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Access to the Sea

Access to the Sea

Encompasses Ships, Submersibles, Autonomous and Remote Vehicles, Observatories, Drifters, Extreme Climate Capability, and Drilling


1997— Oceanographic fieldwork has traditionally meant going to sea on a ship. In recent years, it has expanded to include activities that may require a ship for a short period but then continue independently. Floats that drift with ocean currents, periodically reporting their positions via satellite, for example, are generally launched from ships but do most of their work independently. Long-term seafloor observatories may need ships to set them up and service them occasionally, but, again, they are designed to collect data for long periods without needing a ship. We have come to think of the body of ways oceanographers glean information from the ocean as “access to the sea,” and so that is the topic for this issue of Oceanus.

Ships are a critical element of access to the sea, but because they cost so much, take so long to plan for and build, and then last 30 years, they still occupy a dominant role in access to the sea. However, long-range planning should also take into account other means of doing ocean research, using a variety of observational methods and technological tools.

The US academic research fleet, known as UNOLS for University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System, has never been in better (physical) condition. This year marks the completion of an unprecedented UNOLS modernization and replacement program, which began to take shape in 1984 under Navy Secretary John Lehman, according to Steven Ramberg, head of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Ocean, Atmosphere, and Space Department. “It’s a national interest to make sure the oceanographic community has world-ranging access to the oceans to do good research, whether it’s for the National Science Foundation or for the Navy,” he says. Under this program, old vessels have been retired (Atlantis II, Conrad, Thompson, Washington*). Four new vessels have been acquired (Thomas G. Thompson, Roger Revelle, Atlantis, Maurice Ewing) and six others (Knorr, Melville, Oceanus, Wecoma, Endeavor, and New Horizon) have undergone major overhauls and upgrades. (See chart of UNOLS vessels at top right for operating institutions.)

The ocean science community is well-served today with a fleet that is well-equipped and skillfully operated. It consists of the full spectrum of ships from large to small and from general to special purpose. (Ewing does mostly multichannel-seismic projects, and Atlantisis largely devoted to supporting deep submergence activities.) These vessels are frequently inspected and updated. They represent the essential facilities that enable oceanographic research, and, through the UNOLS process, they are efficiently and equitably scheduled.

Still, this fleet faces challenges: One comes from the national research budget squeeze, which effectively reduces the funds available for at-sea operations. This problem is being addressed vigorously by UNOLS. A December 1995 UNOLS report entitled “Projections for UNOLS’ Future—Substantial Financial Challenges” considers a variety of scenarios including fleet reduction and user-base expansion, with cautions about the importance of maintaining a balanced mix of capabilities.

The second challenge may come as a surprise to some: It’s time to begin another fleet replacement/modernization program.

As discussed in the article “Replacing the Fleet” of this issue, it took almost 15 years—one and a half decades—(from 1984 to 1997) to complete the process of modernizing the UNOLS fleet. This was true despite the fact the program had almost universal support and suffered no major setbacks or stoppages from start to finish. Thus, if we consider 15 years a conservative planning window and use that time frame as a yardstick against the age of the existing fleet, we can determine when the next major modernization effort should begin. The projected service life figure at right indicates that the time is now. Within the 15 year planning window, eight large and intermediate ships will near the end of their expected useful service lives: Moana Wave, Melville, Knorr, Gyre, New Horizon, Oceanus, Wecoma, and Endeavor. Note that the actual service life of a ship is somewhat flexible. The yellow triangles in the figure show a five-year extension of the projected service lives of UNOLS ships that have undergone extensive mid-life overhauls. Although this listing only includes the large and intermediate ships, it is germane to note that the following smaller vessels will also be refitted in this time frame:Alpha Helix, Cape Henlopen, Cape Hatteras, and Point Sur. While this gives us more time to consider the options for the next major fleet upgrade, it only delays facing the problem.

It is important to emphasize that the best solution to maintaining a robust research fleet is not necessarily, or even likely, a “one-for-one” replacement program. The ocean science community must assess its scientific goals in a 40 to 50 year time frame, and then formulate plans for achieving the access to the sea capabilities needed to achieve those goals. The lengths of useful ship lives set forth in the projected service life figure set absolute deadlines for having those plans bear fruit.

