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Spring/Summer 2009 Vol. 9 Number 1



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On the Horizon of Oceanography

Pilots and technicians control remotely operated vehicles being towed over the seafloor, and scientists analyze the incoming data, photo courtesy University of California, Santa Barbara/University of South Carolina/NOAA/Woods Hole Oceanic Institution

Jules Verne’s 1870 literary classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea captured the inquisitiveness and enthusiasm for ocean exploration, decades before much of the technology in the book would become reality. In a similar spirit, earlier this year the National Research Council convened a workshop with an eye toward the future to discuss the needs and directions for oceanography and what the field would look like in 2025. Approximately 50 scientists from academia, federal agencies, and industry attended.

Ocean exploration is following the model of NASA’s Mars rovers, sending home digital data and limiting the dependence on physical samples, commented attendee Justin Manley from Battelle Applied Coastal and Environmental Services. And technical advances and remote sensing promise to dramatically improve the study of our oceans, according to Jim Bellingham from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. For instance, techniques for precise identification of species in the laboratory and detection of organisms in the field will be developed. In addition, more robotic platforms will conduct observations and simple tasks with little or no human supervision, which will enable a continuous, interactive presence in remote ocean locations.

Besides ship-based measurements, a wide array of samples could be collected by sensors on floats, gliders, and moorings, and by computer-controlled autonomous underwater vehicles that follow pre-programmed or adaptive trajectories.

Moreover, sensors will become smaller and use less energy, with some high-powered sensors drawing energy from waves and solar panels, noted Meghan F. Cronin, a scientist from Seattle.

Ocean mapping will change in the future, too. According to Larry Mayer from the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire, the “new generation of systems will allow information to be collected from the entire water column, not just the seafloor, resulting in the evolving real time high-resolution 3D image of the seafloor and targets in the water column,” such as fish.

Others at the workshop also forecast that the field of oceanography will become more integrated with other scientific disciplines. Shuyi S. Chen of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami said that the ocean and atmosphere will be viewed as a fully coupled system — at the air-sea interface and at the level of biological and chemical processes.  — Jennifer Walsh


 Oceanography in 2025: Proceedings of a Workshop. Panel on Public Participation in Environmental Assessment Committee on Oceanography in 2025: A Workshop, Ocean Studies Board, Division on Earth and Life Studies (2009, 198 pp.; ISBN 0-309-13745-4; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $44.25 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The steering committee was chaired by Daniel L. Rudnick, deputy director of education at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. The study was funded by the Office of Naval Research.



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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences