Hydrology, the hydrospatial perspective, and the importance of multi-dimensional analyses for planning and decision-making, breaking down the boundaries of science to allow for comprehensive inclusion of multiple perspectives and better understanding of complex ocean systems toward international goals and objectives
Regular readers will know my definition of the ocean as a continuum, from freshwater to salt, from mountaintop to abyssal plain. That perspective was oddly unique for a while, seen as an outlier point of view that contradicted the conventional structure of science and governance that separated the two contiguous systems and pursued bifurcated research and policies, a phenomenon that, while changing, still remains, built into governmental organization, independent scientific discipline and publication, and educational approaches to understanding two integrated parts of Nature, land and sea, as if they were independent, discontinuous entities. It has been the source of 16 years of frustration for me as an ocean advocate, has determined the content and organization of the World Ocean Observatory, and has relentlessly motivated me to repeat, and repeat again, the inaccuracy and failure of this false dichotomy, as the primary barrier to our response to the most pressing issues of our time: climate change, and its adverse effects upon us all worldwide, every day more evident as its consequential events unfold.
We study the ocean today through the prisms of scientific categories: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, bathymetry, meteorology, and each discipline has its distinguished researchers, academic departments, professional publications, conferences, and network of collaborators, all diving deep into a singular aspect of the ocean, horizontally through volumetric exchange and conveyance, and vertically up and down the water column. Only recently has there emerged crossover and exchange of data between disciplines and integrated studies that begin to present and understand the synergy of systems and explanations derived, even as the underlying method is the efficiency of new technology and the exploitation of exponential volumes of data.
Hydrology is a case in point, defined by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) as “the branch of applied science which deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, land and rivers, as well as with the prediction of their change over time…”
What has emerged from within this community is a new perspective, hydrospatial being the descriptive adjective, information systems combined to produce multi-dimensional analyses and visualizations for planning and decision-making that break down the artificial disciplinary boundaries of science to allow for comprehensive inclusion of multiple perspectives to better inform understanding of complex ocean systems and inform policy makers, regulators, and politicians. Thus, cross disciplinary research collaboration, multi-dimensional data exchange, maritime authority and jurisdictional realities, economic and social realities and requirement are brought together to inform international goals and objectives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals that pertain not just to the ocean and life below water (SDG14), but also to fisheries and freshwater issues, waterways and transportation, hunger, health, work and economic growth, industry, innovation, and infrastructure, and sustainable cities and communities — all outcomes that rely on this more comprehensive and fully charted understanding of how the ocean relates to every aspect of life on earth.
When we talk about the so-called Blue Economy, we are talking about this very thing, about how the ocean drives the primary systems of life as expressed by the inter-relationship of value as provided by natural systems. Economics is defined as “the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth.” While there are various theories and practices for how an economy works, the knowledge applied directs what we produce, what we consume, and what we regard and transfer as wealth. It is fundamentally a value equation. The sciences inform those theories and practices; they are the building blocks of the knowledge required to make the systems of life support, successfully, our systems of living.
We live in hydrospace. That realization informs our future. We live in a hydraulic society, where the integration and sustainability of the ocean/freshwater continuum will enable our future. Finally, science and governance are beginning to understand and to work in complement to that fundamental synthesis in Nature. Readers may sense a change in tone, in my description of this change, some tremors of hope, some sense of an opening, at last, to a forward perspective that will transform ways of life, understanding of the earth around us, and prospects for generations, now and to come.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 12 years this year, with more than 600 episodes produced to date.