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January 2017 Issue

Legendary Shipwrecks, Climate Change
And Oceanography

By Warren Duffie Jr.
Writer and Editor
U.S. Office of Naval Research

The welcome began with whistles and cheers as the brand-new RV Neil Armstrong appeared on the horizon near scenic Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod.

Flanked by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and fireboats from neighboring towns, the Navy-owned Neil Armstrong sliced through dark blue waters to its new home at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, undaunted by chilly temperatures and blustery winds, a jubilant crowd gathered pier-side at the Woods Hole’s facility. The energetic assembly—including politicians; ribbon-festooned military brass; an astronaut; and Carol Armstrong, widow of former Apollo astronaut (and ship namesake) Neil Armstrong—bustled with excitement as fireworks exploded and cannons boomed in celebration.

Attendees remembered fondly the Neil Armstrong’s predecessor, the RV Knorr, which served Woods Hole for more than 40 years and was used to find the ghostly remains of the RMS Titanic. They discussed the technological advancements of the Neil Armstrong and how it would set new standards of excellence for oceanography. And they predicted the vessel’s sailing years would be as full of adventure and achievement as the Knorr’s.

As the 238-ft. Armstrong glided gracefully alongside Woods Hole’s pier, crew members aboard tossed sturdy rope lines to onshore staff, who secured the ship, and then sounded the horn—triggering an eruption of applause from the crowd.

“I present to you, the good ship RV Neil Armstrong,” said Rob Munier, Woods Hole’s vice president for Marine Operations. “This day is the culmination of over a decade of vision and hard work.”

New Day for the U.S. Academic Research Fleet
The arrival of the Neil Armstrong in April 2016 began a new chapter for Woods Hole (a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to marine research, engineering and higher education); the U.S. Navy and its Office of Naval Research (ONR); and the academic research fleet as a whole.

Durable research vessels–also called AGOR (Auxiliary General-Purpose Oceanographic Research) ships—are built to last up to 30 to 40 years, and getting a new one is a rare occurrence. So, it’s cause for celebration that the Navy added two new ships to the academic fleet’s ranks last year: the Neil Armstrong and the RV Sally Ride, which is operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. While owned by the Navy, both vessels are operated by their respective institutions under charter agreements with ONR, which funds and oversees the Navy’s ocean science and technology efforts.

There’s an expensive reason why new research ships aren’t rolled out regularly. With a construction price tag of more than $95 million per vessel, and daily operating costs of approximately $40,000, they represent enormous investments of money and manpower. However, advocates for the Navy and academic fleet say the payoff far exceeds the expense when it comes to understanding oceans, their impact on our world and how they affect and inform Navy operations and policy.

So what is the U.S. academic research fleet? It’s a collection of 18 vessels, six owned by the Navy, that are supported by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS)—a consortium of more than 60 institutions helping America’s scientists and engineers go to sea.

UNOLS—which is governed by scientists in an elected council and several standing committees—coordinates the scheduling of the research fleet for scientific cruises.

Scientists can request a cruise on a vessel once they have secured their research grants for field work at sea. The process is straightforward: Those interested in sailing submit a ship-time request to UNOLS—indicating their desired operating areas, preferred sailing dates, required shipboard equipment and berthing needs. If all goes well, UNOLS assigns the scientists to a vessel operated by a member organization, such as Woods Hole or Scripps.

“It’s a very fair system that offers researchers the chance to go to sea on a ship that best meets their mission needs,” said Bruce Appelgate, associate director for ship operations and marine technical support at Scripps. “It maximizes productivity for both the ship operator and the scientists.”

The system also provides early career scientists and students with opportunities to experience and understand the ocean—and oceanography.

In fact, Dr. Frank Herr—head of ONR’s Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department—estimates that research on the Neil Armstrong alone will enable more than 11,000 scientific journal articles; generations of scientists who will gain at-sea training while working toward their graduate degrees; and a huge amount of ocean engineering development for new sensors and devices, which will “continue to permit our oceanographers to lead the world in understanding the oceans.”

Sailing for Science
Over 70 percent of Earth is covered in oceans, yet we still know relatively little about the “blue” in our blue planet.

