American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Oversight Hearing on the Status of Oceanographic Monitoring and Assessment Efforts on Both Global and Local Scales (8-7-98)

On July 30, 1998 the House Resource Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife & Oceans
held an oversight hearing on activities in the oceanographic community.  The week before the hearing, subcommittee Chair Bill Saxton (R-NJ) sent out a memo to the subcommittee members that summarized background, the importance of continued ocean science funding, and issues that might arise from the hearing.  The memo states:  "The activities associated with the designation of 1998 as the Year of the Ocean have raised public awareness of marine issues.  Both national and international cognizance of the importance of the oceans is currently at an all-time high.  That being the case, . . . the United States needs to evaluate its marine observation systems and determine if the facilities and technology in our current arsenal are sufficient to meet our requirements to understand, conserve and use the resources in the marine environment."  The issues raised in the memo included: the President's proposal, at the National Ocean Conference in Monterey, to request $224 million for ocean science projects; the Administration's support of H.R. 2233, the Coral Reef Conservation Bill; research in the North Atlantic and North Pacific; research goals in the President's proposed shallow water observation programs; the limits of deep-sea submersibles; the proposed program to map the entire EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone); effective ways to share the expenses of ocean research between agencies, private sector, and public sector; and whether the Administration will put forward legislation to Congress to "create a new harbor services fund."

Before any opening statements or testimony, Dr. Robert Gagosian, Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, showed a video of current programs and technologies in the ocean sciences.   Rep. Saxton, in his opening statement, said that he hopes "by hearing testimony from both the Administration and the scientific community, . . . to better comprehend the direction that policy needs to [take] in order to develop more sound policies, when it comes to the ocean and its inhabitants."
Dr. D. James Baker, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), gave testimony on some of the current projects NOAA has been working and plans for future joint projects.  The Year of the Ocean has been a great success not only in gaining public awareness of oceanography, but also the awareness of agencies and universities, who are key to future research.  Referring to the National Oceans Conference held earlier this year in Monterey, CA, Dr. Baker listed some of the projects that President Clinton and Vice President Gore proposed and the continued support that both will give to these projects. In closing Dr. Baker stated that ocean research is an expensive investment and emphasized that the oceans sciences need continued Congressional support for future success.

Dr. Rita Colwell, Director Designate of the National Science Foundation, testified regarding NSF's role in "design and development of the Nation's oceanographic monitoring and assessment capabilities."  She stressed the importance of understanding the underlying processes in the world's oceans to be better able to identify how the system responds to changes over time.  Because of the complexity of the links between the chemical, geological, physical, and biological aspects of the oceans, the research must be a multidisciplinary activity.  NSF funding is vital to many of these process-oriented monitoring and observation programs, like the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS), the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program, and El Nino-Southern Oscillation observing system (ENSO).  Dr. Colwell concluded by saying that "we are in a time of rich opportunity for research in oceanography,"  and that the U.S. does not lack for talent but needs adequate resources.

Rear Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II, Chief of Naval Research, began his testimony by showing a graphic comparing the area of explored oceans versus the area of the explored and imaged moon to illustrate that only ~5% of the Earth's oceans have been explored.  The Navy is dependent on oceanography information for every Naval operation, and continued investments in oceanography will produce more technologies like bioluminescence sensors, Global Positioning Satellite (GPS), and current meters.  Admiral Gaffney talked about the Naval EarthMap Observer satellite (NEMO), a joint project of the Department of Defense, U.S. Navy, and private industry that will provide hyperspectral images, and the fact that "no one group or agency can support all of the costs for oceanographic research, ship operations, surveying and modeling that need to be done on a global scale."  Returning to the comparison between the oceans and the moon, Gaffney said that it will take years before we understand our oceans as well as the moon, but that the important work of understanding the oceans must start somewhere.

Dr. Charles Kennel, Director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, echoed the need for more cooperation between agencies, universities, and industry to foot the bill of oceanographic research.  The public interest in oceanography, due to the media coverage of El Nino and the Year of the Ocean, "can be transformed into support for the implementation of a global ocean observing strategy."  For this strategy to be successful, research institutions and agencies must work together to "determine the best combination of in situ observing platform.  The community should support NOAA's monitoring of climate changes and projects like the Global Ocean Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE).  Finally, federal agencies should work to develop modeling and data analysis programs that incorporate chemical, biological, and physical processes to provide up-to-date descriptions of the oceans.

Dr. Robert Gagosian, Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, said that we must study the deep-ocean because "it is where our planet is presently being formed, contorted, stretched, and quaked."  His testimony focused on the future of oceanographic technology, especially human occupied vehicles (HOV).  The science community is pushing for an Alvin upgrade that, depending on engineering studies on depth and length of submerging, could potentially give access to 98% of the ocean bottom.  "There is a tremendous amount we still don't know about our own planet, so we have a lot of work to accomplish."

Dr. Fred Grassle, Director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at the Rutgers University, said that our knowledge of the oceans is very limited, but that national security and the national economy are dependent on our knowledge of the seas.  "Efficient, safe, sea transportation is a requirement for the economic success of our ports and coastal economies," yet our understanding of the processes and mechanisms at work in the Earth's oceans is very limited.  He discussed some of the studies already underway, like LEO-15, to research the continental shelf and the ocean floor.  Over the next few years LEO-15 -- a site off the New Jersey coast -- will add more observatories "at intervals across the continental shelf and into the deep sea."  Citing the connection between understanding ocean processes and long-term biological monitoring, Dr. Grassle said, "from satellite ocean color data, it has been possible to map estimates of phytoplankton productivity over the entire ocean."  He closed by saying that continued support for joint programs, like the National Ocean Partnership Program, from Congress is greatly needed.

Admiral James Watkins, President of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE), referred to the report entitled "Opportunities in Ocean Sciences: Challenges on the Horizon" from the Ocean Science Board of the National Research Council, and emphasized the reports conclusion that we are at an important juncture in the development of oceanography.  What is lacking is a strategic plan for ocean observing systems.  Admiral Watkins said for a successful plan there needs to be "an analysis of the mission responsibilities of the various Federal agencies with our current and planned observational capabilities to determine the best opportunities for success."  A collaborative effort to set the plan would: define the national needs and costs of the projects; commit to develop a system, instead of parts; and take into consideration the different needs of all participating sectors.  Admiral Watkins closed by stating that congressional leadership is necessary for a comprehensive ocean observing system, and the National Ocean Partnership Program -- a group of academic, industrial, and Federal leaders in the ocean sciences managed by CORE -- is "a perfect mechanism for implementation" of such a strategic plan.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs Program Intern
Posted August 7, 1998

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