I am writing this note from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s (MBARI) Western Flyer during a 5-day cruise off the central California coast. I joined the cruise to observe first hand the capabilities that Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) such as MBARI’s Tiburon now offer ocean scientists. These impressive tools for exploring and sampling the water column and seafloor exemplify how new technologies and infrastructure are changing ocean science. OCE is developing and building new tools for ocean science in five categories: ocean drilling, deep submergence, oceanographic ships, ocean observatories and “cyberinfrastructure”. Ideas for these new facilities have broad support and trace their origins back to recommendations from workshop or reports. Some projects, like new ships, are upgrades or replacements for traditional oceanographic platforms. Others, like ocean observatories, will provide new opportunities for exploring and observing the water column and sea floor. This letter provides an update to some of these important projects.
The next phase of scientific ocean drilling, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), begins on 1 October 2003, and will eventually be supported by two large drill ships provided by the U.S. and Japan, as well as mission specific platforms from Europe and elsewhere. The program will begin before either of the new ships are ready for drilling but both are expected to be on-line within 2-3 years. NSF has begun negotiations with Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc. (JOI) which, if successful, would establish JOI as its prime contractor for converting and operating a vessel for scientific drilling. Japan’s new ship, Chikyu, is under construction and will be operated by the Japan Marine Science and Technology Center (JAMSTEC). Chikyu is the largest vessel ever to be constructed for ocean science. It is a vessel with riser drilling capability which means, among other things, that it can safely drill in sediments having high hydrocarbon content. The two large drill ships and the mission specific platforms will provide IODP scientists modern capabilities to collect and process samples to study the deep biosphere and subseafloor ocean, climate fluctuations and change, and solid earth cycles and geodynamics, including the seismogenic zone.
Following the publication of the Federal Oceanographic Facilities Committee (FOFC) report for academic fleet renewal in December 2001, agency plans for new ships for the academic fleet received increasing scrutiny from the UNOLS Council, its subcommittees and from many other ocean scientists. The Council and others recognize that the academic fleet is not getting any younger, and it takes many years to design and build new ships. OCE is presently involved in two projects recommended by the FOFC plan. A few years ago, OCE received funds to design the Alaska Region Research Vessel (ARRV) – an ice-strengthened ship to replace the aging Alpha Helix. The design was completed this year and, in August, the National Science Board approved the ARRV for consideration in a future NSF budget submission. As this is a comparatively large and expensive ship, the source of funds would be from NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account. Once completed, the ARRV will bring an impressive new capability to the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and points north for studies of marine ecosystems, fisheries oceanography, the effects of changing climate on the North Pacific, and the interesting seafloor geology of the region. OCE is also moving forward with a plan to build three new Regional class oceanographic ships as called for by the FOFC plan. Last year, UNOLS hosted workshops to define science mission requirements for these vessels, and OCE engaged a marine architect this year to review those requirements as part of the initial design and costing process. If all goes as planned, early next year OCE will announce a competition leading to the design and construction of regional class vessels with the goal of acquiring three vessels by the end of this decade.
Deep submergence science received a new tool in September, 2002, when Jason-2 began operations. This new ROV has impressive capabilities including 6500m depth capability; increased power, thrust, lighting and payload compared to Jason-1; and powerful hydraulic manipulators with high dexterity. Last year we asked the Ocean Studies Board (OSB) to consider future deep submergence needs for research. One motivation for our request is the desire among some in the research community to replace Alvin with a more capable human-occupied submersible. Others argue that ROVs like Jason-2, Tiburon and similar un-manned vehicles are now so sophisticated and capable that human-occupied submersibles are no longer required. OCE will use the OSB report, anticipated this fall, to help guide future investments in deep submergence vehicles.
ORION is the name OCE now uses to reference NSF’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) and its associated science activities (see cover article). The President’s FY 2004 Budget Request to Congress indicated that OOI would be considered a priority new start in FY 2006. The goal is for full implementation by the end of the decade. ORION is an ambitious undertaking to build and operate coastal, regional and open ocean observatories for basic research. It will require considerable additional planning that will build on what has occurred to date, including a recent, comprehensive NRC report on implementation. OCE is sponsoring a large workshop in January to continue developing the preliminary science plan for ORION, and we anticipate and encourage broad participation. We also recently released an announcement requesting proposals for a Project Office. The Project Office will develop detailed plans and budgets to construct and operate the observatories, and will coordinate ORION with other NSF initiatives such as EarthScope and NEON (National Ecological Observatory Network), as well as the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS).
In addition to platforms, OCE also recognizes the needs for “cyberinfrastructure” – a term that refers to the computer hardware, software and networks for calculations, data processing, data archiving and for efficient dissemination of results. NSF is planning a significant initiative, and OCE has formed a working group to identify the ocean science community needs and priorities.
From the descriptions above, one can see that OCE has many projects underway to provide new tools for ocean scientists. However, we cannot provide all of what academic oceanographers need to support their goals for research and applications. As has been true throughout the history of U.S. ocean science, we need other partners in the federal government and elsewhere to help support the high cost of modern science and its applications. A vision for the future of the field, and how the products of research will address societal needs, is also important if we are to capture and sustain federal interest and resources. A few years ago, the Directorate for Geosciences developed a plan for the future entitled, “NSF Geosciences Beyond 2000” and OCE published a companion document based on considerable community input entitled, “Ocean Sciences at the New Millenium”. Much of the infrastructure that we now request is based on requirements to implement these plans. We revisit the plans periodically to make sure that the science themes reflect current thinking, and that we are on the right track for implementation. We are also working with the external community to articulate a compelling vision for ocean science, the societal benefits that will be realized as we work towards that vision, and how this quest leads to our needs for new infrastructure and other requirements. These three ingredients - a compelling vision, partnerships and plans based on community input - will help us justify the new tools we need for the future.