Understanding the sea

The world’s oceans serve as a source of energy and natural resources, and play a crucial role in global weather patterns, but they are under threat from overconsumption of resources, pollution and climate change. We have hardly begun to explore what oceans contain in terms of marine life and types of resource. Flexible legal frameworks and new scientific models are needed to deal with these challenges, to ease conflict and guarantee sustainable ocean use.

More than 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered with seawater, which has a huge influence on life on our planet. Oceans play an important role in communication, whether via ship, cable, pipeline or air traffic, and are reservoirs of natural resources. Yet the potential of the sea is largely untapped and even unexplored, partly because of the logistical difficulties and the specialist equipment needed to reach all areas (Fig. 1). Reserves of gas and oil have not been fully identified, and we have not yet begun to exploit alternative energy sources, such as thermal, wind, wave or tidal energy, significantly, let alone the mineral stores beneth the sea bed.

Oceans also play a central role in scientific research, whether it is focused on economic endpoints or on understanding the natural world through questions of climatology, palaeoclimatology, biology or geophysics. The seas play an important role in global weather patterns: oceanic currents, such as the Gulf Stream, influence the global climate and affect the climatological features of different regions. The oceans are themselves influenced by climate change: ice melting in the Arctic and its influence on the Arctic Ocean is one example.

The world’s oceans are also deeply affected by global economic and demographic developments. Technical advances and explosive population growth in the past century have led to an increased consumption of marine resources. Use of the oceans for wind farms or waste disposal have created conflicts. The overexploitation of resources, pollution of the seas and climate change have damaged marine resources, leading to drastically reduced fish stocks and even the extinction of some species of marine life, as well as ecological damage to the marine environment.


Since the seventeenth century, the world’s seas and oceans — defined as starting 3 miles from a nation’s coastline — have been viewed as ‘international waters’, and therefore as a resource not subject to national sovereignty1. By the twentieth century, however, it became necessary to establish new legal frameworks to solve conflicts over mineral rights and fish stocks, and to guarantee sustainable use of the oceans.

In 1973, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea2,3 led to certain ‘property rights’ — such as exclusive economic zones, which have helped to define rights and responsibilities, but new solutions are required4,5. The oceans play an important role for life on Earth in many respects, and the accelerating pace of scientific discovery requires a more flexible approach.

Microbiologists, molecular biologists and biochemists must work together to understand the microbial life of the oceans. Through an evolutionary process that has continued for nearly 4 billion years, microorganisms have developed an enormous variety of metabolic processes, serving as catalysts for the breakdown of organic and inorganic substances (Fig. 2). They play a crucial role in global nutrient cycles and the regulation of greenhouse gases. Yet only 1% of the Earth’s marine microorganisms have been identified, emphasizing how much research lies ahead.

Meteorological impact also needs to be studied in order to understand how phy sical, chemical and biological processes, as well as human behaviour, contribute to sustaining life on Earth and slowing or accelerating global and regional climate changes. Complex computer models that incorporate these elements can help to explain the natural variability of the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere, and attempt to predict the influence of changes in land use, industrial development, urbanization and other human activities on global and regional climate. The role of the ocean in long-term climate change is yet to be fully elucidated.

In addition to research, maritime law plays an important role: it affects such disparate events as the laying of undersea pipelines; the consequences of climate change for the Arctic and the settling of maritime conflicts and piracy. Maritime laws includes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which conducts groundbreaking research in the area of the deep-sea floor. The ocean floor will be subject to international administration under the auspices of an international organization: the Seabed Authority. This is the first instance in modern international law in which such comprehensive territorial jurisdiction is exercised by international organization. It regards itself as representing humankind, and, in addition to its administrative and supervisory roles, it also has a redistributive function. This too is unique. The effects of this approach on the continuing development of international law remain to be explored.


Meeting the challenges of exploring what the oceans have to offer and how to use these resources sustainably requires a substantial investment of personnel and financial resources. The oceans’ biological diversity, geological features and influence on the world’s climate have not been sufficiently explored, and research gaps still exist. These tasks will require an interdisciplinary approach, encompassing many areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, palaeontology and geology, as well as the social and legal sciences. It can only be hoped that this is a cooperation that will also benefit other areas of science and the natural world.

Understanding the sea is the focus of the International Max Planck Research School for Maritime Affairs, which was established in 2002 as a cooperation between the Max Planck Institutes for Comparative and International Private Law, for Comparative Public Law and International Law, and for Meteorology, as well as the University of Hamburg in Germany. Its researchers address the legal, economic, geophysical and ecological aspects of the use, protection and organization of the oceans, as marine resources are becoming scarce.

Wolfrum, R.
Die Internationalisierung staatsfreier Räume
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