People behind the scenes: Gustav Kågesten, marine geologist, SGU

Reading the SEAmBOTH “People behind the scene” blogs before attempting my own, I find I’m not alone to struggle with simplifying the interdisciplinary nature of my profession in one title, which tend to poorly reflect the full scope of work we do. In my case, I work as a marine geologist at the Swedish Geological Survey, should be quite simple you may think (he works with geology on and under the seafloor, got it!). Reality though is quite different; I’m not a geologist by training but an environmental engineer with a focus on marine science (oceanography, geology and biology).

You know it’s true!

My interest in the marine science field as a career path started when I mixed my engineering skills with marine biology during an exchange year in Canada, Vancouver Island, and a few years later as oceanographer on the East Indiaman replica Götheborg in the South Indian Ocean. I was hooked on one of the last frontiers for exploration. Last 10 something years I have worked in a variety of environments from the Baltic sea to deep waters of the Mexican gulf to the shallow coral reefs of the Caribbean (for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, United States), mostly work related to mapping and modelling marine benthic habitats, barely getting my head above the water surface. Lately my focus has grown to include mapping human impact on the ocean environment, combining seafloor maps and other ecosystem related information with human activities (I even get to work with land now!), to try and spatially map the cumulative impact we humans have on the marine ecosystem. Just like the SEAmBOTH project which has a diversity of partners and people, I have found that the most productive groups I have worked in have done so with a healthy mix of professions and experiences, whether the work title is related to any of our natural sciences, computer science or social science.

An ideal place for an office – monitoring Caribbean coral reefs with scuba gear together with a curious box-fish.

But what do I actually do at work? Though I’d like to say its exemplified in the image above, or when we go out to sea with our research ship Ocean Surveyor to collect seafloor information with advanced instruments (and yes, some of them are borderline toys such as ROVs and AUVs), I’m most days just another person stuck at an ordinary desk, tethered to a computer. The marine field like many other fields are adjusting to a world with increased computing power, artificial intelligence and “big data”, which brings great possibilities to quickly improve our seafloor maps, hence the need for a desk. Although wrangling data all day can sometimes be frustrating it is also very gratifying work when you see the resulting maps and can communicate what is “down there” to others.

Stuck at a desk but this one is on our research ship Ocean Surveyor with a live video from the seafloor. Always exiting to see what is down there after peering over sonar maps to locate the most suitable sites to investigate further.

Speaking of maps… No computing magic can bridge the gap of poor data and reliable maps. We still need to have high quality seafloor measurements to make them in a reliable and useful manner. You will be surprised to learn what a poor state the most basic information, like seafloor geology, are in and that it is one of the main challenges for effective ocean stewardship today. Though maps can be used both for exploiting a resource and for protecting it, information is key to manage the environment in a sustainable way (we have managed to overfish the ocean quite well even in the absence of high-resolution maps). For those curious how we do go about mapping the seafloor through the light absorbing water column there will be a post about mapping in the SEAmBOTH study area a-z at high resolution in a few weeks.

Growing up on sailing the Baltic Sea (my dad put me on our boat at two weeks age), my connection to the Baltic and the life under the surface has always been there. Now I’m taking my own two-year-old son out sailing (he doesn’t know you need a hook to fish yet…). Though vulnerable and degraded I am certain that we can turn the tide on the Baltic sea and get a rebound of large fish and reverse the growing anoxic areas and over-nutrification. We have much to fight for, and there are still many beautiful places out there!

Written by Gustav Kågesten, Geological Survey of Sweden

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