Ocean observations have always been the driver of new knowledge and predictive capabilities in the ocean and its basins. Ocean drilling has produced sediment cores that provide our best long-term records of natural climate fluctuations. Submersible observations (both piloted and robotic) opened our eyes to hydrothermal vents and the unique life forms that surround them. Our present ability to forecast and assess El Niño variability depends critically on the coupling of extensive oceanic and atmospheric observations with increasingly accurate computer models. Despite these and many other accomplishments, the oceans remain vastly undersampled in time and space.
With new technologies, new kinds and levels of ocean, ocean/atmosphere, and ocean/solid earth observations can be made. There is a continuing need for flexible, highly capable research vessels to improve the current aging fleet. In addition, the development of robotic, autonomous undersea vessels will make exciting new discoveries possible. In the future, data from ocean sensors, undersea vehicles, and satellites can be combined with highly capable communications systems and computer models to assess the evolving daily state of ocean currents, temperature, nutrients, biota, ice, and air-sea fluxes. The overall system can then display for anyone, on the world wide web, accurate estimates of the present state of the ocean. The information can be put to practical use for such diverse purposes as improved weather prediction, safer offshore operations, better short-term climate forecasts (e.g. El Niño), and more successful management of living resources. The resulting system will be capable of providing as good an ongoing assessment of the ocean as is currently taken for granted for the atmosphere and land surfaces.
An increase in ocean drilling capability is needed to address a range of scientific problems that require sophisticated technologies for drilling deep holes and under difficult geological conditions. In addition, hundreds of shallower holes are needed to understand recent climate fluctuations and their regional variability. Taken together, these observations could generate a level of discovery and excitement similar to that produced by the best images from outer space.
The ocean sciences are at a critical point. Advances in technology and fundamental concepts have reached a point where substantial progress can be made on a number of societally important issues in the coming decades. Major improvements in understanding, use, and management of the ocean can now be expected if a genuine commitment is made to the required level of research effort.