A digital twin for better ocean governance

A boat next to an ocean buoy
The construction of a digital twin of the ocean, which represents a powerful tool for scientific research and operational oceanography, should help advance our knowledge and support the development of a sustainable blue economy.

The European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) have both launched Digital Twin of the Ocean (DTO) projects to develop innovative oceanographic solutions.

Modelling possible futures for the ocean

The aim is to create a high-resolution virtual representation of the ocean or part of it by combining all available resources related to seas and oceans. The use of high-performance computing, data analysis and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies should make it possible to integrate a wide variety of data and models and to transform them into usable information with a view to providing decision support tools.

The purpose of the DTO is to provide an accurate and comprehensive description of the current state of the ocean and to help predict its evolution. It is therefore both a continuous, real-time monitoring (from the coasts to the deep sea, at the surface and at depth) and a simulation environment. It is used to create models of possible futures and to develop “what if” scenarios to analyse, for example, the influence of climate change and human activities on marine ecosystems or the impact of measures to reduce climate risks.

By pooling data and models from different sources in a single, accessible and interactive framework, it facilitates scientific collaboration, interdisciplinary approaches involving natural sciences, economics and humanities and social sciences, and the co-creation of solutions.

A digital framework for using marine information

In September 2020, the European Commission published the call for proposals entitled “Transparent and Accessible Seas and Oceans: Towards a Digital Twin of the Ocean” under the Horizon 2020 programme. This European DTO should contribute to the commitments made by the Commission in the Green Deal and the digital package to develop a very high precision digital model of the Earth (Destination Earth Initiative). The European Commission estimates that a first version should be operational by 2024.

Furthermore, the United Nations proclaimed 2021 to be the start of the Decade of the Ocean. The creation of a comprehensive digital representation of the ocean is one of the ten challenges of this resolution, which aims to help the global community implement Sustainable Development Goal 14: “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources”.

In this context, the DITTO programme (“Digital Twins of the Ocean”), managed by GEOMAR, an oceanographic research centre in the German city of Kiel, aims to establish and advance a single, open, shared digital framework. Within it, modelling and simulation as well as artificial intelligence algorithms and other technologies will enable ocean professionals to visualize, manipulate and analyse all types of marine data.

Consisting of a basic digital twin, this framework will offer users (scientists, governments, the UN system and civil society) the possibility of creating their own local or thematic twins and testing their own scenarios to address specific issues, such as the impact of the increase in the number of commercial ships on the degree of acidification of an area of the ocean over a given period of time, and the effects on coral reefs.

As an initial step, several prototypes of digital twins based on use cases of interest for research and operational oceanography will be developed.

The DITTO programme is already hosting the Caspian Sea digital twin project until the end of 2027. A “Caspian Sea Data Centre” will centralize an up-to-date archive of data, hydrodynamic models, atmospheric reanalyses, electronic atlases, scientific publications, etc.

The components of the digital twin of the ocean

The construction of the DTO is based on several technological building blocks and shared data management principles.

Firstly, observation systems in the sea and space provide in situ and satellite data, and ocean models. The observation networks feed and update the digital twin, which in turn can inform and optimize them, thus creating a “virtuous circle”.

Secondly, a data infrastructure ensures open and equitable access, interconnection between ocean observatories and integration of all available data – in situ measurements from ships or autonomous systems at sea, satellite observations, historical data from several scientific disciplines, and data from industry or citizen science, etc. This infrastructure relies on high-performance computing capabilities, partly in the cloud, and a governance framework defining standards and protocols for data exchange. This infrastructure relies on high-performance computing capabilities (partly in the cloud) and on a governance framework defining the standards and protocols for data exchange.

The DTO also integrates predictive analysis and modelling tools, based on AI and machine learning, to process data and test different scenarios. Finally, an interface allows users to view, interact with and customize the data and models according to their requirements.

The future European DTO will therefore have to be compatible with the current EU ocean observation capabilities (Eurofleets+ research vessels, EuroArgo autonomous systems, etc.) and the marine data, modelling and forecasting infrastructures built by the Member States. The latter are mainly based on the European Marine Observation and Data Network EMODNet and the Copernicus Marine Service (CMEMS).

It should also allow the implementation of standardized data, respecting principles recognised by the EU such as the FAIR principles (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable).

The digital twin of the ocean is helping to improve our knowledge of the sea and our ability to monitor it on a continuous basis. It allows us to forecast its evolution and manage its resources in a sustainable way, by providing a unique framework facilitating international and scientific collaboration. It is a unique future governance tool for this vast area of the planet that is crucial in terms of climate, economy, biodiversity and food.

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