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January 2011 Issue

NSF: Advancing Basic Ocean Research And Infrastructure

By Gayle Pugh
Program Analyst
David O. Conover
Division of Ocean Sciences
National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported innovative, fundamental oceanographic research and has made major advances in the ways oceans are studied since its creation six decades ago. Improving access to the study of oceanographic processes and the analysis of the seafloor, while also being responsive to changes in environmental and societal conditions, is an ongoing effort for the agency.

The NSF funds approximately 75 percent of the federal support for basic ocean research performed at colleges and universities, primarily through the Geosciences Directorate (GEO) of the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE). During fiscal year (FY) 2010, OCE funded nearly 600 new awards, which range from single-investigator studies to projects involving teams of researchers and institutions.

This past year, the breadth of NSF-supported research was strengthened through a number of new initiatives. These programs, outlined here, study climate change, revitalize and test deep-diving research submersibles, improve the research fleet, advance ocean observing and use the recently established Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism.

Climate Research
The NSF has made a strong investment in fundamental climate research, energy science and engineering through the Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) portfolio. The 2010 SEES portfolio includes initiatives that brought significant investments into the ocean sciences research community as part of the NSF Climate Research Investment. The initiatives most relevant to the oceanographic community are Ocean Acidification, Dimensions of Biodiversity, Water Sustainability and Climate (WSC), and Decadal and Regional Climate Prediction using Earth-System Models (EaSM). Continuing these investments in FY 2011, GEO will initiate additional research competitions to study regions that are highly susceptible to the impacts of environmental changes.

SEES is a natural extension of NSF’s involvement in the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a multiagency program that fosters basic research, comprehensive observations, integrative modeling and the development of products for decision-makers. GEO will also provide support for the new National Center for Atmospheric Research-Wyoming Supercomputer Center, which will enable a significant expansion of the U.S. academic community’s capability to model the climate system.

Ocean Acidification. Awarded projects address the growing concern of decreasing pH in oceanic environments. These projects extend from the tropics to the polar regions, studying the nature, extent and effects of ocean acidification on marine environments and organisms in the past, present and future.

Dimensions in Biodiversity. Several awarded projects focus on biodiversity in the oceans. These projects’ topics include studies on methane-consuming microbes in seafloor sediment, viruses on coral reefs and the role that newly discovered ammonia-oxidizing archaea have on phytoplankton diversity.

WSC Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to better understand the water cycle and to predict the availability of freshwater resources in light of changes in climate, land use and ecosystem function. OCE-related awards include studying the quality, availability and ecology of water in the Great Lakes and in estuaries.

EaSM. An interagency activity with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Energy, the EaSM initiative is designed to foster a new generation of models to predict the consequences of climate variability and change. At the time of this writing, EaSM awards have not been made, but the ocean research community is expected to be well represented in the awarded activities.

Deep-Diving Research Submersibles
The human-occupied deep-sea submersible Alvin is currently undergoing a major upgrade. Alvin is invaluable to deep-sea research, making between 150 and 200 dives per year. The upgrade will be accomplished in two phases. Phase I upgrades will provide enhanced scientific capability with additional viewports, increased scientific payload capacity, increased lighting and high-definition imagery. Phase II improvements, which won’t begin until at least three years after completion of Phase I, include increasing the depth of operations to 6,500 meters and increasing time-on-bottom, along with other benefits gained from anticipated breakthroughs in deep-sea battery systems.

Alvin is expected to return to service in early 2012 as a state-of-the-art deep-diving research submersible that will expand research frontiers for the next several decades, just as it has done for the past 45 years.

Academic Research Fleet
Research vessels are essential to advancing knowledge of the oceans, but the academic research fleet is aging. Of the 21 research vessels in the U.S. fleet, eight of the ocean and regional-class vessels are currently scheduled to retire between 2011 and 2015, and five of those retiring vehicles belong to NSF.

Given that the U.S. has the largest exclusive economic zone of any nation and that the fraction of U.S. territory in the oceans significantly exceeds that on dry land, a substantial research fleet is essential. NSF’s current efforts in renewing the fleet include construction of the RV Sikuliaq and an effort to secure funding for up to three regional-class research vessels (RCRV).

When complete, the Sikuliaq (formerly the Alaska Region Research Vessel) will be one of the most advanced research vessels in the world, with the ability to break ice slabs almost one meter thick. The Sikuliaq will be operated by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and will further advance research capabilities in the Arctic region. Flexibility built into the over-the-side handling system for lowering instrumentation/equipment into the water column is expected to improve safety and efficiency. The vessel will also be able to host remotely operated vehicles. The ship is designed for low environmental impact, including reduced underwater radiated noise levels, which will allow improved fisheries and acoustics research. Broadband capabilities will enable transmission of real-time data and the virtual participation of researchers and students. The 260-foot Sikuliaq will have accommodations for up to 26 scientists and students. The vessel is currently under construction and is expected to be fully operational by 2014.

NSF is working with the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) to move forward with replacement of the RCRV. The primary target environments for the RCRVs will be estuaries and shelf/slope waters with some full-ocean capabilities. In September, the UNOLS Fleet Improvement Committee provided NSF with input on the conceptual design developed by the U.S. Navy. NSF intends to release a solicitation for “Construction and Operations of the Regional-Class Research Vessels” in 2011 if construction funds are approved. Once the construction-ready design is complete and the project baseline is established, construction could begin as early as 2015, with the first RCRV vessel going into operation in 2018.

Ocean Observing
The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) is a multiscale observatory system in development that will enable researchers to study complex, interlinked physical, chemical, biological and geological processes throughout the global ocean.

When complete, the OOI will be composed of a vast network of interactive nodes and sensors for studying complex ocean processes, such as climate variability, ocean circulation, carbon cycling and ocean acidification. The system will operate across coastal, regional and global spatial scales and through a continuum of time scales, from microseconds to decades. Through its cyber infrastructure, the system will be able to control experimental sampling strategies in one part of the system in response to the remote detection of events at other parts of the system. Continuous data flow from more than 800 sensors will be integrated in a sophisticated computing network and will be openly available to scientists, policy makers, students and the public.

The OOI is beginning its second year of development and has thus far focused on design and procurement, as well as environmental compliance and permitting.

Initial data flow is proposed for early 2013 with commissioning of the full system proposed for 2015.

Rapid Response Research
The RAPID program was implemented in 2009 to replace the Small Grant for Exploratory Research funding mechanism. The RAPID program was developed specifically to respond to unusual circumstances when an urgent response is essential to achieving research results.

This year, the RAPID funding mechanism enabled researchers to quickly respond to the Haitian, Chilean and Baja earthquakes, helping to rapidly deploy equipment to remote locations. Studying the 2010 El Niño was also expedited by the RAPID mechanism.

The RAPID effort also provided invaluable research opportunities in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM). Academic scientists, some with long-term data sets on GOM processes, were able to immediately begin studying the changing environmental conditions and physical processes.

In addition to fundamental research questions, significant effort went into supporting major research instrumentation and technology acquisition and development for studying the fate of the released oil, gases and dispersants.

Ocean science research is rapidly evolving. Cutting-edge platforms are enabling opportunities for discovery, and advanced cyber infrastructure is allowing the rapid dissemination of oceanographic data. The discipline is developing new technologies for ocean observation and sampling while also benefitting from linking a global community of oceanographic researchers with real-time data. Given the many societal benefits the oceans provide, NSF will continue building on the accomplishments of the last six decades by making strategic investments in basic research, education and infrastructure to advance knowledge and promote understanding of one of the world’s most valuable resources.

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