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Inaugural Stanford Oceans Conference reimagines approach to ocean exploration

Speakers highlight the urgent need to scale technologies, democratize data, and apply more diverse skill sets to accelerate understanding and protection of our oceans.

The next frontier of ocean exploration won’t necessarily involve probing greater depths, but rather, optimizing how to analyze a sea of data. Attendees of the inaugural Stanford Oceans Conference gathered in the heart of Silicon Valley on Stanford’s historic campus earlier this month to discuss how data and technology can improve ocean health and sustainability. 

Graduate students Jamie McDevitt-Irwin and Natalie Arnoldi and undergraduate Sarah Pierce collect data to monitor the health of the tide pools near Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Scientists and practitioners from Stanford and other U.S. institutions represented disciplines traditionally associated with ocean science and exploration, like marine biology and underwater robotics, as well as those indicative of a new era, such as data science and the social sciences. Co-hosted by the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and the Graduate School of Business, the conference will repeat annually as part of the Stanford Sustainability Research Conference series.

“To keep pace with urgent challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss, we must create more powerful tools for both collecting data and using them to accelerate potential solutions,” said Fiorenza Micheli, co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and chair of the Oceans Department in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, as well as an organizer of the conference. “There is a growing need for greater integration of data sets and disciplines to create impact at scale and at the speeds we need to enable informed decision-making.”

The school’s inaugural dean Arun Majumdar underscored the need to move swiftly in his opening remarks, highlighting the Sustainability Accelerator as a critical tool for fast-tracking near-term policy and technology solutions.

Connecting the dots

Over the course of two days, presenters shared advances in technologies that are revolutionizing the capacity to monitor changes in the ocean. Data collection tools under discussion covered a range of formats from digitizing 240 years of handwritten observations by U.S. Navy sailors to monitoring sea water for trace amounts of DNA shed by marine species to track biodiversity. 

Among the most promising technologies discussed are those involving satellites. For example, pop-up satellite tags can be affixed to oceangoing species like sharks and tuna to better understand their migration patterns and inform management decisions. 

Researchers can also repurpose satellite data to address challenges that are more nebulous in nature, like illegal fishing. Commercial fishing boats are required by law to broadcast their position to other vessels in the vicinity. The analysis of these signals, along with other data, can indicate a vessel’s fishing activity and its proximity to marine protected areas to help authorities assess risk and prioritize when to intervene.

Manu Prakash, a Stanford professor of bioengineering, echoed the value of data in protecting the oceans. “Are we ready to collect data—not for the present ocean or the past ocean, but for the future ocean?” he asked during a roundtable discussion on the opportunities for ocean observing. “We need platforms that can allow us to project several decades into the future.” 

The need is now, the opportunity is now

The conference also provided insights into the need to address barriers that impede progress. Several speakers referenced the high cost of technologies that make ocean exploration accessible only to the most well-funded scientists and institutions. They celebrated the distribution of low-cost tools like FieldKit, an environmental sensor, and FoldScope, a paper microscope, that can more equitably scale the capacity to collect and share data. 

Others emphasized the need to bring new skill sets and backgrounds to bear on ocean health, exploration, and sustainability.

“We need to change our perspective of what a marine scientist can or should look like,” said Corey Garza, a marine ecologist from California State University at Monterey Bay. “You can be the person that’s really good at coding or auto-classifying deep-sea images and be just as good a marine scientist as the person who goes scuba diving.”

During a series of three-minute lightning talks, speakers ranging from students to tenured faculty shared prospects for ocean solutions that span the humanities to social sciences as well as government, private, and public sectors.

Democratizing access to data on illegal fishing, for example, could offer seafood companies greater visibility into their supply chains and potentially lead to more environmentally sustainable products.

“This is about the global commons, about acting as an integrated team to work towards shared goals,” said Vice Admiral Ann Rondeau, president of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “The need is now. The opportunity is also now.”

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