For centuries, the sea has sustained lives and livelihoods, divulged ancient and unforeseen treasures, and stirred our dreams of remarkable new discoveries. But never in history have we had the immense opportunities now beckoning from the sea.
On the horizon is a new blue economy, an exciting oceanic frontier that offers great promise of making our nation safer, healthier, and more prosperous. The new blue economy is a knowledge-based economy, looking to the sea not for extraction of material goods but for data and information to address societal challenges and inspire their solutions.
On one side of the divide, we have an enormous amount of scientific knowledge drawn from observations and web-based platforms that let us synthesize and visualize data from innumerable sources in real-time. Through satellite and ocean-based systems, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, provides data and other information about the sea to inform a range of predictions, from currents, waves, tides and storm surge to water temperature, chemistry, and the marine biological system.
On the other side of the divide, consumers are calling for distinct tools and solutions for particular market needs. From farmers, emergency managers, and corporate executives to heads of households and heads of state, users increasingly demand spot-on information at their fingertips.
They want to know whether their street, their business, or their favorite beach will be in harm’s way. To get ahead of medical emergencies, coastal communities and public health officials need an app to accurately forecast harmful algal blooms. Port-by-port fog and other forecasts could substantially cut shipping costs. Because, on average, U.S. floods, including those from ocean storm surges, kill more people each year than any other weather event, emergency managers must know precisely whom to evacuate and where the sandbags should go. Maps showing wide swaths of land and highways don’t zero in on such critical information.
The new blue economy has tremendous potential to bridge this divide, drawing on scientific and technological capabilities to infuse new solutions to fill customer demands with optimal specificity. Now, as never before, we have the know-how and technology to honor the sea’s fragile, finite resources while simultaneously spurring economic growth, new revenue streams, and jobs.
We can produce timely and accurate forecasts. We have sufficient observations to begin in earnest. Assessments can look at how the ocean affects current markets such as health and food security, but not shy away from more speculative sectors. Derivative markets, for instance, can use ocean science to foster financial innovation and build market resilience to shocks. Catastrophe bonds can rely heavily on environmental data to secure risk.
There also is much to learn from the commercial U.S. weather enterprise, estimated to be valued in billions and perhaps tens of billions of dollars. Weather and mapping tools are now used routinely to help untold numbers of people navigate their daily lives. But a half-century ago, the commercial weather industry was just a start-up, and many were skeptical about its business model.
Today the new blue economy is an entrepreneurial engine of similar promise. Since sound science and reliable, timely data are foundational to its success. NOAA is working to make more of this environmental intelligence available.
Enterprising private service providers will contemplate the coming sea change, recognize the opportunities, and roll up their sleeves. Markets imagined, and as yet unimagined, will open up.
Capital can be coupled to publicly funded science. Ever-expanding reams of public data, and an open toolbox of technological advances will be leveraged so that consumers reap personalized value from these considerable assets. And, in bits and bytes, the knowledge-based new blue economy will transform information into real profits, real jobs, and meaningful impact on lives and livelihoods across the United States and the entire global community.
Richard Spinrad is the chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.