One approach that might be taken is to assume that the large ship needs will be served by the AGOR-23 class (Thompson, Revelle, and Atlantis) well into the 21st century and well beyond our 15 year planning window. It is reasonable to plan for vessels of size and capacity that fall between the large- and intermediate-size classes. As a first approximation planning factor, these new vessels should be about 200 feet long, more seaworthy than any existing ships, carry science and crew complements that fall somewhere between Knorr (34/24) and Oceanus(18/12), and have the design factors listed at right.

Circumstance may be presenting the community with an opportunity to design, test, and program for the next generation research vessel. The Navy’s FY’97 budget includes $45 million for a SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) vessel for use in general purpose oceanographic research. The first such vessel is to serve in the central Pacific and will probably be operated by the University of Hawaii as a replacement for Moana Wave. The UNOLS community has contributed to the design of this vessel, whose time line appears in the figure opposite below. A SWATH offers a remarkably stable platform. It has two submerged hulls with thin struts supporting an above-water platform. Its characteristics of not following surface wave motion, reduced buoyancy force changes because the lower hulls ride below the wave motion field, and longer natural roll periods make it very attractive for ocean science and environmental monitoring.

The figure at rightcombines the information on expected lives of current research vessels and the time planning window needed to plan for and construct new vessels. It indicates when agencies would need to program acquisition funds for new vessels in order to have the funds appropriated, contracts let, and the ships built in time to support a continuous and vigorous US oceanographic research program. Planning and construction time lines may seem excessively long, but the recently aborted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleet improvement program failed because it was started too late, when the ships had already reached the end of their service lives.

There is also a need to examine the seagoing facilities (small ships/large boats) that service the coastal realm. This matter has been discussed by many interested people for a number of years. Most recently, with NSF support, UNOLS conducted the “Workshop to Assess the Future Vessel and Facility Needs of Coastal Marine Science” in February 1993. The workshop report concluded that the need for improved vessels to support coastal research varied from region to region because of the wide variety of environmental conditions, ranging from the craggy, high sea-state, cold conditions of New England to the warm water, back bay estuaries of the Carolinas and Gulf Coast. This wide variety of environmental regimes dictates that coastal research vessel designs be tailored to the individual region.

Another major factor in coastal vessel design is the cost of operation, as most coastal research projects are relatively “poor” and cannot afford to pay the cost of larger research vessels, even though in many instances large and intermediate UNOLS vessels are fully capable of doing the work. This leads researchers to demand cheap, high capacity vessels. Resolving this apparent oxymoron will not be easy.

In the case of the New England region, an affordable vessel is needed with the general characteristics shown at right. We believe that a monohull will never fulfill these characteristics. We are looking instead for a “big” little, reasonably priced ship. It should be capable of safe operations year-round in New England weather and water conditions and be able to make safe, short duration (several-day) surveys with perhaps one mooring to set or a single instrument to deploy repeatedly (CTD or ROV) or continuously (towed side-scan/multibeam instrument, acoustic Doppler current profiler, or biomapper—a towed acoustic device for measuring biological stocks). This vessel should have a daily operating rate less than half that of the intermediate-size vessels.

At present this niche is inadequately filled with monohulls that have serious shortcomings in seakeeping, seakind-liness, payload, science facilities, and accommodations. WHOI marine personnel and scientists have discussed these deficiencies with their counterparts at several major regional oceanographic-related organizations including University of Massachusetts, University of Rhode Island, the consortium of the Gulf of Maine researchers, Newport Undersea Warfare Center, and US Geological Survey. There is enthusiastic support among these groups for the small SWATH concept, and consensus (so far) that WHOI should take the lead in securing such a community-use vessel. As a result, WHOI has engaged a naval architect to design a vessel that fits the plan outlined overleaf. The timeline for such a vessel appears below right.

Planning for such a regional-use vessel is one step toward the next US fleet modernization and replacement. The UNOLS fleet is the best in the world, providing the nation’s oceanographers access to the sea both globally and regionally, and it is vitally important that members of the ocean science community begin to work now on maintaining that capability for the 21st century. WHOI has long been an enthusiastic contributor to the configuration and operational modes of UNOLS as well as serving as the operator of some of the system’s ships and we look forward to a continuing role in UNOLS.

The following paragraphs briefly discuss some other areas of “access to the sea” that are of growing interest to the oceanographic community.

