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Flying Blind: The Dangerous Decline of the U.S. Ocean Monitoring Fleet

Budget shortfalls and aging ships are starting to undermine key climate-change data-collection programs that help scientists gauge the state of the world’s oceans.

Written by Paul Tullis Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
The Ronald H. Brown, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel, conducts climate-change research around the world.NOAA

In 1982, the water of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador started climbing to higher temperatures than normal. That’s not so unusual – the climate phenomenon, known as El Niño, happens every few years – but it was particularly strong that year, triggering drought in Indonesia and the wettest year of the century in California.

The problem was that nobody knew until the El Niño was already fully underway: The capacity to measure sea temperatures in the tropical Pacific hadn’t yet been developed. No one was prepared for the erosion, flooding, crop loss and fish population declines that would result.

The world could face a similar situation in the future. The Tropical Pacific Observing System, which includes an array of ocean moorings with instruments to take the ocean’s temperature built in response to the 1982 “El Niño Surprise,” is facing “serious decline,” according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report.

Consistent and reliable measurements of data like temperature, salinity, pH and sea ice are crucial for climate modeling, weather prediction, navigation, resource exploration and national security. The report details a host of challenges facing ocean-based research and data collection in the United States that would make many of these activities more difficult to maintain. With President Trump’s budget proposing significant cuts to the National Science Foundation and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this situation isn’t likely to get better soon.

Robert Weller, senior scientist for physical oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and co-chair of the committee that produced the report, said the deterioration of El Niño forecasting infrastructure was just one frustrating example. A shortfall in NOAA’s fleet size in 2012, for instance, meant that fewer moorings were deployed in the tropical Pacific Ocean, contributing to gaps in the system.

“You’d think that advance warning of storm damage in California would be such an economic benefit, it’d be a no-brainer” to keep the system robust, he said.

Many of the ships on which scientists conduct research and data collection expeditions are, in fact, headed to the scrapyard. Eighteen of 35 U.S. global and ocean-class vessels will reach the end of their lifetimes by 2030, the report said, which will create “a shortfall in the infrastructure required for sampling the global ocean and expanding collection into the polar regions.”

One of the most concerning issues, Weller said, is that with climate change, new data needs are developing while funding has remained flat – a function of the inability of Congress and former president Obama to agree on a federal budget in recent years. With a greater need for Arctic sea ice measurements, for example, the already-overstretched research fleet must take on more and more deployments.

In recent years, budget disputes have forced researchers to scramble to prepare their observations, said Andreas Thurnherr, a physical oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who works on long-term observations with the Global Ocean Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program, an international consortium of marine science organizations.

For him, one area of immediate concern is that NOAA currently has only one global-class vessel – global class are ships strong enough to go anywhere in the world. “That means you have to send it from ocean to ocean,” said Thurnherr, incurring dead traveling time during which the ship isn’t doing research but still costs money.

Weller did point to a number of bright spots, including strong academic institutions and federal labs in which the bulk of oceanographic research is conducted, and the development of new technologies such as autonomous vessels and mobile platforms like those in the Argo program, a network of 3,834 floats that measure temperature and salinity.

Automation can’t be the only answer, however. “There are certain types of science you can only do on a ship,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-advocacy nonprofit. She spent months at a time on icebreakers in the Arctic Ocean studying climate variability. Being on site, she could collect samples from 36 depths through the water column and transfer seawater to special containers to keep dissolved gases, including CO2, under pressure.

“That’s not something you can do with a satellite or a buoy,” she said. Other scientists on board were placing sensors to verify satellite observations, which she described as an “important tool that millions depend on for flying, navigation and Earth observation from space.”

President Trump’s proposed budget contains deep cuts to NOAA and other agencies collecting climate-related data. NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research said that the cuts would kill “Arctic research focused on improvements to sea ice modeling and predictions that support the safety of fishermen, commercial shippers, cruise ships and local communities,” Science reported.

Even if such programs are restored, Ekwurzel said, “it could take years to recover.” Periods of data blackouts detract from robust results, and knowledge is lost when scientists leave ongoing projects.

“Cuts in one year can have big consequences in such complicated science,” she said.

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