Magazine article Oceanus

Oceanographic Research Vessels: Then, Now, and in the Future

Magazine article Oceanus

Oceanographic Research Vessels: Then, Now, and in the Future

Article excerpt

The coastal zone is a region of transition between the land and sea. The US Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coastlines total 88,633 miles, and an additional 10,980 miles of coastline borders the Great Lakes. About 80 percent of the US population lives within an hour's drive of the shore. These numbers attest to the importance of coastal marine science: In order to grapple with the great diversity of conflicting activities within this region, a well-ordered research program is essential.

As upon the open sea, the oceanographer's chief tool for studying this region is the research vessel. Before World War II, most research vessels were limited to coastal service by their small sizes. Typically these vessels were converted fishing boats or pleasure yachts, pressed into serving the developing needs of science investigators. The early 1960s witnessed the "Golden Era" of American oceanography. Encouraged by the National Academy of Science, oceanographic science focused on blue-water (or deep-sea) research, and a number of larger ocean-going research vessels were built. During this period, little attention was paid to specific coastal science needs, and small research vessels were primarily ships inherited from the World War II era and earlier.

With growing environmental awareness in the late 1960s and early 1970s, considerable research interest turned toward the coastal zone, where there were concerns about water quality, population increase, fisheries health, oil production, and the effects of recreation. The coasts came to be regarded as highly vulnerable, if not fragile, areas.

The President's Commission on Marine Sciences (the Stratton Commission) Report of 1970 gave special attention to the coastal zone and the facilities to serve it. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) were organized, and the term "coastal zone management" came into use.

UNOLS is an association of 56 ocean science research institutions that operate and use the 26 vessels in the US academic research fleet. The association's goal is to assist in the coordination and scheduling of ships and equipment to make efficient use of finite resources. UNOLS is also charged with advising federal funding agencies on future facility requirements for oceanographic research.

At the first UNOLS meeting in 1972, critical facility needs were defined. Capable coastal research vessels were high on the list, and a subcommittee was appointed to examine the needs for coastal zone research facilities. The subcommittee's chief recommendations included modern, capable, coastal research vessels assigned and operated on a "regional" basis. From this emerged the Cape-class vessels (R/Vs Cape Hatteras, Point Sur, and Cape Henlopen assigned respectively to the Duke University/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, and the University of Delaware). To make these facilities more available, consortia were formed to coordinate and participate in the vessels' operation.

In the early 1980s, the US oceanographic community faced a crisis as most large ocean research ships (longer than 51 meters) were either at or were approaching the end of their useful service lives, and some intermediate size (45 to 61 meters) ships would soon need mid-life refits. All of the UNOLS university ships were inadequate for the next set of global oceanographic tasks such as the World Ocean Circulation Experiment, Joint Global Ocean Flux Study, Ridge Inter-Disciplinary Global Experiments, and other large-scale research projects being planned. Through the UNOLS fleet-improvement committee and other vehicles, the community galvanized to action. They assembled a fleet-improvement plan that gained the support of the National Science Foundation, the Oceanographer of the Navy, the Office of Naval Research, and Congress. …

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