WASHINGTON - A new large-scale, multidisciplinary ocean exploration program would increase the pace of discovery of new species, ecosystems, energy sources, seafloor features, pharmaceutical products, and artifacts, as well as improve understanding of the role oceans play in climate change, says a new congressionally mandated report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Such a program should be run by a nonfederal organization and should encourage international participation, added the committee that wrote the report.
Congress, interested in the possibility of an international ocean exploration program, asked the Research Council to examine the feasibility of such an effort. The committee concluded, however, that given the limited resources in many other countries, it would be prudent to begin with a U.S. program that would include foreign representatives and serve as a model for other countries. Once programs are established elsewhere, groups of nations could then collaborate on research and pool their resources under international agreements. "The United States should lead by example," said committee chair John Orcutt, professor of geophysics and deputy director, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego.
"In developing this report it became graphically clear how poorly we've explored the southern hemisphere and particularly the Southern Ocean," said Orcutt. "Entire areas of the seafloor as large as Oklahoma have never been mapped. Oceanographic vessels from the U.S., Japan, and Europe rarely visit the southern hemisphere and our knowledge of processes critical to the health of the planet have gone unstudied and large volumes of the oceans unexplored."
Vast portions of the ocean remain unexplored. In fact, while a dozen men have walked on the moon, just two have traveled to the farthest reaches of the ocean, and only for about 30 minutes each time, the report notes. "The bottom of the ocean is the Earth's least explored frontier, and currently available submersibles -whether manned, remotely operated, or autonomous-cannot reach the deepest parts of the sea," said committee vice chair Shirley A. Pomponi, vice president and director of research at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Fort Pierce, Fla.
Nonetheless, recent discoveries of previously unknown species and deep-sea biological and chemical processes have heightened interest in ocean exploration. For example, researchers working off the coast of California revealed how some organisms consume methane seeping through the sea floor, converting it to energy for themselves and leaving hydrogen and carbon dioxide as byproducts. The hydrogen could perhaps someday be harnessed for fuel cells, leaving the carbon dioxide-which contributes to global warming in the atmosphere-in the sea. Likewise, a recent one-month expedition off Australia and New Zealand that explored deep-sea volcanic mountains and abyssal plains collected 100 previously unidentified fish species and up to 300 new species of invertebrates.
Most current U.S. funding for ocean research, however, goes to projects that plan to revisit earlier sites or for improving understanding of known processes, rather than to support truly exploratory oceanography, the report says. And because the funding bureaucracy is discipline-based, grants are usually allocated to chemists, biologists, or physical scientists, rather than to teams of researchers representing a variety of scientific fields. A coordinated, international ocean exploration effort is not unprecedented, however; in fact, the International Decade of Ocean Exploration in the 1970s was considered a great success.
The new program proposed in the report would complement more traditional oceanographic research, and should be operated by a nonfederal contractor chosen through a competitive bidding process, the committee said. Having an independent organization manage the program has many benefits, including the creativity, cost savings, and performance incentives that the competitive bidding process inspires. Contractors also can receive funding from multiple government agencies as well as private contributors. Federal agencies are more frequently turning to independent contractors to carry out special projects, the committee noted. It recommended that any
contractor chosen to run the ocean exploration program should be subjected to regular external review.
The most appropriate part of the federal government to house the ocean exploration program and oversee the contractor is the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, an existing collaboration of 14 federal agencies, the committee decided. Before this can happen, however, Congress needs to revise the partnership program charter so it can receive direct and substantial appropriations of federal funds. If this funding issue is not
resolved, the ocean exploration program could be sponsored by the National Science Foundation or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Implementing the proposed program would cost approximately $270 million the first year, and about $100 million annually thereafter, the committee estimated. A less extensive program could be run for about $70 million a year, the report notes.
Education and public outreach need to be an integral part of the ocean exploration program, especially to build global support, the committee emphasized. Ocean discovery "easily captures the imagination of people of all ages," the report adds. Yet a recent survey by a consortium of aquariums, zoos, and museums revealed that for the most part Americans have only superficial knowledge of how oceans function and are connected to human well-being. Teachers should be involved in the program from the start so that they understand the science and can incorporate it in their lesson plans. Keeping Congress and other government officials informed about plans and accomplishments also will be critical to the program's success.
The report also says that the program's dedicated flagship should be given a name that the public will come to associate with the program, much as Jacques Cousteau's Calypso became a household term. In addition, satellites and the Internet could be used to maintain real-time communications between the vessel and classrooms or the general public.
In addition to a main expedition ship, the ocean exploration effort will need a fleet of new manned and unmanned submersibles. The manned subs should be capable of diving to at
least 6,500 meters, while remotely operated vehicles should be designed to reach depths of 7,000 meters or more. Additional autonomous underwater vehicles that are
programmed to travel a specific route, collecting information along the way with sensors and cameras, also are needed.
An upcoming National Research Council report will discuss plans to replace Alvin, the 35-year-old manned submersible that was used for groundbreaking research, such as the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and took the first human visitors to the wreck of the Titanic.
The ocean exploration study was mandated by Congress and sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
Copies of "Exploration of the Seas: Voyage Into the Unknown" are available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu. The cost of the report is $45.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.50 for the first copy and $.95 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).
This news release and report are available at http://national-academies.org
Committee on Exploration of the Seas
John Orcutt (chair)
Professor of Geophysics and Deputy Director
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and
Interim Dean of Marine Sciences
University of California, San Diego
San Diego, Calif.
Shirley A. Pomponi (vice chair)
Vice President and Director of Research
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution
Fort Pierce, Fla.
George F. Bass
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Department of Anthropology
Texas A&M University
Earl H. Doyle
Shell Oil (retired)
Sugar Land, Texas
Executive Vice President
National Geographic Society
Sonsub Inc. (retired)
Department of Geology and Geophysics
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole, Mass.
Ocean Research Institute
University of Tokyo
Center for Deep-Sea Ecology and Biotechnology
New Brunswick, N.J.
President and Chief Executive Officer
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Moss Landing, Calif.
John Norton Moore
Walter L. Brown Professor of Law
School of Law, and
Center for Oceans Law and Policy
University of Virginia
Walter Pitman III*
Special Research Scientist
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research
Victor Vicente-Vidal Lorandi
Instituto Politecnico Nacional
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
* Member, National Academy of Sciences