January 2013 Issue
Improving Ocean Technology is Key To Research, Offshore Oil and Defense
Co-Chair, National Marine Sanctuary Caucus
This new year will bring many significant tests, but in all cases, technological advancements are giving us a better understanding of the world, helping to protect the environment, securing U.S. shores and redefining the projection of power on the high seas. It will only be through scientific and engineering breakthroughs that we are able to effectively and safely utilize the oceans—the final frontier.
The Role of Technology in Ocean Research
Emerging technology is helping researchers to shine a light on the ocean, 95 percent of which has yet to be explored. What oceanographers could only dream of a few decades ago is now not only possible but economical. But there is a disturbing trend: the idea that the technology itself can wholly replace the individual.
Technology has come a long way in increasing understanding of the oceans and enabling more efficient ways to work underwater, but it is only part of the equation. It is human minds put to the task that give a better understanding of the world. Much is lost without curiosity, instinct and ambition. The human element remains vital.
This shift is illustrated by NOAA's abandonment of the Aquarius Reef Base, the world's only undersea scientific research laboratory. Aquarius provided aquanauts with the ability to stay underwater for extended periods, allowing them to study the ocean ecosystem. Research conducted at Aquarius produced more than 300 peer-reviewed papers during 124 missions.
Projects like Aquarius also help motivate students, who must be challenged to take up the cause of innovation, research and progress in becoming the next generation of scientists and researchers. Students need to look to the oceans with wonder and amazement—and as future advocates.
Closing Aquarius and other marine facilities will take the humanity out of discovery, conservation and research. This shortsighted decision will cause irreparable damage to ocean exploration now and in the long term.
Deepwater Drilling Offshore South Florida
Less than 90 miles from Florida waters, Cuba began to develop deepwater offshore oil drilling last year for the first time. Repsol (Madrid, Spain), Petronas (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), and Gazprom Neft (St. Petersburg, Russia) collaborated with Cuba in exploratory drilling, producing two wells without oil. Venezuela's Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (Caracas, Venezuela) is next in line for ultradeep exploratory drilling.
This offshore drilling is concerning because an oil spill off Cuban waters could be carried by ocean currents to the Florida coasts, harming tourism and the livelihood of many Floridians.
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico provided a wake-up call to offshore safety policy and technologies. However, the Deepwater Horizon tragedy also pushed the industry to produce a new generation of technology developed to track oil spills and oil containment. If a similar disaster occurred off Florida's coast, response teams would be better prepared.
In 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard seized more than 150,000 pounds of cocaine and 25,000 pounds of marijuana through maritime drug interdictions. With the drug cartels deploying fast boats and semisubmersibles, the Coast Guard's interdictions have become more vital to protecting U.S. maritime borders.
What started as a contest for drug runners to find the fastest boat to outrun the Coast Guard has expanded as advances in technology have made these fast-moving boats obsolete—easily tracked, traced and intercepted. The Coast Guard has needed to stay on the cutting edge as drug cartels turned from sophisticated stealth designs to semisubmersibles and now to something that was the territory of only nation-states just a few short years ago: fully submersible vessels.
New smuggling methods pose significant challenges to maritime security. However, with advances in equipment, the Coast Guard will continue to combat drug trafficking.
Control of the Seas
Farther from U.S. shores, China is increasing its naval capacity in the South China Sea and beyond. Recent disputes over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, claimed by both Japan and China, have sparked protests against Japan and calls for action by the Chinese public. This, paired with Beijing's increasing need for resources, places pressure on Beijing leadership to embolden its stance in the Western Pacific.
As more international trade depends on Asia's waterways, already the busiest in the world, the U.S. must continue to protect its interests, as well as its allies. Game-changing technology is yet again at the heart of the equation. As surveillance, offensive and defensive capabilities continually grow more sophisticated, they are changing the shape of surface naval operations.
We could see this next generation of naval warfare sooner than we think if Japan and China do not soon come to a peaceful agreement over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands dispute. The official U.S. position is that the islands are administered by Japan, and, as such, any attack on them would fall under the mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Japan. Therefore, the U.S. must state clearly its commitment to stand firm with its treaty ally, Japan, in order to deter China or any other country from threatening military action.
Technology for Discovery and Innovation
In all aspects of our lives, technology is reshaping the future. On and under our oceans, advancements are helping to protect and understand the environment, ocean resources and coastlines.
This new year will again be an exciting time of discovery and innovation, of which emerging and advancing technologies will play the key role.