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Winter/Spring 2004 Vol. 4 No. 1

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Exploration of the Deep Blue Sea

Unveiling the Ocean's Mysteries

Feather duster worms in the Pacific Ocean, offshore Hawaii, photo courtesy Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research/National Undersea Research Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The oceans cover nearly three-quarters of the Earth's surface, regulate our weather and climate, and sustain a large portion of the planet's biodiversity, yet we know very little about them. In fact, most of this underwater realm remains unexplored.

Three recent reports from the National Research Council propose a significantly expanded international infrastructure for ocean exploration and research to close this knowledge gap and unlock the many secrets of the sea.

Already a world leader in ocean research, the United States should lead a new exploration endeavor by example. "Given the limited resources in many other countries, it would be prudent to begin with a U.S. exploration program that would include foreign representatives and serve as a model for other countries," said John Orcutt, the committee chair for one of the reports and deputy director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. "Once programs are established elsewhere, groups of nations could then collaborate on research and pool their resources under international agreements."

Deep submergence vehicle Alvin being hoisted aboard research vessel Atlantis following a dive, ©Craig Dickson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Using new and existing facilities, technologies, and vehicles, proposed efforts to understand the oceans would follow two different approaches. One component dedicated to exploration would utilize ships, submersibles, and satellites in new ways to uncover the ocean's biodiversity, such as the ecosystems associated with deep-sea hydrothermal vents, coral reefs, and volcanic, underwater mountains.

A second component -- a network of ocean "observatories" composed of moored buoys and a system of telecommunication cables and nodes on the seafloor -- would complement the existing fleet of research ships and satellites. The buoys would provide information on weather and climate as well as ocean biology, and the cables would be used to transmit information from sensors on fixed nodes about volcanic and tectonic activity of the seafloor, earthquakes, and life on or below the seafloor.

Also, a fleet of new manned and unmanned deep-diving vehicles would round out this research infrastructure.

Education and outreach should be an integral part of new ocean science efforts by bringing discoveries to the public, informing government officials, and fostering collaborations between educators and the program's scientists, the reports say.

These activities will expand previous international programs. For example, the observatory network will build on current attempts to understand the weather, climate, and seafloor, such as the Hawaii-2 Observatory -- which consists of marine telephone cables running between Oahu and Hawaii and the California coast -- and the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean Array, which contains about 70 moorings in the Pacific and was key to predicting interannual climate events such as El Niño.

The National Oceanographic Partnership Program, an existing collaboration of 14 federal agencies, would be the most appropriate organization to house the ocean exploration program, which would cost approximately $270 million the first year, and about $100 million annually thereafter, according to the Research Council. The National Science Foundation is expected to fund the observatory network program, which would cost about $25 million per year, and provide funds for the construction and operation of at least one new manned submersible and possibly several remotely operated vehicles.

"Over the next decade, new international collaborations dedicated to ocean exploration and research will most likely lead to new discoveries that could increase public awareness of the oceans as a common global bond, highlighting their importance in our lives," Orcutt said.   -- Patrice Pages & Bill Kearney

Enabling Ocean Research in the 21st Century: Implementation of a Network of Ocean Observatories. Committee on Implementation of a Seafloor Observatory Network for Oceanographic Research, Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (ISBN 0-309-08990-5; $49.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). The committee was chaired by Robert S. Detrick Jr., chair, department of geology and geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Exploration of the Seas: Voyage Into the Unknown. Committee on Exploration of the Seas, Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (ISBN 0-309-08927-1; $45.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). The committee was chaired by John Orcutt, professor of geophysics and deputy director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego. The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Future Needs in Deep Submergence Science: Occupied and Unoccupied Vehicles in Basic Ocean Research. Committee on Future Needs in Deep Submergence Science, Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (ISBN 0-309-09114-4; $27.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies). John Armstrong, retired vice president of science and technology at IBM, Amherst, Mass., chaired the committee. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, NOAA, and the U.S. Navy.

The reports are available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences