As much as 95 per cent of the world’s oceans and 99 per cent of the ocean floor remain unexplored. We have yet to identify around two-thirds of all marine life. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our ocean floor.
While we look to the stars and imagine what lies out there in the cosmos, there is a vast uncharted empire under water.
The potential of the future ‘blue’ or ‘ocean’ economy is staggering, with a report by government in 2018 estimating the market to reach £2.14 trillion by 2030. There is opportunity here.
Read more: Blue Whale – an ocean of opportunity?
In what can only be described as an uncertain time for the UK economy (facing the imminent departure from our largest trading partner), the chance to be a pioneer in a market of unfathomable economic potential is a mouth-watering prospect.
Recent estimates have put the value of the world’s undiscovered seafloor deposits of gold alone at £100 trillion, and the potential value of British cobalt and other metals at £40bn. And though the United Kingdom’s long history has been inextricably tied to the seas that surround it, the UK’s seabeds remain relatively uncharted, with only 30 per cent of the seabed around the UK mapped in detail, and much less in overseas territories such as the Falklands, Bermuda and Anguilla.
The economic potential is evident, and the UK maritime sector is responding. Maritime Research & Innovation UK (a consortium of seven maritime technology companies and four leading maritime universities) have developed the UK’s first major proposal for collaborative work to address what we are calling the Safe, Environmental, Autonomous Systems (SEAS) Challenge: to develop safe environmental autonomous maritime systems in two nationally critical areas: seabed mapping and green shipping. If we can do this, the UK will be able to capitalise on about £16bn of economic opportunities and deliver stewardship of the UK’s 2.5m square miles of sea – 28 times the UK land area and the fifth largest sea area of any country.
To grasp this opportunity, growth in technology and innovation is required – specifically, our ability to perform precise and thorough seabed mapping. To make this a reality however, collaborative effort and serious investment is needed into the UK maritime sector. Though we have the relevant and world-leading technology at our fingertips, it is dissipated across a sector that has always thrived on competition to grow. The constituent parts of the sector – shipping, ports, services in the city, engineering and leisure marine – understand that cooperation is vital in order to achieve this national mission, for the good of the sector but also the UK economy as a whole.
Britain has long been known as a world-leading maritime nation. However, what is true of the past is not always a guarantee of the future, and our ability to capitalise on this undersea opportunity will require strategic investment and coordination at the highest level. Our proposal is requesting £74m from government to help aid the innovation needed to develop our seabed mapping capabilities. With the global market opportunity estimated at around £63bn by 2030, such an investment could help us capture at least 25 per cent of this potential market, or a market share of around £16bn.
What’s more, this depth of this opportunity extends far beyond British shores. The UN is currently working with the International Seabed Authority to begin the process of mapping the world’s oceans, and as countries realise the potential riches that await them in their underseas territories, there will have to be an international effort in law and in practice to identify and outline what lies beneath us. What this means is that in making progress in this area, the UK won’t only satisfy the demands of our own government and prove that extensive charting of the seafloor is possible; it will demonstrate that we are the world’s pioneers in the technology and the processes required to do this. If we get this right and both discover the hidden depths of British waters and create cutting-edge technology in the process, we will have an attractive proposition for other countries that want to map their own subsea territory, strengthening our position as a leader in maritime technology.
We have a golden opportunity. While other leading maritime nations such as the Netherlands, Norway and Singapore have more mature cooperation in their maritime sectors, we have world-leading academic research centres, a global reputation for maritime technology products and services and are home to the most prestigious, international maritime organisations such as the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
By backing our bid and acting as an ‘entrepreneurial state’ by assisting the maritime sector, the government can do something that stands to benefit the UK hugely. With a bit of vision and belief, the UK stands to gain beyond belief.
Read more: Is gold still a safe haven?