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Critical Ocean Infrastructure Needs For the US in the Year 2030
The National Research Council Assesses Ocean Infrastructure Needs For the Next Two Decades of Marine Research and Societal Use

By Eric J. Barron
Rana A. Fine
Vice Chair
Oscar Schofield
Committee Member
Infrastructure Strategy for U.S. Ocean Research in 2030
The National Research Council

The U.S. marine exclusive economic zone is critical to the national economy, serving maritime transportation, national security, energy and mineral extraction, fisheries, aquaculture, tourism and recreational industries. It is also the source of large disasters, both natural and man-made, that include tsunamis, hurricanes, offshore industrial accidents and human health issues such as outbreaks of waterborne disease.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Japan's earthquake and tsunami were sobering lessons that the ocean's threats are often underestimated. Further, the ability to predict, respond to, manage and mitigate these events is astonishingly poor. These deficiencies reflect a lack of understanding of fundamental ocean processes, a limited capacity to maintain a sustained spatial presence at sea, and the long lead time and high capital costs of developing and deploying infrastructure in the ocean.

To this end, the United States has spent the past decade developing a national plan to promote the enhancement and sustained deployment of cutting-edge infrastructure in the oceans.

The first document in that effort was the 2004 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century. The report called for 'a renewed commitment to ocean science and technology' to realize the benefits of the ocean while ensuring its sustainability for future generations.

Since the release of that report, federal agencies have been working together through the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology (SOST), which is mandated to identify research priorities, facilitate coordination of ocean research, and develop ocean technology and infrastructure. This committee commissioned a National Research Council study to assist in planning the nation's ocean research infrastructure needs in the year 2030.

New Infrastructure Report
Released in April 2011, the report, Infrastructure Strategy for U.S. Ocean Research in 2030 was designed to identify major research questions anticipated to be at the forefront of ocean science in 2030, to define the categories of infrastructure that should be included in next-generation planning, to provide advice on criteria that could set priorities for asset development or replacement and to recommend ways that federal agencies could maximize the value of ocean infrastructure investments. This article highlights selected the findings of from the full report, posted online at http://bit.ly/rivACX.

The committee adopted a focused definition of infrastructure as the resources accessible to the U.S. ocean research community, including the full portfolio of platforms, sensors, data sets and systems, models, supporting personnel, facilities and enabling organizations that the nation can answer ocean-related questions.

As defined here, ocean research infrastructure represents the national portfolio of resources and assets, including technology, facilities, data, people and institutions. However, many components of the national infrastructure are insufficient to meet the growing societal demand for scientific information that enables safe, efficient and environmentally sustainable use of the ocean. A comprehensive range of new ocean research infrastructure is required to overcome these challenges, as increasingly interdisciplinary research is the priority.

Recommendations and Major Themes
Recommendations. The report recommends that federal ocean agencies should establish and maintain a coordinated national strategic plan for critical shared ocean infrastructure investment, maintenance and retirement. Such a plan should focus on trends in scientific needs and advances in technology while taking into consideration life cycle costs, efficient use, surge capacity for unforeseen events and new opportunities or national needs. The plan should be based upon known priorities and updated through periodic reviews.

The scientific issues confronting the oceanographic community in the next 20 years are daunting and will require significant investment to fully address. The committee suggested that the nation prioritize investments based on the usefulness of the infrastructure for addressing science questions, the affordability, efficiency and longevity of infrastructure, and the ability of the infrastructure to contribute to other national economic, management, mitigation and security needs.

These criteria would allow flexibility to address a wide range of issues, including whether specific infrastructure can help address multiple scientific questions or needs; data quality and continuity; future technology trends; balance between risk and benefit; and national strategic or economic importance. From an economic viewpoint, this type of prioritization acknowledges uncertainties regarding the ability of future ocean science research to produce information relevant to critical ocean-related societal issues. This strategy could allow a coordinated, adaptable, long-term approach for the use of shared, federally funded infrastructure assets, with possibilities to include locally and state-funded infrastructure, and periodic reviews of ocean infrastructure to fully optimize and capitalize on investments made by individual agencies.

