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Developing the Map to Save the Seas; Coming to You in 3-D!

The global ocean is a big place, covering nearly 71% of our planet, and is essential to life on earth. From providing the oxygen we breathe to regulating the climate we need to survive, healthy oceans are critical to the future of humankind.

Yet humans know more about the moon than we do about our oceans. This is why Marine Conservation Institute accepted the invitation of chief scientist Dr. Dawn Wright of Esri to collaboratively create the world’s first, three-dimensional map of our oceans. Esri, the global leader of geographic information system technology, is creating this global map of marine ecosystems in partnership with Marine Conservation Institute’s marine experts, Dr. Lance Morgan, Dr. John Guinotte, Beth Pike and Russ Moffitt, serving in an advisory capacity. This map, and the pioneering technology developed to produce it, will help scientists, conservationists and decision makers better understand the oceans and will revolutionize how we conserve this important resource and the marine life beneath the once-mysterious surface.

This innovative map will be created using a three-dimensional data-derived, ecological stratification-based mapping approach to produce global ecological marine units (EMUs). The EMUs will be developed in a three step process. First, a volumetric column-based mesh will be created as a global, spatial reference standard and analytical framework. Next, this spatial framework will be populated with relevant marine physical environment data including water column variables (temperature, oxygen, salinity, etc.) and seabed topographic features. Finally, these data will be analyzed to identify ecologically meaningful, three-dimensional regions across the entire volume of the world’s oceans. The EMUs will then be combined with species distribution data from the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) to assess the relationship between the EMUs created from the environmental data and known species locations.

The three-dimensional framework will also allow us to integrate future projections of ocean temperatures and ocean acidification to help identify areas that are most at risk to climate change. This step is critical to ‘future-proofing’ new and/or existing marine protected areas by identifying important marine regions that are less likely to be impacted by climate change. We want MPAs to provide protection for marine life for many generations to come.

A two-dimensional map of bottom salinity (left, Watling et al 2013) versus a three-dimensional map of water masses around Australia (right, Commonwealth of Australia 2006). The three-dimensional map, or regionalization, simplifies the complex relationship between environment and species distributions, and captures spatial patterns in the distribution of species and habitats at differing scales providing an important, higher level of information.

Once this three-dimensional framework is developed, Marine Conservation Institute’s team of marine conservation biologists will be able to create new maps of biodiversity hotspots in the oceans that desperately need protection. A strategic network of marine protected areas covering 20-30% of the ocean is needed to ensure survival of marine life but, until now, the marine conservation community has lacked the tools to identify these places in the vast ocean.

We already know strongly protected MPAs (often referred to as marine reserves) work to protect and recover marine life. Now we just need to create and adequately enforce enough to avoid mass extinction in the seas.  We currently protect only 0.94% of the ocean in marine reserves…we have a lot of work to do to reach the advised 20-30%. To address this challenge, Marine Conservation Institute launched the Global Ocean Refuge System initiative to intelligently identify where these MPAs should be located and encourage implementation. With this new map and advancement in three-dimensional technology, we will be able to more accurately predict important areas in the oceans that need protection under the Global Ocean Refuge System. And it will be 3-D! Pretty cool, huh?

Marine Conservation Institute is thrilled to join Esri and other organizations, including USGS, NOAA, NatureServe, UNEP-Grid, Arendal, Duke University and the University of Auckland, in the undertaking of this innovative and groundbreaking project that will bring us one enormous step closer to protecting the oceans in a Global Ocean Refuge System. To learn more about Marine Conservation Institute and the Global Ocean Refuge System initiative, visit us at and


  1. Tharaka Sriram on May 23, 2015 at 3:47 am

    Will the map be available online?

  2. Victoria Bell on May 28, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Tharaka. Yes, there are maps (not 2 D) available at the website. But when the 3-D capability is ready to go live, we will share the results with the public. Mike Gravitz