However, we do know that oceans are essential to human life. Much of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. The oceans govern terrestrial climate and generate severe storms that can place coastal communities and maritime ship traffic in danger. Seismic activity on the seafloor churns and foments life-threatening tsunamis.

Oceans also feed us. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 1 billion people in developing countries rely on seafood as their main source of animal protein. Recent data from NOAA Fisheries states the U.S. commercial fishing and seafood industry generates $153 billion in sales and supports 1.4 million jobs.

“Energy, food, climate—all of these are greatly impacted by ocean processes,” said Appelgate. “To even hope to understand these processes, you need to observe them at sea. This requires large amounts of water and soil sediment samples, heavy equipment, rigorous analysis and, most important, a human touch.”

Tim Schnoor, the program officer who oversees ONR’s research vessel program, also promotes this personal touch—especially in an age when unmanned autonomous vehicles (air, surface, underwater) are growing in popularity and funding budgets.

“Unmanned vehicles are valuable resources,” he said. “Their portability and versatility enable them to collect data in areas too shallow for large research vessels. However, they currently can’t collect the large quantities of ocean water or sediment needed to answer many scientific questions. That’s why large research vessels like the Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride continue to be so critical.”

Knowledge for the Navy
Navy operations are centered around the ocean—from aircraft flying above water to ships churning through waves to submarines patrolling the deep like silent sentinels. Performing these missions well demands a thorough understanding of the maritime environment.

According to Schnoor, if the Navy needs specific ocean research to be performed in a certain region of the globe, ONR will check which cruises are traveling to that area and request that ONR-sponsored research be completed in addition to other work being conducted.

“Navy research objectives are primarily focused on understanding the physical and acoustic properties of the ocean,” said Schnoor. “These include major currents, waves, air-sea interactions and factors affecting the transmission of sound. Better understanding of the oceans is essential to successful naval operations.”

One important research area is the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal, a saltwater body that sees large amounts of freshwater from rivers and rainstorms dumped into it regularly. This intensifies the power of monsoons, which are powerful seasonal winds critical to the agriculture of several nations in the region. Being able to predict ocean weather is very important to the Navy’s global operations and the safety of ships at sea—and such research accumulates data that can improve weather and storm forecasting.

The Navy also wants to better understand the changing environment in the Arctic Ocean, where melting sea ice is opening the region to expanded maritime and naval activity. One project involves launching UUVs to measure temperature, salinity and ambient noise conditions beneath the ice surface—factors that can dramatically impact the effectiveness of sonar operations.

Rich History of Exploration
In the decades following World War II, many Americans looked at the ocean in a new way. It no longer was a cold, dark and barren place—it now was a vast resource of economic, political and strategic importance. Addressing national needs and aspirations, from basic science to defense to food security, required knowledge of marine processes.

Moreover, science and exploration were very much in vogue. The nation’s space program was in its glory as NASA engineers designed wondrous space capsules and sent larger-than-life astronauts to the moon.

While Americans looked to the stars, ocean scientists made their own stellar strides on the seafloor. In 1960, ONR supported Navy Lt. Don Walsh and Swiss engineer Jacques Piccard as they boarded the bathyscaphe Trieste and became the first humans to descend to the bottom of the ocean—the Challenger Deep—at 35,800 ft.

In 1964, ONR sponsored Woods Hole’s construction of the deep-submergence vehicle (DSV) Alvin, another early deep-diving submersible. Still in operation—and recently given an impressive overhaul—Alvin has made more than 4,800 dives, located a lost hydrogen bomb and discovered deep-ocean thermal vents nicknamed “black smokers”. Alvin also was used to photograph the wreck of the RMS Titanic after it was found. Such success saw an unprecedented growth in the marine sciences. Existing labs were expanded and new labs established, and more research ships were put to sea. By 1970, there were 33 ships operated by 17 laboratories.

However, the cost of operating so many vessels became unsustainable for individual universities and research institutions. In 1969, President Richard Nixon’s Commission on Marine Science and Engineering recommended a National Oceanographic Laboratories System (NOLS) be established to provide facilities to the marine science community. Universities agreed with the goals and spirit of NOLS, but fretted about too much federal control. So representatives from the National Science Foundation and academia proposed the creation of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), launched in 1971.

