A teacher in Boise checks his weather app and packs an umbrella while a Miami businesswoman decides to work from home because the local news announces her usual route to work is flooded. What do these two have in common? The information they rely on for their daily activities depends on observational data from the ocean. Some ocean observations provide real-time results, but others must be continuously collected for years before significant patterns and changes can be detected and analyzed. Due to the vital importance of observing systems to the benefit of our nation’s economy, national security, and scientific enterprise, the National Academy of Science’s Ocean Studies Board ad hoc observations committee held a two-day workshop to hear expert opinions on ocean observation systems as they draft a report prioritizing imperative ocean variables for climate research.
Workshop participants agreed that ocean observation systems need long-term commitment, including funding and collaboration between federal agencies, institutions, and international governments. This discussion also highlighted finding non-federal financial backing, including through philanthropic private donors and other technical industries. Several speakers conveyed the importance and financial needs of specific projects. Dr. Molly Baringer (Deputy Laboratory Director and Supervisory Oceanographer, Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and Co-Chair, NOAA Climate Observing System Council, NOAA) highlighted the importance of continued funding for the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) to manage and collect large amounts of data. Mr. Robert Winokur (Deputy Oceanographer, Navy (ret) and Senior Advisor, Michigan Tech Research Institute) stressed that aging federal ships are in dire need of continued funding that should be built into agency budgets. The federal fleet is used to deploy observing instruments, such as surface buoys of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), which will help deliver at least 25 years of observational data as part of what Dr. Roger Wakimoto (Assistant Director, Directorate for Geosciences, NSF) called a “very successful model.” Dr. Nathalie Zilberman (Project Scientist, Climate, Atmospheric Science and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography) announced that one peer-reviewed paper is published each day using data from the Argo program, an array of 3,739 floats that collect temperature and salinity data worldwide. However, meager funding (a 0.07 percent increase over the last decade), calls into question the sustainability of Argo’s recent expansion, which includes deep ocean and biogeochemical data-collecting floats.
In addition to adequate and sustained funding, a strong, dedicated workforce is needed to maintain and advance the ocean observation field. Experts expressed concern that lack of funding and inadequate training provides limited opportunities for young scientists to develop new systems and technologies. There was overwhelming agreement that efforts should be made to recruit and train the next generation to continue proposing, building, and managing systems and programs.
Dr. John Holdren (Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) affirmed “the multiple benefits of understanding the oceans better speak for themselves,” and Mr. Craig McLean reminded the audience that other nations will follow our country’s lead in this endeavor. However, Dr. Marcia McNutt (COL Board Member and President, National Academy of Sciences) acknowledged that the U.S. funding system is not set up to support these long-term undertakings. Thus, the upcoming report is critical to show the importance of sustained federal funding. Vital ocean observations and research need continued support to understand and monitor changes in temperature, weather, and storms to keep our communities safe.