driving ocean currents, and is a source of precious rare earth metals used to produce phones, laptops and batteries and other pieces of technology. In order to understand how to manage these resources, we must first and foremost improve our knowledge of the deep ocean ecosystem.

Challenger 150 programme

The Challenger 150 programme is setting forth to address the deep ocean knowledge gap. Their goal is to sustainably manage the many resources of the deep ocean. To do this, exploration and observation are essential because this will help stakeholders make informed decisions. Filling in such data gaps requires collaboration with developing countries which currently lack the necessary finances, technologies and infrastructure to conduct intensive deep-sea research. Through these collaborations, the Challenger 150 programme will embolden a generation of ocean stewards everywhere.

“With Challenger 150 we aim to train the next generation of deep-sea biologists and create a network of enhanced capacity that enables countries to exercise their full role in international discussions on the use of ocean resources within and outside of their national boundaries.” Say Programme Co-Leads Kerry Howell, Plymouth University, and Ana Hilário, University of Aveiro.

Capacity development to conduct this work is essential as the resources needed to monitor the deep sea are substantial. Many deep-sea ecosystems we are only beginning to understand, such as deep-sea coral reefs, are also fragile, slow growing and slow to recover. This heightens the need for carefully planned monitoring systems to ensure that our observation activities reduce the disruption of the very habitats we wish to observe.

One Ocean Network for Deep Observation

One such programme working in this area is the One Ocean Network for Deep Observation. This effort has laid out plans for innovative cold water coral monitoring, as well as hazard warning systems which requires data collection from deep-sea ridges and trenches. Much of the world’s volcanic and tectonic activity takes place beneath the ocean’s surface. This programme plans on specifically observing these activities to improve our ability to respond to impacts which extend to our coastlines and communities, such as tsunamis.

”More than 80% of the seafloor is unmapped and unexplored. ‘One Ocean Network for Deep Observation’ is proud to unveil Earth’s final frontier with organizations across the globe to pool scientific knowledge and resources to inspire society and protect our oceans with the best available science.” Says Programme Co-Lead Jean-Marc Daniel, Head of Physical Resources and Deep Ecosystems Department IFREMER.

(Lead Institution: IFREMER. Key partners: EMSO ERIC, JAMSTEC, ONC. Ed.)


Joint Exploration of the Twilight Zone Ocean Network (JETZON)

The Twilight Zone, which spans globally from 200m to 1000m depth, contains the largest and least exploited fish stocks in the ocean. This region plays a key role in global chemical cycles and the storage of carbon dioxide. However, the Twilight Zone is poorly understood, and this ignorance is dangerous. The Twilight Zone is under multiple stresses, including unsustainable fishing practices, deep-sea mining, climate change and proposed carbon dioxide mitigation methods.

With the majority of the Twilight Zone outside national boundaries, studying this last frontier is only possible through coordinated international action. This is the aim of the Joint Exploration of the Twilight Zone Ocean Network (JETZON), to establish a range of linked projects covering the full global scope of the Twilight Zone and develop the next generation of Twilight Zone scientists with an emphasis on multi-disciplinarity, improving access from all backgrounds and nations.

”Below the sunlit surface of the ocean, the Twilight Zone plays a global role storing carbon and recycling nutrients. Home to organisms from bacteria to giant squid, the research vital to its sustainable development requires a world-spanning effort, harnessing all our skills and technology.” Says Programme Lead Dr Adrian Martin, UK National Oceanography Centre.


Co-design and co-delivery of knowledge-based solutions

Together these Decade Programmes are amongst the first building blocks of the Decade. They will be leading a global Community of Practice on Deep Sea Research and Management over the next ten years to facilitate the co-design and co-delivery of initiatives which increase ocean knowledge for the deep ocean and contribute to the ten Ocean Decade Challenges.

Anyone can interact directly with the Programme teams by signing up to the Global Stakeholder Forum, the key engagement mechanism of the Decade.


Next Call for Decade Actions has been launched!

A new Call for Decade Actions No. 02/2021 was launched on 15 October 2021 so more stakeholders can submit their ideas for Decade Actions that will contribute to the science we need to deliver a healthy and resilient ocean by 2030.

This Call, which is the second of a series that will be launched every 6 months, is focusing on:

  • Decade Programmes that address priority issues including marine pollution, multiple stressors on marine ecosystems and the ocean-climate nexus.
  • Decade Projects that could become part of one of the 23 already endorsed Decade Programmes, as well as Projects seeking funding as part of the joint Ocean Decade – MeerWissen Initiative for African-German Marine Partnerships “Nature Based Solutions in Africa”.
  • Proposals for Decade Contributions of in-kind or financial resources to support Ocean Decade coordination and Action costs.

Interested applicants wishing to submit proposals will need to register to the Ocean Decade’s newly launched Global Stakeholder Forum to access the Call documentation and submit proposals. Each part of the Call has its own submission form and deadlines so please read the Call documentation carefully and contact us anytime if you need assistance.

Useful links:

Deep Ocean Observing Strategy (DOOS)

Challenger 150 programme

One Ocean Network for Deep Observation

Joint Exploration of the Twilight Zone Ocean Network (JETZON)

Discover all Ocean Decade Actions

For more information, please contact: oceandecade@unesco.org 


Originally published by IISD