Around the Pier: Government Funding Supports New Scripps Ship and Vital Seagoing Research


The United States Congress has approved Department of Defense funding of nearly $89 million for Navy construction of a new  research vessel that Scripps Institution of Oceanography will operate for critical missions ranging from research relevant to the military to voyages of scientific discovery.

Currently known as Auxiliary General Purpose Oceanographic Research (AGOR) 28, the ship will advance science and education in the decades ahead as well as cultivate scientific knowledge crucial to the Navy and national security.

AGOR 28 will be included within the Ocean Class of the federal research fleet , and is intended to be cost effective and flexible in the support of a broad range of science and hands-on education initiatives. As seagoing laboratories, the new ships will feature powerful modern research instrumentation to support scientific exploration, including mapping systems, sensors and profilers that will investigate features from the seafloor to the atmosphere.

A contract for the first vessel of the AGOR class, AGOR 27 to be operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, was recently awarded to Anacortes, Wash.-based Dakota Creek Industries. Dakota Creek’s award supports work that will be performed in Washington state and to a smaller degree in Georgia, Oregon, Texas, and Sweden.

Scripps Oceanography’s fleet is the largest among research institutions in the United States. As the fleet’s sphere of operations significantly overlaps with that of the U.S Navy’s Pacific Command, the two entities are expected to expand their collaboration in research missions of mutual interest. Future work is anticipated in regions such as the Indian Ocean, where a dearth of instrumentation has left gaps in fundamental oceanographic knowledge, and in key trade routes such as the South China Sea.

Because climate change is expected to raise the possibility of extreme weather events, Scripps ship-based research is anticipated to provide a growing portfolio of data to military planners in the Pacific Command, which averages one humanitarian mission every eight weeks, according to its commander, Adm. Robert Willard, who visited Scripps recently to be briefed on Scripps science endeavors with military benefits.

One recent highlight of Scripps and its research supporting undersea military communication occurred in September 2010 between two Scripps research vessels. Working on a project that could one day support the United States Navy and its national security efforts, an expedition led by Scripps researcher Heechun Song successfully tested an acoustic communication system that transmitted data over hundreds of miles across deep ocean waters.

Transmitting acoustic data over shallow water is a common practice. But historically such communication across vast distances of deep ocean water was thought impractical due to the dynamical fluctuations of the sea such as internal waves, sea surface waves, and other natural impediments.

In a project sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, Song and other researchers from Scripps Professor William Hodgkiss’ group, along with scientists from the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State University, positioned the Scripps R/V New Horizon nearly 600 nautical miles west of San Diego. An acoustic sound source deployed from New Horizon transmitted acoustic signals in the 250-hertz range. Meanwhile, some 300 miles away Scripps’ R/V Melville towed a receiving array that successfully captured the signals.

While the bandwidth of the data is only a small fraction of that available to most cell phone users, the accomplishment carried the researchers a step further in demonstrating the possibilities of U.S. Navy communication with submarines, unmanned vehicles, and even gliders.

“The results of this project implied that acoustic communication at very long ranges in the ocean might be feasible,” said Hodgkiss, a member of Scripps’ Marine Physical Laboratory. “Now that we’ve demonstrated the feasibility we’d like to push the envelope and see if we can go to 1,500 kilometers (810 nautical miles) or more.”

Scripps operates four research vessels from its home port in San Diego, making this type of two-ship experiment practical due to the logistical capabilities of the port and proximity to deep water. Scripps researchers are frequently supported by the Office of Naval Research on programs such as Song’s that advance science’s basic understanding of ocean physics along pathways that may lead to practical applications for the Navy. Several similar programs are either ongoing or planned in the Indian and western Pacific oceans.

The relationship between Scripps and the Navy dates back to the years immediately preceding World War II, when the Navy chartered the Scripps research vessel E.W. Scripps for research cruises, Scripps entered a collaboration with America’s armed forces that continues today.

During World War II, Scripps oceanographers created surf and swell forecasts for amphibious landings in northwest Africa, the Pacific, and the D-Day landing in Normandy. Many amphibious landings on Japanese controlled islands in the Pacific built upon this research. Scripps scientists also used their discoveries to show American submarines how they could move among strata of ocean waters to avoid enemy detection and how to hide subs from Japanese warships among colonies of snapping shrimp that created loud noises with their claws. More recently, Scripps has assisted Navy anti-submarine warfare tactics. Current research includes the use of innovative measurement technologies and the impacts of ocean thermal and morphological structure on the enhancement or reduction of low-frequency sound propagation, especially in the western Pacific and Asian waters.

— Mario C. Aguilera and Robert Monroe

January 6, 2012

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