Ocean Exploration 2020 Forum

I recently returned from the Ocean Exploration 2020 Forum, a by-invitation gathering of U.S. ocean exploration leadership, some 75 recognized individuals charged by the U.S. Congress to recommend an oceanographic agenda and specific research goals and objectives to be taken by 2020. Representatives from most of the major American research vessels, ocean institutes, universities with ocean programs, and ocean not-for-profits were present; many attended through the Internet and social media. Convened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other private partners, the conference surveyed first the state of ocean research in the United States, the scope of ideas and technologies to include observation networks, instruments, and platforms; present exploration and research programs; data, data quality and access to data; data visualization; citizen science and exploration; and other ideas suggested by participants. This overview was supplemented by an online questionnaire to seek participants' opinion in advance on a variety of issues and priorities as a basis for subsequent discussion.

That discussion then evolved into a more structured exercise to define specific goals, objectives, and actions for ocean exploration by 2020 to put before public and private funders as a recommended research agenda. What underlies this meeting? Well, it has become clear that the historic reliance by oceanographers on federal funds has hit the wall of budget cuts and sequestration and the ability to sustain research vessels at sea for long voyages of exploration must now be limited -- unless new sources of funding for new programs and technologies can identified.

Presently, there are four major American vessels engaged in research using humanly operated submersibles able to retrieve geological, biological, and archaeological cores, samples, and artifacts from the deep ocean floor: Okeanos Explorer, operated by NOAA; Nautilus, operated by the Ocean Exploration Trust; Atlantis, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; and Falkor, operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. The Navy and other academic organizations also have smaller vessels, typically used for proprietary projects, and not always open to outside scientists. The conference was linked live to several of these vessels as a demonstration of their technological, educational, and communications capacity.

What became apparent, from the discussion and the survey, was that these exceptional vessels would not be able to meet all future research demands, even if fully occupied by partnership projects between scientists melding their available funds and aligning their research to exploit technology and sea time more effectively and efficiently. Indeed, some projects of this scale might need to engage with international partners using foreign vessels from France, Japan, China, and elsewhere

Two other main strategies for data collection emerged: the expansion of fixed observation devices, arrays, and networks, gathering many types of measurements for transmissions via fiber optic cable and satellite connection to shore-based labs, and the use of remotely operated submersibles such a free-floating buoys, drones, gliders, and other miniaturized devices. Indeed, one presenter showed a 40-pound, $800 ROV, built from inexpensive, off-the-shelf parts and able to maneuver in shallow depth carrying camera and other sensors powered by rechargeable batteries. Clearly, this new technology is exciting and will play a much-increased role in how oceanographic research will be conducted in the future.

Several other interesting shifts in the research focus also became clear. First, there was growing interest in research in the water column as differentiated from the bottom or near shore, particularly in the challenge of ocean acidification, suddenly a most pressing problem demanding more information and far greater understanding of shifting pH impact on all ocean species, how they will be affected and how their behavior may change.

Finally, there was a overwhelming consensus on the need for education at the secondary school level K-12 and for communications strategies designed to amplify public awareness of ocean science and the meaning of the ocean for the future. As this is the purpose of the World Ocean Observatory and World Ocean Radio, this was welcome emphasis. But it has been said before, to little avail, and it will be interesting to see how this general consensus will be incorporated into the plan to meet the need expressed.

There was a palpable sense of urgency to the meeting. Change was definitely in the air, the realization that ocean systems remain still too misunderstood and unknown, that new approaches and partnerships would be required, and that the reliance of human communities on the ocean for future survival was inevitable. 2020 is only seven years away.