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Saving the seas: how AI is helping to protect our oceans

Covering nearly 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, oceans are the life support system for our planet. They generate half of the oxygen we breathe, provide food and livelihoods for billions of people worldwide and regulate the Earth’s climate.   

However, global warming is having a profound effect on our oceans – from sea rising levels to increased storms, these changes will have significant consequences for humanity.  For example, if sea levels continue to rise, the water will swamp major coastal cities like New York and Shanghai, displacing up to 187 million people by 2100.

Colorful coral reef with many fishes and sea turtle.

Studying and forecasting the influence of climate change on oceans is what professor Ronan Fablet, and his team of researchers at IMT Atlantique in France, have been focusing for the past two years. They are developing data-driven and learning-based schemes for the modelling, analysis and reconstruction of ocean atmosphere dynamics, by using satellite remote sensing data. These improved models offer the potential to better understand the Earth’s climate, and the impact of climate change on oceans, from currents to CO2 concentrations.

IMT Atlantique was one of the winners of the AI for Earth EU Oceans award, an initiative for European research organizations focusing on ocean-related challenges. The grants equip these researchers with AI tools, and cloud computing resources to help develop their work. These are part of Microsoft’s broader AI for Earth program, a five-year $50 million commitment, which has awarded more than 236 grants in larger projects since its inception two years ago.

“Data can help tell us about the health of our oceans, including temperature and rising sea levels. But we need technology’s help to capture this vast amount of data and convert it into actionable intelligence. Fundamentally, AI can accelerate our ability to observe ocean dynamics and how they are changing at a global scale,” says Ronan Fablet.

IMT Atlantique’s team is using Microsoft Azure to get multiple ready-to-use resources to build 3D models of the ocean surface. In turn, these models are helping to test and validate new ideas, and gain a deeper understanding of how ocean surfaces are changing. They believe that the insights and information gathered from the project will help oceanographers and conservationists to better protect our oceans.

Advancing the sustainable use and conservation of the oceans is one of the 14th UN development goals, an urgent call to action to achieve a more sustainable future for all. That’s why on occasions like World Oceans Day, we want to remind everyone about the major role the oceans have in everyday life. It is the success of projects like Ronan’s, that will help us to better understand, support and stop climate change from further damaging Earth’s marine ecosystems, and inspire others to utilize technology to help save our planet.