Proud Navy Research Ships
Today, ONR’s six research vessels are docked in diverse locations.

There’s the RV Kilo Moana—Hawaiian for “one who is looking for understanding of the deep sea”—operated by the University of Hawaii Marine Center. The RV Thomas G. Thompson—named after a pioneer in comprehending ocean chemistry—can be found at the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography.

RV Neil Armstrong represents the newest era in the research relationship between ONR and Woods Hole, which dates to the 1930s. It sails in the wake of the RV Knorr, which Woods Hole operated from 1970 to 2014.

The Knorr was a celebrated ship. During its Woods Hole career, it sailed more than 1.35 million miles—a distance equivalent to more than two round trips to the moon. It served as the command ship during Alvin’s discovery of “black smokers” in 1977 and of the RMS Titanic’s wreck in 1985. Both discoveries were made by acclaimed oceanographer and former Navy officer Dr. Robert Ballard. Last year, the U.S. Navy transferred the Knorr to the Mexican Navy for continued use as an oceanographic vessel.

“The Office of Naval Research has played the leading role in the development of advanced deep-submergence technology, which has led to the most important discoveries to be made in the deep sea,” said Ballard. “ONR also has played the leadership role in the development of autonomous vehicle systems, which are only now beginning to have a major impact on deep-sea exploration.”

The Neil Armstrong is poised to create its own legacy of excellence. Built at the Dakota Creek shipyard in Anacortes, Washington, the vessel boasts the latest navigation and ship-positioning systems, as well as a specially designed hull that minimizes bubbles sweeping below and underneath—improving sonar testing. Neil Armstrong also has extremely sophisticated sonar, allowing it to map the ocean floor in sharper detail and even differentiate between species of fish and other marine life.

The ship’s laboratories contain better lighting, wider spaces to accommodate wheelchairs and advanced IT infrastructure to support scientific analysis at sea and enable real-time communications with shore. Neil Armstrong also runs on clean diesel engines and is outfitted with more powerful cranes that can lift heavier objects.

Neil Armstrong joins RV Atlantis (named for the 1930s-era vessel that was the first ship built specifically for oceanography research) and DSV Alvin, both owned by the Navy, at Woods Hole. It’s expected to spend much of its time in the North Atlantic and sub-Arctic areas to study the pivotal role these bodies of water play in climate change—and how they are impacted by that change.

In fall 2016, the RV Sally Ride, also built at the Dakota Creek shipyard, began service at Scripps Institution of Oceanography—one of the world’s foremost centers for ocean, earth and atmospheric science research. Named after the first American female astronaut, the vessel’s design mirrors that of the Neil Armstrong.

One of the RV Sally Ride’s most important missions is hosting research cruises for Scripps’ California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries program—which studies the ecology of the Golden State’s offshore coastal waters and their impact on bird, marine and mammal life.

The Sally Ride carries on the legacy of the RV Melville, which Scripps operated from 1969 to 2014 and which the U.S. Navy transferred to the Philippine Navy last year. Sally Ride joins the RV Roger Revelle—named after a researcher who helped found the University of California San Diego—another Navy-owned vessel at Scripps.

A Bright Future Ahead
For ONR’s Schnoor, both the Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride represent the gold standard of modern shipbuilding techniques and oceanographic research technology.

Moreover, because many of society’s most pressing environmental concerns involve processes unique to the ocean, the various scientific disciplines—e.g., geology, physics, biology, chemistry—used to understand such phenomena require the specialized capabilities of research vessels.

“Research vessels are, and will remain, vitally important to our nation’s ability to gather information to understand the nature of our planet,” said RADM Mat Winter, who served as chief of naval research—the Navy’s top science and technology officer—from 2014 to 2016. “The RV Neil Armstrong and RV Sally Ride will serve the current generation of ocean scientists, while providing research platforms for the next generations of seagoing oceanographers supporting naval and national oceanographic objectives.”

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