Major Recommendations
The following were viewed as a means to ensure that the U.S has the capacity in 2030 to undertake and benefit from knowledge and innovations possible with oceanographic research. The nation should:

  • Implement a long-term research fleet plan to retain access to the sea.
  • Recover U.S. capability to access fully and partially ice-covered seas.
  • Expand abilities for autonomous monitoring at a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.
  • Enable sustained, continuous time-series measurements.
  • Maintain continuity of satellite remote sensing and communication capabilities for oceanographic data and sustain plans for new satellite platforms, sensors and communication systems.
  • Support continued innovation in ocean infrastructure development. Of particular note is the need to develop in-situ sensors, especially biogeochemical sensors.
  • Engage allied disciplines and diverse fields to leverage technological developments outside oceanography.
  • Increase the number and capabilities of broadly accessible computing and modeling facilities with exascale or petascale capability that are dedicated to future oceanographic needs.
  • Establish broadly accessible virtual (distributed) data centers that have seamless integration of federal, state and locally held databases, accompanying metadata-compliant with proven standards, and intuitive archiving and synthesizing tools.
  • Examine and adopt proven data management practices from allied disciplines.
  • Facilitate broad community access to infrastructure assets, including mobile and fixed platforms, and costly analytical equipment.
  • Expand interdisciplinary education and promote a technically skilled workforce.

Major Themes. Given the scientific focus of this report, the committee identified four major themes that are of compelling interest to society and will drive scientific research for the next two decades. These themes are enabling stewardship of the environment, protecting life and property, promoting economic vitality and increasing fundamental scientific understanding.

The report highlighted a number of questions that fell under these themes and then determined the wide range of required ocean infrastructure needed to answer those questions. While by no means an exhaustive list, the questions showcase the importance of ocean-related research and the continued demand for investment in ocean research infrastructure. Many of these questions are currently relevant, but they are not simple issues and will likely take decades to solve, especially if resources are limited. These questions require a global observational framework that allows for the sustained ability to monitor change in the ocean, makes accurate predictions of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system, enables process studies that improve understanding, provides data in environmentally sensitive regions or areas of national security and has sufficient flexibility to be deployed during events or emergencies.

Present and Future Technological Trends
The wide array of infrastructure assets currently in use and needed for 2030 include mobile and fixed platforms, in-situ sensors and sampling, remote sensing and modeling, and data management and communications. In addition, enabling organizations will be necessary to foster technology innovation and to help train the future ocean science workforce.

More Use of Autonomous and Unmanned Platforms. An examination of trends revealed that, in the past two decades, the use of floats, gliders, ROVs, AUVs and scientific seafloor cables has increased; the use of ships, drifters, moorings and towed platforms has remained stable; and the use of human-occupied vehicles has declined. Based on these trends and on the major science questions for 2030, it is anticipated that utilization and capabilities for floats, gliders, ROVs, AUVs, submarine scientific cables and moorings will continue to increase significantly for the next 20 years. Ships will continue to be an essential component of ocean research infrastructure; however, the increasing use of autonomous and unmanned assets will broaden the demands for a wide range of ship capabilities. To continue this article please click here.

Eric J. Barron is president of Florida State University. He was the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and was dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Barron's research interests are climatology, numerical modeling and Earth history.

Rana A. Fine is a professor of marine and atmospheric chemistry at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Her current research objective is to better understand the role of the oceans in climate change occurring on timescales of up to decades.

Oscar Schofield is a professor at the Institute of Marine and Coastal Science at Rutgers University. His research interests include environmental regulation of primary productivity in aquatic ecosystems, physiological ecology of phytoplankton, hydrological optics and integrated ocean observatories.

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