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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


NSF's Commitment to the Deep

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NRC Symposium on
Fifty Years of Ocean Discovery
Washington, DC

October 30, 1998

It is a genuine pleasure for me to be here to celebrate fifty years of ocean discovery and to be able to join you in planning for the next fifty years.

The oceans have intrigued and attracted human populations for centuries. There isn't an activity more compelling than the search for knowledge and understanding of the oceans.

As you know, I have spent most of my career on or near the ocean, but I also bring a more personal perspective to ocean discovery.

My husband Jack and I are racing sailors, therefore the sea is our recreation but also an arena of challenge and discovery in another dimension.

And my own research into cholera is directly related to the oceans and their influence on weather and climate.

The history of cholera reveals a remarkably strong association with the sea. El Niņo brings rain, an influx of nutrients from land, and warm sea surface temperatures.

These conditions are associated with initiating plankton blooms. A single copepod can carry many V. cholerae cells.

I will spare you from further details. Suffice to say that those details have engaged me in a 3-decade research career.

It is especially fulfilling to be here today, in my still new role as Director of the National Science Foundation, to talk about ocean discovery, past, present, and future.

Many of you have been active participants in NSF's wide-ranging and significant history in ocean research. The Foundation is grateful for your commitment and the excellent work you have done.

We are also proud of both our primary role in ocean discovery and our role as a collaborator with other institutions, other agencies, and other nations.

The pervasive, powerful, mysterious, and bountiful forces of the oceans on the planet are evident not only in science but also literature.

Seneca, one of Rome's leading intellectuals in the mid-first century (AD) spoke of the ocean in one of his plays. He wrote, "An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose [loosen] the chains of things, and a huge land lie revealed..."

This has been variously interpreted in different historical eras. Christopher Columbus' son, Ferdinand, thought the comment foretold his father's discovery of the New World in 1492.

Those same words today, in relation to ocean discovery, signify to me that the next fifty years in ocean research will be truly extraordinary.

Although Columbus' son thought the reference to a "huge land...revealed" was the discovery of the Americas, those now working in ocean science might well think of that "huge land" as the abyssal regions of the ocean that we have only begun to explore. Sophisticated tools and technology are changing every aspect of science -- from writing a grant proposal, to the data we gather, and to methods of data collection and analysis.

The impact of the new tools and technology on the way we do oceanography has been revolutionary.

NSF supports this revolution and its expanding diversity into robotic vehicles, permanent seafloor observatories, new optical and acoustic imaging methods, long-term moorings, and the vast opportunities opening up in satellite communications. These technological leaps and others to be made will transform the ocean sciences.

The academic research vessel fleet, the Joides Resolution, and the ALVIN are the precursors of the robotic eyes and ears that mark a whole new era in oceanography.

In the late 70s, researchers, with the help of the workhorse ALVIN, were able to explore areas like the volcanic terrain of the East Pacific Rise. Their findings changed our entire understanding of the deep ocean.

They found unique ecosystems teaming with life supported by the geothermal energy given off by the Earth's inner heat. This discovery was possible with the technological capability of ALVIN.

Today, oceanography continues to evolve from an exploratory endeavor to efforts that require an ability to make observations of ocean processes over periods of years.

Recent advances in technology have enabled us to establish the first permanent U.S. deep seafloor observatory that is connected to shore by a dedicated cable.

This observatory, called H2O, or the Hawaii - 2 Observatory, sensed its first earthquake this week, a magnitude 5.7 quake near Papua, New Guinea. Needless to say, this has generated tremors of excitement on land.

This new ability to continuously receive and record ocean data and to communicate with scientific instruments on the seafloor will greatly advance our knowledge and predictive capabilities in ocean science.

Nonetheless, even with this ever-expanding capability, we all know that scientists have explored relatively little of the deep sea and ocean floor.

Given the fact that our planet's predominant geographical feature is ocean, approximately 70%, some have suggested that the name Earth is a misnomer, that we should have more aptly called ourselves Water.

No matter the name, it is our interest and investment in the ocean sciences that counts. These have serious implications for our future prosperity and survival.

Historically, civilizations developed at the water's edge. Today, there are 16 cities in the world with a population of over 10 million. Thirteen of those cities are along coastlines.

And the present is not unlike the past, at least in the United States. According to a recent survey from the Economist Magazine, " America, almost half of all new residential development is near the ocean, and people are moving there at the rate of 3600 a day."

