Interagency Report Charts Ten-Year Vision for Ocean Science and Technology

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Publication date: 
29 November 2018

The National Science and Technology Council published a report this month outlining goals for ocean science and technology through 2028. It identifies modernizing research infrastructure and improving coupled ocean-coastal-hydrology models as high priorities.


A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration field crew near Puget Sound, Washington.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration field crew near Puget Sound, Washington.

(Image credit - NOAA)

This month, the White House released a “decadal vision” that identifies “pressing research needs and areas of opportunity” that are expected to shape ocean science and technology over the next ten years.

Assembled by the National Science and Technology Council, an interagency coordination body, the report is organized around five goals: understanding the ocean in the Earth system, promoting economic prosperity, ensuring maritime security, safeguarding human health, and developing resilient coastal communities. The first goal is described as “paramount” to achieving the other four. The report also identifies the cultivation of an “ocean-literate society” and a “blue workforce” as important for achieving each goal and maintaining U.S. leadership in ocean S&T.

The report succeeds another ten-year plan released by the Bush administration in 2007 and updated by the Obama administration in 2013. It states it “does not intend to supersede” the 2015 National Academies decadal survey for ocean sciences, known as “Sea Change,” aiming insted to cover a wider range of government activities and stakeholder concerns. The NSTC Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology held several townhalls to inform the report and solicited public comments on a draft version it released earlier this year.

Research infrastructure rises to top of priority list

The report identifies research infrastructure as “one of the highest priorities of the ocean S&T community.” It characterizes such infrastructure as encompassing field vehicles and other observational systems, as well as land-based equipment, including high-performance computers, communication networks, and data-storage infrastructure. It also points to the importance of such emerging observational technologies as autonomous and remotely operated vehicles and cubesats.

Stressing the need for expanded observations in under-sampled regions, such as the Southern Hemisphere, deep sea, and “offshore frontiers,” the report cites the Southern Ocean Carbon Climate Observation and Modeling project as an example of an important recent initiative. It further spotlights the Argo Program, a global array of nearly 4,000 observational floats, as prime for expansion to include deep underwater measurements and incorporate new turbulence and biogeochemical sensor technologies. It also calls for integrating new monitoring technologies into the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System and U.N. Global Ocean Observing System.

The report endorses public-private partnerships as a mechanism for supporting research infrastructure, especially for marine laboratories and oceanographic research fleets. These partnerships are also cited for their potential to “enable the transfer of ocean-related technologies from the lab to the market, broaden user accessibility to key advances, and bolster the ocean economy.” The congressionally mandated National Oceanographic Partnership Program is highlighted as one successful model.

Recognizing the quantity and complexity of observational data and model simulations, the report places a high priority on support for new computational methods and infrastructures. It points to the potential of Big Data in forecasting and decision making, referring to it as “the bond that connects and integrates the environment, human society, and cyberspace.” Adoption of cloud computing infrastructure, improved data analysis tools, and “scalable workflow frameworks” are identified as areas of immediate opportunity.

‘Harvey gap’ illustrates modeling needs

Another subject discussed throughout the report is the role of water modeling and associated decision-support tools in preparing coastal communities for extreme weather events and informing long-term resilience planning, among other uses.

The report points to the inability to predict the extensive flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey to illustrate the inadequacies of current modeling capabilities. It specifically spotlights a "Harvey gap," which it describes as the inability to draw reliable quantitative links between storm surge, rainfall, and river discharge. Such extreme weather events, it asserts, “clearly illustrate that research efforts aimed at improving coupled ocean-coastal-hydrology models for total water and storm surge prediction capability is of high priority and critical to the preparedness of the Nation.”

Another priority the report identifies is collecting baseline information on biological, ecological, economic, and social conditions to better assess and forecast impacts of natural hazards and the vulnerability of coastal communities. As models continue to advance, the report notes there will be an associated need for tools that translate science to decisionmakers and “promote resilience-based approaches in ocean and coastal communities, waterborne recreation users, and those experiencing drought and flooding.”

The report also recognizes that advances in modeling will rely on expanded ocean observing data, computational resources, and ensemble simulation approaches. It calls for the creation of “common and interoperable frameworks” and an “interdisciplinary application and standardized interfaceto ease the integration of observation data into models. It also identifies a specific need for more accurate observations at the interface of land, water, ice, air, and the ocean floor to improve understanding of phenomena that depend on coupling across those boundaries.

Human role in ocean ecosystem a major focus

Much of the report is focused on research and technologies that would yield benefits for economic and national security activities. For instance, it calls for advances in monitoring technologies such as remote sensors, full-ocean-depth sensors, and biological and ecosystem indicators to monitor environmental conditions and detect “anomalous behaviors” in the maritime industry.

To address human-produced noise in marine environments, the report outlines methods and technologies for evaluating underwater acoustic conditions. It also encourages the development of technologies with low noise profiles to reduce the impacts of oceangoing vessels on marine life.

Departing from its 2007 predecessor, the report does not dedicate a chapter specifically to the issue of climate change. The role of human activity in climate change is not discussed, though it does refer more generally to humans as “an important element of the Earth system as agents of change to Earth system processes.”

The report does identify issues and priorities related to subjects such as sea level rise, Arctic sea ice loss, and ocean acidification throughout. Moreover, in identifying environmental hazards that are affecting American communities, it includes “a changing climate and rising sea level” as an example.

Citing the 2014 National Climate Assessment, it observes,“The United States has experienced more than 219 weather and climate disasters since 1980, resulting in the total cost of more than $1.5 trillion.” Accordingly, it states, “Building a weather-ready Nation, where society is prepared for and responds appropriately to extreme weather, water, climate, and environmental threats is critical.”

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