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Societal Implications for Ocean Research in 2025

Matthew Alford*


The past few decades of ocean research have moved our field from a young, exploratory science to a mature one. This transformation has been heralded by tremendous advances both in our understanding of the ocean and our ability to observe it. An extreme believer would even argue that the degree to which we now understand the ocean-atmosphere system has saved our planet, by enabling observations that detected climate change and bolstered a coherent argument for its anthropogenic origin.

2025 will be a different world than today—one with a much greater population and squarely in a post-peak oil era. The global economy by that time will be profoundly affected, and possibly driven, by carbon, food supply and energy issues. All nations will fully appreciate by then the reality and dangers of climate change. Most will resist changing business practices and energy policy for purely altruistic or environmental reasons. However, by then nations and businesses will be required to mitigate their carbon emissions by either using renewable energy, purchasing carbon credits, or through sequestration techniques.

The ocean will sit prominently in the limelight in this not-too-distant-future economy for several reasons:

  • A much greater portion of our energy will come from offshore. While I suspect that wave and tidal energy will not pan out to be significant sources of energy, offshore wind/solar farms and algal biodiesel harvesting have much greater promise, but will present significant ocean engineering challenges.

*

Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington



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Societal Implications for Ocean Research in 2025 Matthew Alford* The past few decades of ocean research have moved our field from a young, exploratory science to a mature one. This transformation has been heralded by tremendous advances both in our understanding of the ocean and our ability to observe it. An extreme believer would even argue that the degree to which we now understand the ocean-atmosphere system has saved our planet, by enabling observations that detected climate change and bolstered a coherent argument for its anthropogenic origin. 2025 will be a different world than today—one with a much greater population and squarely in a post-peak oil era. The global economy by that time will be profoundly affected, and possibly driven, by carbon, food supply and energy issues. All nations will fully appreciate by then the reality and dangers of climate change. Most will resist changing busi- ness practices and energy policy for purely altruistic or environmental reasons. However, by then nations and businesses will be required to miti- gate their carbon emissions by either using renewable energy, purchasing carbon credits, or through sequestration techniques. The ocean will sit prominently in the limelight in this not-too-distant- future economy for several reasons: • A much greater portion of our energy will come from offshore. While I suspect that wave and tidal energy will not pan out to be significant sources of energy, offshore wind/solar farms and algal biodiesel harvesting have much greater promise, but will present significant ocean engineering challenges. *Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington 1

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15 MATTHEW ALFORD • Likewise, the increasing role of wild and farmed fish for feed- ing the Earth's growing population will necessitate greater and greater understanding of ecosystems and their interaction with the changing physical environment. • More and more people will continue to live near the sea, increasing the economic and societal impact on humans of increased storms and higher sea levels associated with a warmer climate. Predic- tion of these will elevate ocean research and regional monitoring to ever-higher importance. Regional prediction of ocean states will continue to be a vital part of the U.S. Navy's operations. Improved prediction will also be vital on the global scale, since evalu- ating the efficacy of various carbon mitigation strategies will have real economic impacts. That is, ocean models will be used by governments on a daily basis to determine the dollar amount of carbon credits, as well as by companies to determine the most economical way of proceeding (e.g., purchase green power versus paying carbon taxes). The ocean plays a central role in each of these themes; hence, funding for ocean research will be significantly greater than it is today. Showing here my natural tendency for audacious hope, I predict that NSF will have a much larger budget than today—possibly obtaining the fabled doubling that has been spoken of for some time. ONR's future is difficult to forecast, but it seems certain that private donors (foundations and companies) will fund much more ocean research than today, owing to its elevated and more tangible and immediate importance to the tangible economy. This will include funding for both ocean technology and ocean engineering, as well as basic research to improve models. These increases in funding will allow much more research per year; however, owing to the growing number of oceanographers being trained now (a 10% per year increase; Abbott 2008) that will be seeking jobs then, the funding climate for each principal investigator (PI) may not become easier than today; and pos- sibly the opposite. Indeed, this demographic trend has the potential to create grave problems for our field without this increased funding. Much of the research will necessarily take the form of "monitoring," in the form of coastal observing systems such as those part of the Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS or OOSs), global drifting arrays such as the Argo array, and open ocean buoys and regional cabled systems such as those in the Ocean Observing Initiative (OOI). These assets, particu- larly Argo with its global coverage and good spatial resolution, will be recognized as vital time series and expanded. Hence, many will analyze data and contribute greatly to our understanding of ocean processes. Given the increased number of researchers just mentioned, this is a good coincidence. Fewer will go to sea, but many will be able to address excit- ing and difficult questions on the global scale with these data.

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1 OCEANOGRAPHY IN 2025 In addition to this, there must continue to be a strong cadre of sea- going oceanographers. We as a community must continue to realize the value of this work, which though it is certainly more expensive per PI, is necessary to the success of the other efforts. As models improve, there will always be new physics discovered as parameterizations are tested more rigorously. Creative and exploratory seagoing efforts will be required to explore these processes. These are expensive and often risky opera- tions, often requiring the development of new instrumentation. For these investigators to have the expertise to develop nonstandard observational tools (besides moorings, acoustic Doppler current profilers [ADCPs], and conductivity-temperature-depth sensors [CTDs]) that may someday become the new observational workhorses, we must find a way to con- tinue to fund high-risk instrument development projects—traditionally funded by ONR and more difficult to get funded by NSF. Perhaps ONR's downward trend will reverse, or alternatively private donors will rise to the challenge? Specific problems likely to be still extant in 2025 include the need to understand processes with nested scales. For example, fronts are a per- sistent area requiring better understanding, as they are the loci of many poorly understood physical, chemical and biological processes. Yet frontal research will continue to be plagued by the difficulty of simultaneously resolving the smallest and largest scales with a single ship. Perhaps fleets of gliders, or even small autonomous vessels capable of deploying towed instruments and ADCPs, that are deployable from research ships will be developed. As a second example, unraveling the tough problems that really affect ecosystems will require more collaboration with biological, chemical and physical oceanographers. The advances being made in biological ocean- ography with genetic techniques are astounding—soon maps of species and even population abundance will be possible using in situ sequencing. The physical environment must play a central role in these distributions; yet, close interaction across fields will be required for progress. Though some changes will be sweeping, oceanography will be recog- nizable in 2025. The eternal optimist, I believe it will be an exciting time, provided we can stay true to our shipboard roots while embracing new autonomous technologies. Maintaining a healthy balance between moni- toring (routine but vital for long time series) and exciting new technolo- gies and experiments will be key to our success. REFERENCE Abbott, Mark R. 2008. Oceanography in 2028. Oceanography. 21(3): 74-81.