Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Article Abstract

The existence, sources, distribution, circulation, and physicochemical nature of macroscale oceanic water bodies have long been a focus of oceanographic inquiry. Building on that work, this paper describes an objectively derived and globally comprehensive set of 37 distinct volumetric region units, called ecological marine units (EMUs). They are constructed on a regularly spaced ocean point-mesh grid, from sea surface to seafloor, and attributed with data from the 2013 World Ocean Atlas version 2. The point attribute data are the means of the decadal averages from a 57-year climatology of six physical and chemical environment parameters (temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, phosphate, and silicate). The database includes over 52 million points that depict the global ocean in x, y, and z dimensions. The point data were statistically clustered to define the 37 EMUs, which represent physically and chemically distinct water volumes based on spatial variation in the six marine environmental characteristics used. The aspatial clustering to produce the 37 EMUs did not include point location or depth as a determinant, yet strong geographic and vertical separation was observed. Twenty-two of the 37 EMUs are globally or regionally extensive, and account for 99% of the ocean volume, while the remaining 15 are smaller and shallower, and occur around coastal features. We assessed the vertical distribution of EMUs in the water column and placed them into classical depth zones representing epipelagic (0 m to 200 m), mesopelagic (200 m to 1,000 m), bathypelagic (1,000 m to 4,000 m) and abyssopelagic (>4,000 m) layers. The mapping and characterization of the EMUs represent a new spatial framework for organizing and understanding the physical, chemical, and ultimately biological properties and processes of oceanic water bodies. The EMUs are an initial objective partitioning of the ocean using long-term historical average data, and could be extended in the future by adding new classification variables and by introducing functionality to develop time-specific EMU distribution maps. The EMUs are an open-access resource, and as both a standardized geographic framework and a baseline physicochemical characterization of the oceanic environment, they are intended to be useful for disturbance assessments, ecosystem accounting exercises, conservation priority setting, and marine protected area network design, along with other research and management applications.


Sayre, R.G., D.J. Wright, S.P. Breyer, K.A. Butler, K. Van Graafeiland, M.J. Costello, P.T. Harris, K.L. Goodin, J.M. Guinotte, Z. Basher, M.T. Kavanaugh, P.N. Halpin, M.E. Monaco, N. Cressie, P. Aniello, C.E. Frye, and D. Stephens. 2017. A three-​dimensional mapping of the ocean based on environmental data. Oceanography 30(1):90–103, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2017.116.

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