“A Safe Ocean”: Ocean Decade Laboratory brings together science and traditional knowledge for effective disaster preparedness

The fifth Ocean Decade Laboratory “A Safe Ocean” discussed hazards for people in coastal regions. Participants from 116 countries joined the Core Event on 5 April, the 25 Satellite Activities and the Wrap-up on 7 April.

The Core Event on 5 April 2022 opened with a moving account from two eyewitnesses of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcanic eruption in the South Pacific in January 2022. Ashes spread over hundreds of kilometres following the unusually powerful outburst of the underwater volcano. The following tsunami caused destruction in regions as far away as Peru, and the Island of Tonga – just 60 kilometres from the eruption – was struck by unprecedented disaster.

“This was very scary to me and to everyone on the island”, described IIiesa Tora, a journalist and media consultant from Tonga. “I remember looking up at those big clouds going up into the air. It was something no one here had seen before.”

A tsunami warning had been issued after a smaller underwater eruption the day before, and Iliesa Tora saw unusually large waves and currents on the shoreline.

“I was driving away from the coast with my family, and we heard these thuds on the roof. It was the ashes coming down which later covered everything on the island in a thick layer. It was really very scary.”

The 5th Ocean Decade Laboratory and the 25 Satellite Activities brought together experts and stakeholders who share an interest in a safe ocean, including disaster preparedness.

"This UN Ocean Decade Laboratory is a start to jointly developing a safe ocean while leaving no one behind", said Burkard Baschek, Director of the German Ocean Museum in Stralsund and one of two chairs of the Laboratory.

The discussions involved many people from the South Pacific or the Caribbean islands, regions that are particularly vulnerable to ocean hazards as most inhabitants live and work in coastal regions.

Scientists demonstrated how new technology such as sensors on underwater cables, satellite images, and geological studies of the history of the Earth can help predict events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis.

“However, we need to develop in two directions”, said Silvia Chacón-Barrantes, Coordinator of the National Tsunami Monitoring System in Costa Rica. “One is technology to monitor and warn. But technology itself is useless if people don't know what it means and how to react.”

Particular attention was paid to traditional knowledge and the integration of indigenous communities in creating a safe ocean. These challenges were discussed with participants from several native and indigenous peoples from North and South America.

"My impression is that our traditional knowledge has long been seen as a threat to science, competing with the influence of policy makers" said Shulqwilum, a member of the Chemainus First Nation in Vancouver Island, USA.

Claudia C. Baron-Aguilar, a Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida and member of the Wayuu indigenous community in Colombia added: "I think traditional knowledge and science complement each other. You can't just take them and merge them, but they empower each other when we respect the individuality of each."

Summing up the fifth Ocean Decade Laboratory after three days of discussions, Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, Co-Chair of the Laboratory and Deputy Director of the International Tsunami Information Center, Caribbean Office in Puerto Rico said:

"For me, an islander from the Caribbean, it has been really special to share this activity with colleagues from the south-western islands in the Pacific. We sometimes think we are worlds or oceans apart but really we are very close."

If you missed the Ocean Laboratory “A Safe Ocean,” you can watch the Core Event and the Wrap-up in their entirety here: CORE EVENT and WRAP-UP.