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January 2013 Issue

Innovation and Unity in Advancing Ocean Sciences

By David Conover,
Roxanne Nikolaus,
Policy Advisor Division of Ocean Sciences, National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has a mission to support fundamental science and engineering, and maintain U.S. leadership at the edge of discovery. For the NSF Division of Ocean Sciences, this means fostering scientific and technological inspiration to answer the questions “why?”, “how?” and “what does it matter?” across the spectrum of ocean sciences and education.

Over the past year, NSF-supported advances and innovation in ocean technology and infrastructure have further expanded our scientific horizons and fostered better-informed decisions and actions. There have also been recent ocean-related additions to NSF’s sustainability research efforts that bring together diverse disciplines to tackle the environmental, societal, technological and economic facets of national and global concerns.

Advances in Ocean Access, Discovery
Access to the sea, whether directly by ship and submersible or remotely by satellites and unmanned systems, is critical to understanding it. Last year saw great strides in updating and constructing a constellation of ocean vessels, vehicles, instruments and systems, and NSF looks forward to the discoveries they will bring.

RV Sikuliaq. The newest member of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) fleet launched in October 2012. With its ability to break ice up to 2.5-feet thick, the Sikuliaq will allow its 26-member science complement to conduct multidisciplinary oceanographic investigations in high-latitude open seas, nearshore regions and seasonal sea ice.

One of the most technologically advanced vessels in the UNOLS fleet, the 261-foot Sikuliaq will support real-time, virtual participation of students in expeditions, including those utilizing ROVs. The ship operator, University of Alaska Fairbanks, will take over in July, and operations are expected to begin in early 2014. Science planning and proposal requests through UNOLS are underway.

Regional-Class Research Vessels. Early this year, pending budget availability, NSF expects to make the first award toward design, construction and trials of Regional-class research vessels. While anticipated to be a three-ship effort, the number of vessels built will depend on funding and projected utilization. The vessels will primarily operate in U.S. coastal estuaries, and shelf and slope waters of the East, West and Gulf coasts.

Alvin Submersible. The first stage of upgrades to the human-occupied submersible Alvin is nearly complete. Improvements include a larger personnel sphere, additional viewports, new lighting, high-definition imaging systems, new syntactic foam for buoyancy, and an improved command and control system. Science operations are expected to resume this year, with cruises planned for the Northeast Pacific.

Stage two of upgrades, which depends on the development of new batteries to increase the time the vehicle can stay submerged, will allow Alvin to operate in depths up to 6,500 meters and provide access to 98 percent of the seafloor.

Ocean Observatories Initiative. Now in its fourth year of construction, the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) will supply 25 years of real-time ocean measurements on climate variability, ocean circulation and ecosystem dynamics, and other processes. It will apply powerful new approaches to understanding, predicting and managing the ocean environment, and put real time data in the hands of researchers, educators and the public.

OOI completed a significant milestone in 2012 with installation of primary nodes that provide power and communications for its regional cabled platforms in the Northeast Pacific. This year, OOI will deploy 50 percent of the seafloor instrumentation to the cabled array, partial coastal deployments on the East and West coasts, and the Station Papa Global Array in the North Pacific, part of a network of moorings at important but under-sampled high-latitude locations.

Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. In fiscal year 2014, the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international research effort to understand Earth’s history by examining the seafloor, will transition to the International Ocean Discovery Program. The new program will build on its predecessor to establish a multiplatform research drilling effort based on international cooperation.

High-priority science will continue while NSF recompetes the operation and management of the U.S. ocean research drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution. Following the re-competition, NSF will seek approval to continue operational support for the vessel, contingent on quality of proposals, availability of funds and balancing Division of Ocean Sciences investments.

A United Approach to Sustainability Research
NSF’s Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio supports science, engineering and education efforts that simultaneously consider the social, economic, technological and environmental aspects of sustainability issues. This interdisciplinary approach seeks to better inform society’s actions for environmental and economic sustainability, and sustainable human well-being.

Coastal SEES. A new addition to the SEES portfolio in 2012, Coastal SEES aims to generate better understanding of the complex human-natural systems in coastal areas to inform decisions about their use and conservation. By supporting integrated, interdisciplinary research with broad applicability, Coastal SEES will contribute place-based, system-level understanding of coastal systems; provide research outcomes with predictive value; and identify pathways by which outcomes could be used to enhance coastal sustainability. The first Coastal SEES awards are expected later this year.

Hazards SEES. Added to the SEES spectrum late in 2012, Hazards SEES was initiated to advance understanding of processes associated with specific natural hazards and technological hazards linked to natural phenomena, better understand the causes, interdependencies and impacts of these hazards, and improve capabilities for forecasting or predicting hazards, mitigating their effects, and enhancing capacity to respond to and recover from resulting disasters.

By supporting interdisciplinary teams and integrated research, Hazards SEES aims to transform hazards and disaster research by investing in projects that promote new paradigms to reduce the impact of hazards, enhance safety and contribute to sustainability. The first research awards are expected later this year.

Arctic SEES. The Arctic component of SEES, known as ArcSEES, is a multiyear, interdisciplinary, interagency and international effort to support fundamental research that improves society’s ability to evaluate the sustainability of the Arctic human-environmental system, and integrated efforts to provide sustainability and engineering solutions at community-relevant levels.

For fiscal year 2013, NSF is partnering with other federal agencies and a consortium of French agencies to address interdisciplinary research focused on the natural and living environment, the built environment, natural resource development and governance.

Preparing for the Future
The NSF Division of Ocean Sciences is proud of the legacy of innovation and discovery that its relationship with other members of the ocean community has built.

Continually expanding our knowledge is critical to understanding environmental, social and economic changes and challenges, and being prepared to address them. The NSF commitment to expanding the scientific horizon will keep pushing the nation forward at the edge of discovery and innovation.

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