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Opportunities in Ocean Sciences:
Challenges on the Horizon


As it has always been, the ocean remains a fascinating frontier for exploration and discovery. Vast regions of the ocean have only recently become accessible to scientific exploration. For example, organisms have recently been discovered in the deep ocean that are unlike any previously known. The challenges and excitement of such discoveries will undoubtedly continue. On the occasion of the International Year of the Ocean, the Ocean Studies Board has identified three broad research areas that present great opportunities for advances in the ocean sciences and will lead to concrete improvements for human life on this planet.

  • Improving the health and productivity of coastal oceans-A large fraction of the U.S. population lives, works, or plays near the coast. Marine fisheries, shipping, and recreation are major industries. A more comprehensive, basic understanding of the coastal oceans and their interaction with the land is needed that will be applicable to all coastal areas and so provide cost-effective, accurate management advice.

  • Sustaining ocean ecosystems for future generations-The ocean, from the coast out to the deepest abyss, sustains a vast, interconnected web of animal and plant life. This living system provides food and medicines, filters and transforms many human-generated substances, and affects the climate in complex ways. The effects of natural and anthropogenic change on marine ecosystems need to be evaluated and quantified to sustain, for generations, the biodiversity and productivity we increasingly depend on in the oceans.

  • Predicting climate variations over a human lifetime-Any significant change in the earth's climate has profound impacts on agriculture, water availability, plant and animal life, and patterns of human settlement and migration. The ocean plays a central role in controlling climate through heat storage and transport and gas exchange with the atmosphere. Changes in marine life and storage of materials in sediments indirectly affect these processes. The complex interplay between climate, ocean circulation, and ocean biogeochemistry needs to be understood in the context of evidence from the past in order to predict climate fluctuations and understand their impacts.

To address these grand challenges in the ocean sciences, commitments must be made to a range of scientific tools and approaches. A combination of new technologies, better use of remote sensing and ocean drilling capabilities, and more accurate computer modelling will be needed. Enhanced, twenty-first century systems for gathering, synthesizing, conveying, and using information about the ocean and its setting will be required to usher in a new era of understanding the oceans and using this information to improve lives. The year 1998 has been designated as the International Year of the Ocean, with many activities planned in recognition of the event, both nationally and internationally. The role of scientific research is a central aspect of this Year of the Ocean. In this short report, the Ocean Studies Board of the National Research Council identifies some of the major research opportunities that will yield fundamental advances in ocean sciences. The Board also notes how these advances will bring very tangible benefits to society.

In preparing this document, the Ocean Studies Board asked its members and a few additional distinguished experts (see Appendix) to identify important ocean science opportunities. In addition, the Board considered existing publications, produced by the National Research Council (NRC) and others (see list of background documents), that have presented ocean research opportunities. These sources were then synthesized to pinpoint a few areas where major advances might be made, especially if current research efforts are intensified.

This effort was undertaken to provide a timely, concise, reviewed summary of research opportunities without extensive new work. There are undoubtedly other important problems and exciting research opportunities beyond what is presented here, and there is some valuable work presently being done along the lines discussed. However, this report highlights a few areas where substantial progress can be made-with clear societal benefits-if enhanced, focused research efforts are made.


Society invests in scientific research for many reasons. Some investments in research are motivated by the basic excitement and wonderment of new knowledge. Investments in research are also made because they often pay off in unanticipated ways, in the form of useful new technologies or other economic benefits. Finally, investments can be targeted towards research that answers specific questions of importance to society. The "new knowledge" type of science is more likely to be carried out by individuals or small teams of investigators, while the directed research often calls for large, coordinated group efforts. Both "small" and "large" science approaches are important. Neither can be genuinely successful without the other.

It is important to remember that scientific progress takes time and is not inherently predictable. In any environmental science, nature itself sets the pace of progress through the time scales of the problems being investigated. For example, improvements in climate prediction require comparison with actual changes, which can take decades or more.

