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Three baby turtles on the sand in front of the sea
Tunis, Tunisia

Geopolitical Tensions and Climate Crisis: Imminent Threats to the Ocean

The oceans cover more than 70% of the earth's surface. The Mediterranean Sea, the largest of the intercontinental seas, covers 2.9 million km2 and represents 0.8% of the waters of the globe. Located between Europe, North Africa and West Asia, it is, as its name suggests, "in the middle of the land". Its position is a factor aggravating the concentration of plastic pollution. According to a 2019 Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report, its concentration of plastic makes it the most polluted sea in the world.

But pollution is not the only danger lurking in the Mediterranean. This summer, the average temperature of the Mediterranean has increased by 6 degrees, a direct result of the climate crisis which makes the situation increasingly critical for biodiversity:

“There are places in the Mediterranean where for more than 90 days over the summer, the temperature remained at a maximum level. The temperature reached highs that never went down. Marine species are suffering enormously. There is no respite, it remains constant. Heatwaves are everywhere in the Mediterranean, especially in the western part and it is catastrophic," said Pierre Bahurel, Director of Mercator Ocean.

Map with marine heatwaves in Red
Marine heat waves (MHW) average intensity in degrees Celsius between May and August 2022. White indicates areas with no marine heat waves detected during this period / Credit: Mercator Ocean International.

The health of the oceans and seas: a geopolitical challenge

For more than 42,000 years, humans have taken advantage of the resources of the sea to feed themselves. More than 3 billion people depend on seafood, which contributes ~20% of the protein in their diet. Given the economic impact of pollution and the climate crisis on fishing, shipping and tourism, the phenomenon can also represent a food security issue because of the risks to the livelihoods of certain populations.

“In the Gulf of Guinea, 80% of dietary protein comes from fishing, but this area is currently being plundered in a very worrying way. Climate change is an essential element of this geopolitical equation because climate change will involve migration crises and damage to biodiversity and therefore less food in the seas," explained Yann Briand, head of the Strategy and Policy Office of the French Navy General Staff.

It is in this context that the French Navy works on the protection of the sea from any illegal activity threatening biodiversity and tries to ensure environmental security in a context dominated by geopolitical issues. "Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, for 30 years, we have had crises in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Each time we return to an acceptable state of equilibrium. Today there are successive shocks, which will accumulate: a health shock, an economic shock, a military shock with Ukraine, an environmental shock and the world that will emerge from all of this in the end will be radically different," adds Briand.

Olivier Poivre d'Arvor, Ambassador for the poles and maritime issues at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs in France, shared similar observations.

"It is on the sea that the great conflicts will happen in the years to come," said d'Arvor.

Maritime spaces are crucial to global geopolitics; they reveal new strategic ambitions for economic and demographic reasons. Figures show that 65% of the world's population lives in port and coastal areas.

“Today the sea is an economic object with great resources. In 2030, revenues from the sea will be greater than those from land, so obviously this whets the appetites of countries, states and companies. Any form of appropriation and privatization of the sea can threaten it. We believe, due to climate and environmental issues, that the sea is a common good that must be protected. It cannot be privatized," said d'Arvor.

But as humanity reaches the limits of environmental exploitation, and is faced with the needs of populations and associated political issues, nation states and companies are turning their gazes towards what is still exploitable on the planet: the sea. The result is a race for marine resources, from fishes to metals and the exploitation of oil and gas. Some countries are keen to regulate the maritime space more than it already is in order to be able to continue operating within a legal and regulated framework.

These economic exploitations revive historical disputes and sometimes serve as justifications for the desire to control maritime areas. It is becoming urgent for states to work together on shared governance of the oceans and seas.

"We have to create “shocks of cooperation”. There are many mechanisms that exist for the Mediterranean, such as the Barcelona Convention, but none of them manage to produce this “shock of cooperation” which means that the 21 countries will work together. The “shock of cooperation” is also to avoid this “shock of polarization” between economic interests, the defense of the environment and the interests of certain nations who want to possess natural resources," said d'Arvor.

It is clearly urgent for countries to work together and share science and solutions, yet the reality seems quite different according to Briand: “While right now we should be discussing how to protect the environment, we are not doing it between the great powers and that is extremely worrying. In addition to the migratory crises, in addition to pollution with climate change and marine pollution, it is a rather worrying cocktail. 

Space and artificial intelligence at the service of the oceans and seas

Despite all these threats, the lack of multilateral cooperation and the environmental and geopolitical challenges, scientists and climatologists sometimes work together to find more efficient and effective means to better anticipate anomalies in the sea and protect biodiversity. It is precisely this work that makes it possible to better deal with crises. Mapping the ocean floor is a perfect example of beneficial cooperation.

Scientists use ocean observation satellites, which provide a better understanding of the climatic evolution of our planet and safeguard marine ecosystems. These satellites provide camera images, radar images and raw data that will be analyzed by scientists.

Mercator Ocean's Bahurel states: “These satellites allow us to obtain a more precise map of the oceans and to make a map that covers the entire planet in 10 days. It triggered a whole new discipline of operational oceanography which consists of making forecasts and bulletins like for the weather but for the ocean."

The map shows the number of calendar days during which impulsive noise was recorded in an area defined by a common grid called Pulse Block Day units
The map shows the number of calendar days during which impulsive noise was recorded in an area defined by a common grid (1/3° by 1/6°), called Pulse Block Day units / Credit: European Commission

These satellites also make it possible to obtain precise measurements in real time to monitor temperatures, currents and concentrations of phytoplankton. These measures are necessary for the conservation of marine biodiversity because they help to anticipate crises, such as the food and migration crises.

Briand explains the importance of these measures and the cooperation between navy and scientists: "We are working with the Sorbonne University and the Tara Ocean Foundation, which have installed satellites on our boats to measure the concentration of plankton. It's very interesting because plankton is present where there are fishes, and where there are fishes, people can eat, if the plankton is no longer there, there will be no more fishes so there will be crises. We need this scientific link to anticipate crises."

But the role of this technology is not limited to taking a photograph of reality at a given moment. Satellites also make it possible to anticipate the future.

The maps produced by the satellites are transmitted to climatologists and biologists who analyze them and develop possible scenarios of climate change and risks to marine biodiversity. One of the added values ​​provided by satellites is their ability to observe the impact of humans on maritime ecosystems and predict possible anomalies. In 2019, for example, satellites made it possible to follow the evolution of the oil slick caused by the sinking of the freighter Grande America.

“We are asking a lot of private companies using satellite observations to be able to make the best use of our boats. We have 11 million km2 to monitor, so it is important to send the boats at the right time to the right place and it is thanks to the satellites that we do it," says Briand.

However, “life is not easy to model," adds Bahurel.

Faced with this complexity, Artificial Intelligence (AI) represents a ray of hope. By offering new solutions for collecting, structuring and enhancing data, AI can provide unprecedented resources to draw up a current picture of the state of biodiversity and predict its evolution. Applied to the marine environment, these innovations make it possible to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of marine and coastal ecosystems thanks to big data. "The challenge today is to create a digital twin of the ocean in which there is life and to be able to have a model that allows us to question the scenarios we are experiencing and the impact of our decisions," says Bahurel.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in BlueTN on 29 September 2022 in French. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity. BlueTN is one of the Mediterranean Media Initiative media partners. 

Banner image: Credit: Newly hatched sea turtles on the beach / Credit: David Reynolds.