Deep Submergence. UNOLS is also well-served in the area of deep (1,000 meters and more) submergence. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution operates three ships and three sub-mersibles. The submersibles are Johnson Sea Link I and Johnson Sea Link II, with depth capabilities of 3,000 feet and each accommodating a pilot, a technician, and two scientific observers, and Clelia, a three-person vehicle with an operational depth of 1,000 feet. (The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute also offers the oceanographic community ship and submersible capabilities that are not part of the UNOLS system.) The period from mid 1996 to mid 1997 marked a major transition in deep submergence: Atlantis II, support ship since 1983 for the submersible Alvin (14,764-foot depth capability), was decommissioned, and the new Atlantis was commissioned as its replacement. Atlantis represents a major upgrade in deep submergence facilities: The ship has four times the laboratory space of Atlantis II, accommodates eight more scientists, can stay at sea nearly twice as long (up to 60 days), and is equipped with dynamic positioning, a SeaBeam swath mapping system, and state-of-the-art electronics and computer systems.

Arctic Capabilities. There is growing sentiment in Washington, particularly in Congress, that arctic oceanographic research is underfunded. The US Coast Guard is constructing a large icebreaker (Healy) and, in response to considerable pressure from the National Academy of Sciences and others, has asked for advice and scientific input. UNOLS has established a new committee to provide this oversight. Given present Congressional interest and alignment, it is possible that an arctic research vessel will also be funded soon, and this would make arctic research a growth area.

Ocean Drilling. The Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) is entering a period of transition. Though it is closely allied with the academic fleet user community, this program is not part of UNOLS, but rather an international partnership formed to explore Earth’s origin and evolution through retrieving and studying long cores of sediment and rock from beneath the seafloor. ODP’s seagoing component is the drilling ship JOIDES Resolution. The present ODP international agreements expire in 2003, and a follow-on program is being intensely discussed, with the US, Japan, and the European Union playing major roles.

It will probably sort out to an international, two-ship program, with Japan building a new ship offering riser capabilities and the second ship possibly being an upgraded JOIDES Resolution. (A riser surrounds the drill-string and offers environmental protection by capturing drilling debris as well as oil or gas from deposits that may be encountered during drilling. Riser capability would extend the possibilities for scientific drilling on continental margins.)

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). These vehicles are just now emerging from the early development stage, and progress is dramatic and rapid. They can be programmed to conduct repeated data-gathering surveys with a variety of instruments over many months from a base on the seafloor. In the near-term, they have the strong potential to join Alvinand ROVs as the enabling tools of benthic science to complement other investigative systems.

Long-Term Observatories. Over the past decade, there has been increasing interest in long-term (years to decades) observations of physical variables in and beneath the oceans in several oceanographic disciplines. For example, WHOI’s Oceanographic Systems Laboratory (OSL), led by Senior Engineer Chris von Alt and working with Rutgers University scientists, installed two instrument nodes at LEO-15 (Long-term Ecosystem Observatory in 15 meters of water) off the coast of New Jersey in September 1996. Node instruments, which can be controlled via the Internet, measure conductivity, temperature, pressure, dissolved oxygen, optical backscatter, and other parameters of the coastal environment via sensors mounted on a buoy that makes preprogrammed or on-command vertical profiles of the water column. Repeating these profiles over time provides a three-dimensional representation of the ocean as it moves past the observatory.

Drifting Profilers. New technology for profiling the water column using autonomous, freely drifting floats is now being used extensively by many oceanographers, and plans are accelerating to increase the number of variables that can be measured. This will greatly improve our ability to acquire regular water-column observations over large areas of the oceans, especially in remote and climatically unfriendly regions that have been undersampled or not sampled at all. This has important implications for collecting observations to aid ocean and climate modeling efforts.

Progress in all these areas of oceanographic interest, integrated with timely research vessel upgrades and replacements will support a vigorous US ocean science program well into the future.

Rear Admiral Richard Pittenger came to WHOI in 1990 after a prolonged (37-year) “apprenticeship” in the Navy. He says he has more or less settled into the niche of managing WHOI’s Marine Operations department, which includes Atlantis, Knorr, Oceanus, Asterias, Alvin, and Argo II, Medea/Jason, and DSL 120, but reserves judgement on a final career decision. Dick is active in the oceanographic community, serving on the UNOLS Council and as a technical consultant to the Arctic Research Council.