The ocean sciences are an integral part of the overall research enterprise in the United States. The results of ocean science research help answer questions about how people can live sustainably on the planet, how the natural environment operates, and even how life began. Ocean science contributes to society in a wide variety of ways, ranging from resource management, to ship routing, to national security. But the many different fields of science are interrelated in complex ways-experience has shown repeatedly that progress in one field may be contingent on advances in a seemingly unrelated area. Thus, the ocean sciences should be advanced in tandem with many other areas of science. Links between fields are so strong that concentration on any single field would not be a wise management strategy.


The coastal ocean (estuaries, continental shelves, and the Great Lakes1) represents the part of the world ocean that people most directly use, benefit from, and also affect. The coastal ocean is important for a number of economic reasons including recreation, coastal development, mineral extraction, and fisheries, and plays a critical role in national security. Indeed, most of the problems of sustainable ecosystems have a significant coastal component. There are thus a number of competing economic and aesthetic interests in the coastal ocean, and it is important to manage it wisely so as to obtain maximum benefit without serious or lasting damage.

In a broad sense, the great issue in the coastal oceans is how materials are transported and exchanged between the land, estuaries, the continental shelf, and the deep ocean, all the while undergoing physical, biological, and chemical transformations. Some progress has been made on aspects of this problem. However, many gaps in our knowledge and ability to manage remain, as recent outbreaks of Pfiesteria and other harmful algal blooms demonstrate2. A new approach must be developed to understand how processes occur in the coastal ocean and how the effects of these processes are manifested. The result of this approach would be knowledge detailed enough to deal with coastal problems without exclusive dependence on years of site-specific routine measurements. The need for this advance is particularly evident in estuaries, where there is a strong tendency to treat each inlet separately instead of concentrating on processes that occur in many regions. A geographical approach requires extensive measurement and monitoring efforts that are only valid aids to management at sites where conditions are similar. Thus, substantial sums are now being spent for programs of limited validity that take years to provide answers to practical questions.

A process-based approach to studying the coastal ocean will involve targeted measurements, models, and a fundamental understanding of physical, biological, chemical, and geological processes in coastal waters. In addition, a process-based approach can be used in the study of governance systems by which the ocean and its resources are managed. This approach would allow more accurate and reliable decisions to be made about riverine and coastal ocean management with, in the long run, a lesser burden in terms of sustained estuarine observations. This offers the potential for better coastal management at a substantially lower cost.


Societies depend increasingly on living marine resources in a number of ways: as a food source; to provide new pharmaceuticals; as a resource for recreation; and as a natural means of cycling chemicals, such as nutrients, that help determine environmental health. By the same token, humans influence marine ecosystems through fish capture, pollution, eutrophication (a result of loading waters with excessive nutrients), habitat modification, introduction of exotic species, and, potentially, through climate change. Given that we rely so heavily on marine life, it makes sense to develop a level of scientific understanding that will allow us to use and sustain our living marine resources as intelligently as possible.

First and foremost, an understanding must be achieved as to how to sustain biodiversity and productivity in the marine environment. Many specific questions are relevant to this point, including the following:

  • How important is the actual structure of the marine food web to its overall functioning? For example, if one species is depleted, and another replaces it, will the overall system remain as productive and stable?

  • How will ecosystem structure and production change with long-term variations in climate, fishing, or inputs of nutrients and chemicals?

  • What measures will prove effective for maintaining both biodiversity and the productivity of desirable species? For example, will the implementation of new concepts of property rights in the ocean, or the development of marine sanctuaries that are off limits to certain uses, prove effective at an acceptable cost?

Dealing with each of these questions is important for maintaining ocean ecosystems for the coming generations in the face of increasing demands.

The benefits of a successful research program along these lines include: maintaining the ocean's ability to assimilate human outputs ranging from sewage to combustion by-products, protecting potential biomedical resources by maintaining marine biodiversity, predicting and dealing with harmful algal blooms, and preserving an attractive ocean setting for recreation.

Working towards sustainable ecosystems will also help in developing fair, successful, sustainable approaches to fisheries management. With enhanced research efforts, ecosystem disruptions could be predicted quantitatively and any damages mitigated in a cost effective manner.


