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January 2012 Issue

Building Partnerships to Improve Ocean Observing

By Dr. Kathryn Sullivan
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction

This past year was an exciting one for ocean observing. Government agencies, academic organizations and the private sector worked together on and under the sea, in the air, on land and even in space to build and operate the observing technologies that help us better understand our oceans and coasts, as well as the ways in which climate change and human influences are affecting the marine environment.

It was also an exciting year for me. I rejoined NOAA in May to serve as the assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction, and deputy NOAA administrator. I had to hit the ground running because the U.S. was dealing with a number of billion-dollar disasters—blizzards, extreme flooding and deadly tornadoes—that resulted in tragic loss of life. And hurricane season was yet to come.

When Irene formed, I found myself flying into the eye of the hurricane aboard NOAA's P-3 Hurricane Hunter aircraft. That experience gave me a new appreciation for the varied scientific elements that go into developing forecasts and showed again just how crucial observations from NOAA and its partners are to protecting U.S. citizens. From buoys that monitor water conditions to satellites overhead, Americans depend on our observing system partnerships to keep them safe.

Providing these vital observations is an astounding and rewarding responsibility. It is also one that is strained greatly by the difficult fiscal times in which we now find ourselves. But we succeeded in surmounting obstacles last year through data integration, cooperative research and science partnerships. The bar always moves higher, so NOAA and its partners will strive to raise standards in the year ahead.

Overcoming Challenges and Making Breakthroughs
The ocean supports millions of jobs in the U.S. The energy, transportation and fishing sectors alone pump trillions of dollars into our economy. When President Barack Obama came into office, he implemented the National Ocean Policy, which, for the first time in history, makes America's oceans, coasts and Great Lakes top national priorities. He made NOAA a leader in implementing the policy in recognition of the agency's expertise in ocean observing, mapping and charting, environmental monitoring and weather forecasting—critical intelligence NOAA provides day in and day out to ensure U.S. officials and researchers have the best data to support decisions made about the country's oceans and coasts.

Of course, NOAA is just one of many organizations that collects ocean and coastal data. Dozens of federal and state agencies, universities and private industries each collects data for a variety of purposes. Unifying the billions of bytes of data is not easy.

An example of overcoming this challenge is the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS), a partnership of 17 federal agencies working together with 11 regional partners around the country. Through IOOS, each government and nongovernmental entity works to feed observing data into a consistent, standardized structure that can be used to meet various missions. Last year, IOOS expanded its infrastructure to include biological components, incorporating tagging data from marine animals that will help scientists across many disciplines understand how these animals move with the flow of the tides and currents, and alter their behavior in response to climate change.

Last October, NASA launched a polar-orbiting environmental satellite named NPP (NPOESS Preparatory Project). NPP will serve as a bridge from NOAA's existing polar-orbiting satellites to its next-generation of spacecraft, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). NPP will gather the critical data and imagery that meteorologists need for monitoring and forecasting dangerous weather and extreme events.

Supporting the Next Generation of Ocean Observing
The upgrade to more advanced satellites is one of many steps NOAA is taking to make America a weather-ready nation. Unfortunately, the future of JPSS is in jeopardy due to limited resources preventing the program from starting in fiscal year (FY) 2010 and greatly reduced funding from what the president requested in FY 2011. This shortfall essentially ensures NOAA will have an unprecedented observational data gap between the end of NPP's operational life span and the date when the first JPSS spacecraft, JPSS-1, takes over.

How wide will that gap be? We can't say with absolute certainty, but we estimate it will be between 14 to 20 months. Much will depend upon the amount and timing of the FY 2012 appropriations process as well as future year appropriations.

Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) is another data-sharing initiative that we believe will make great gains in 2012. As with IOOS, the core concept here is 'map once, use many times.' IOCM now underpins NOAA's nautical charting enterprise, which provides mariners with water depth, seafloor and coastline information for safe navigation, and also extracts information that is valuable for other uses from these same data sets. NOAA will continue to work within and outside the agency toward a shared ocean-mapping data standard and better data-exchange capabilities. This will enable multiple uses beyond navigation such as improved marine fisheries management, coastal development decisions and preparations for sea-level rise impacts.

Addressing science and stewardship needs in the Arctic region is another key component of the National Ocean Policy, and it's one where NOAA urgently needs help from its partners. Climate change certainly complicates the efforts of government, academic and industry scientists who are working to improve baseline knowledge, even as interest grows in the economic potential of Arctic resources. One way NOAA tackled this challenge was forging a data partnership over the summer with the Department of the Interior and several companies studying the region for development of oil resources. It's a partnership that came without a price tag and without a promise of approvals, but it's an understanding that all of our organizations need in order to ensure the responsible development of energy resources in this remote region.

Facing the Future Together
I applaud the achievements made in 2011 and foresee even stronger collaborations in 2012 to collect new sets of ocean and coastal data that will address our unique missions and shared goals for stewardship and sustainable use of our ocean resources.

Challenges ahead will demand all of our combined effort and call upon us to collaborate even more effectively. We need each other and must continue our shared efforts to further cooperation, investment and data sharing.

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