The sustainability of urban and altered ecosystems challenges our best scientific knowledge and opens new directions for research.

The many dimensions of an increasing world population, combined with the power of technology, have changed our global environment.

There is both opportunity and responsibility for the science community here. Going back to Seneca's lines, "An age will come after many years when the Ocean will loose [loosen] the chains of things..."

That suggestion, which dates back some 1900 hundred years, has a certain currency about it today.

A new, multifaceted idea has begun to take shape as a research direction, as well as a social understanding.

I refer to this concept as biocomplexity, a word not yet familiar to most of the scientific community. The oceans play a significant role in the biocomplexity concept.

Biocomplexity is not a synonym for biodiversity. It includes and reaches beyond biodiversity.

When we speak of sustaining biodiversity, we mean primarily maintaining the plant and animal diversity of the planet, a very important goal.

However, biocomplexity speaks of a deeper concept. It is not enough to explore and chronicle the enormous diversity of the world's ecosystems.

We must do that...but also reach beyond, to discover the complex chemical, biological, and social interactions that comprise our planet's systems.

From these very subtle, but very sophisticated interrelationships, we can tease out the fundamental principles of sustainability.

Without a doubt, the oceans form the largest, most formidable, and even perhaps the least explored and understood of those systems.

However, our survival as a human species, and the ecological survival of the entire planet, will depend on our ability to achieve what is a truly interdisciplinary task.

Over many centuries, ocean travel has allowed us to discover the shape and size of the planet and to acquaint ourselves with its diverse cultures and commodities.

Many hundreds of generations have fed themselves from the enormous variety of fish and seafood. We have taken this for granted and, out of ignorance, often abused instead of used, this bounty.

We are only recently discovering the hidden understandings and more subtle complexity of the sea.

The economic and biomedical potential of the sea is just beginning to be realized.

With the discovery of marine organisms that can thrive in extreme environments of heat or cold, all of the old truths about conditions required for life, have been tossed to the winds. Results of on-going studies support the possibility that life originated near hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean.

The microorganisms found there today appear to be genetically among the oldest on Earth.

Our current knowledge of thermophiles and psychrophiles has broad implications for the future.

The enzymes produced by thermophiles currently have widespread application in biotechnology. Although biotechnology is a young field, it has already burgeoned into a $40-billion-dollar-a-year industry.

Marine biotechnology has applications in medicine, agriculture, materials science, natural products, chemistry, and bioremediation.

It is estimated that aquaculture, just one branch of marine biotechnology, will be relied upon heavily to help meet world food needs.

While world fisheries are over-exploited and/or commercially extinct, world population burgeons and world food needs increase.

In addition, aquaculture can produce organisms used as biomedical models in research, reservoirs for bioactive molecule production, and organisms useful in bioremediation.

Clearly, we are just at the beginning of an exciting era in ocean discovery and ocean science. What lies ahead will have increasing impact on our daily lives.

Our task will be to educate the public about the economic importance and new environmental understanding that continued work in ocean discovery will bring.

Ocean science can no longer be viewed as an esoteric, "off-shore" discipline. It is mainland and mainstream. The health and bounty of our oceans are issues of planetary survival.

  • Centuries ago, the oceans served as our vehicle for learning about distant peoples and distant lands. Only recently are we learning about the ocean's cyclical control of the planet's climate.

  • The bounty of the oceans has fed human populations since the beginning of time. We are now acutely aware of how fragile that food supply can be.

  • For centuries, human populations have been vulnerable to the forces of weather and climate; many of them are triggered by the oceans.

  • Today we have tools and knowledge to predict the onset of severe weather cycles months before their occurrence and prepare for the impact.

  • Nineteen hundred years ago, Seneca predicted that many years in the future "the Ocean will loose [loosen] the chains of things."

  • Today we are unlocking the very essence of those words with tools and equipment of unrivaled sophistication.

The biocomplexity of the Earth's major systems are the very "chains of things."

And so what does it mean to speak of NSF's commitment to the next fifty years of ocean discovery?

It means investment, imagination, and a focus on interdisciplinary work.

It means boldly pushing the frontiers of our knowledge while pursuing their economic, social, environmental, and medical applications.

It means that understanding and initiating sustainable strategies for the planet will depend heavily on ocean research.

It means bringing the importance of the oceans to the forefront of public understanding.

It means that we enter our next fifty years of ocean discovery with grand expectations to fulfill.



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