Understanding of natural climate fluctuations has grown enormously over the last two decades. For example, twenty years ago scientists were beginning to understand El Niño3. Now this phenomenon is relatively well understood and widely recognized by the public at large. Over the same time period, other kinds of climate fluctuations have been identified using geologic, oceanic, and atmospheric records. These fluctuations are slower (time scales between 5 and 100 years), but may be at least as important in determining weather conditions over land. It appears that global ocean and ice conditions are critical for governing these variations.

The need now is to develop a comprehensive predictive capability for the climate variations that come and go over a human lifetime or less. The lessons of El Niño research can be built on to make these new studies more efficient and effective. Other phenomena, such as monsoon winds or variations in the strength or form of El Niño, are known to affect climate, yet the mechanisms of their coupling to the ocean are not well understood. Further, the predictive capability should extend beyond foreseeing weather conditions and ocean temperatures to include effects of climate change on sealife, including fisheries, and on land. On these 5 to 100 year time scales, it is also possible that any changes in the chemistry and biology of the ocean will, in turn, affect climate. This potential feedback loop needs to be better understood. The paleoceanographic record obtained from scientific drilling in the ocean provides important information on these (and longer) time scales, and allows us to understand something about what kinds of changes have occurred in the past and which ocean conditions accompany different climate variations. More direct, ongoing, process-oriented physical and biological measurements of the ocean also need to take place in the context of an integrated and tested modeling effort that will ultimately improve the basis for prediction.

The result of this work will eventually be a system capable of predicting climate fluctuations and their effects on the biosphere, both on land and at sea. We know that El Niño, for example, can have both positive (e.g., decreased heating bills) and negative (e.g., flooding) impacts on human society. A predictive capability on longer time scales will require a considerable effort for development and verification but can be expected to have considerable benefits in terms of planning intelligently for upcoming changes.


Ocean observations have always been the driver of new knowledge and predictive capabilities in the ocean and its basins. Ocean drilling has produced sediment cores that provide our best long-term records of natural climate fluctuations. Submersible observations (both piloted and robotic) opened our eyes to hydrothermal vents and the unique life forms that surround them. Our present ability to forecast and assess El Niño variability depends critically on the coupling of extensive oceanic and atmospheric observations with increasingly accurate computer models. Despite these and many other accomplishments, the oceans remain vastly undersampled in time and space.

With new technologies, new kinds and levels of ocean, ocean/atmosphere, and ocean/solid earth observations can be made. There is a continuing need for flexible, highly capable research vessels to improve the current aging fleet. In addition, the development of robotic, autonomous undersea vessels will make exciting new discoveries possible. In the future, data from ocean sensors, undersea vehicles, and satellites can be combined with highly capable communications systems and computer models to assess the evolving daily state of ocean currents, temperature, nutrients, biota, ice, and air-sea fluxes. The overall system can then display for anyone, on the world wide web, accurate estimates of the present state of the ocean. The information can be put to practical use for such diverse purposes as improved weather prediction, safer offshore operations, better short-term climate forecasts (e.g. El Niño), and more successful management of living resources. The resulting system will be capable of providing as good an ongoing assessment of the ocean as is currently taken for granted for the atmosphere and land surfaces.

An increase in ocean drilling capability is needed to address a range of scientific problems that require sophisticated technologies for drilling deep holes and under difficult geological conditions. In addition, hundreds of shallower holes are needed to understand recent climate fluctuations and their regional variability. Taken together, these observations could generate a level of discovery and excitement similar to that produced by the best images from outer space.


The ocean sciences are at a critical point. Advances in technology and fundamental concepts have reached a point where substantial progress can be made on a number of societally important issues in the coming decades. Major improvements in understanding, use, and management of the ocean can now be expected if a genuine commitment is made to the required level of research effort.

Excerpts taken from: Opportunities in Ocean Sciences: Challenges on the Horizon, Ocean Studies Board, Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources, National Research Council, 1998.