The climate of the planet is changing and will continue to change in large and possibly unexpected ways over the coming decades and centuries. The role of the ocean in acting to moderate climate change by taking up both heat and carbon, and its physical and biogeochemical response as climate change continues, is consequential to how societies can plan to adapt to these changes. As discussed in the previous chapters, melting or dynamically unstable ice sheets provide an increasing source of fresh water input to the ocean and, among other impacts, raise global sea level. Yet key questions remain on how heat is distributed in the ocean, how carbon is exchanged with the atmosphere, and the impacts of more fresh water in the ocean. Natural climate variability, as represented in this report by the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, affects everything from monsoon strength in Asia to variations in mid-latitude storm tracks and winter weather. Sustained ocean observations are key to both understanding and improving natural climate predictability on seasonal-to-decadal timescales. Beyond climate, important decisions rest on improved understanding of the ocean to inform commercial activities such as fisheries management and coastal community planning. Sustained and expanded ocean observations are expected to continue to provide ancillary benefits such as improved ability to forecast and effectively respond to weather patterns.
The State of the Ocean Observing System: The committee has found that the current ocean climate observing system represents a significant scientific achievement that provides essential information for advancing our understanding of the climate system and other ocean processes and properties.
Finding: The current ocean observing system has made significant contributions to better understanding the ocean’s role in the Earth system, including its heat, carbon, and fresh water budgets, and to better understanding global and regional sea-level change. Sustaining, optimizing, and increasing ocean observing capability will further improve understanding of the ocean’s role in climate.
Finding: The ocean observing system contributes not only to our understanding of climate variability and change, but also to a wide variety of other services including weather and seasonal-to-interannual forecasting, living marine resource management, and marine navigation. This understanding of climate variability and change and other services underpins national defense, economic, and social policy decisions.
In assessing the current state of the ocean climate observing system and its expected evolution, the committee identified major challenges in sustaining ocean observing that guide the conclusions provided in this report:
- The issue of access within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) for deploying observing system elements, or for the drift of mobile platforms such as Argo floats, remains a challenge and can act as a disincentive to deployment in some regions of the global ocean. International coordination and cooperation for ocean observing has been otherwise effective.
- The absence of an overarching long-term (e.g., 10-year) national plan with associated resource commitments and lack of strong leadership presents a challenge for sustaining U.S. contributions to ocean observing, by inhibiting effective coordination and multiyear investments in the many components of the observing system. Observing the global ocean on timescales from seasons to a century involves multiple entities within and external to the federal government.
- The long-term investment required to develop and sustain the necessary expert workforce of the future is a challenge due to limited professional rewards or career incentives at research institutions and laboratories to ensure intergenerational succession of scientists, engineers, and technical staff. Success to date in the development, deployment, and operation of ocean observing infrastructure has been enabled by a relatively small but dedicated group of scientists, engineers, and technical staff that have devoted their careers to this activity, though the long-term nature of the research is typically not rewarded in the academic community.
- The limited investment in advancing technological capabilities is a challenge that, if addressed, will yield significant returns over the lifetime of sustained observing platforms through development of more robust and efficient sensors and platforms and through the maturation of observing methods to address existing and new scientific challenges. The ocean is vast and the operating environment is harsh. Much of the success to date rests on technology sponsored by the Department of Defense prior to the 1990s.
- The decreasing number of global and ocean class research vessels is creating a shortfall in the infrastructure required for sampling the global ocean and expanding data collection into poorly sampled regions such as the polar seas. Ships require long-term planning and investment, and maintenance of a capable fleet of research vessels is an essential component of the U.S. effort to sustain ocean observing.
As described in Chapter 3, countries with interest in ocean observing for climate and other purposes participate in coordination activities of the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) for climate observations and in the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) under the Framework for Ocean Observing. These efforts capture the needs of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for setting global climate mitigation and adaptation policies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for scientific assessments of the state of the climate and the expected changes for different development scenarios, and the Global Framework for Climate Services (GFCS) of the World Meteorological Organization for real-time information on climate variability and change as it pertains to regional climate phenomena such as El Niño. These efforts have been effective in identifying global priority ocean variables, establishing global ambition and plans, facilitating national resource mobilization, and harmonizing observing efforts among countries. The United States has been a leader and strong supporter of GCOS and GOOS, and, as seen in Table 2.1, has supported a substantial portion of the global system.
International Coordination and Prioritization of Ocean Observations: GOOS provides the framework under which nations can plan and prioritize their ocean observing activities. And, although GOOS does not provide a mechanism for sustaining national commitments, this international coordination and cooperation for ocean observing is generally considered to be effective.
Finding: GOOS efforts are effective at promoting international cooperation to sustain the ocean climate observing system. Its guiding document—Framework for Ocean Observing—and the associated procedures for
establishing priority observations (the Essential Ocean Variables) are constructive for defining ongoing requirements (precision, frequency, spatial resolution) for sustained ocean observations and provide a solid foundation for selecting and prioritizing ocean variables for sustained observing.
Since the early 1990s, the number of countries involved in ocean observing has increased due to the capacity-building efforts of the Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans and other ocean observing programs. The increased participation in conducting ocean observations and research adds to the value of the investments made by the United States in ocean observing.
Finding: Capacity building enhances international support for the sustained ocean observing system and is valuable for increasing international use of the information and sharing of observing responsibilities.
Much effort has gone into harmonizing investments of multiple countries but the committee has identified untapped opportunities for further international cooperation. Specific opportunities exist in sharing of large ocean observing infrastructure such a ships and moored platforms. Entities charged with coordinating ocean science nationally, such as the National Ocean Research Leadership Council (NORLC), can explore these opportunities.
Finding: Opportunities exist to increase the spatial coverage and multidisciplinary nature of sustained ocean observations through U.S./international (either bilateral or multilateral) coordination and sharing of resources.
Conclusion on International Cooperation: The Global Ocean Observing System organization has effectively engaged countries and built capacity for ocean climate observing. A challenge remains in obtaining global access to national EEZs for drifting platforms which could be addressed by NORLC.
SUSTAINING THE U.S. CONTRIBUTION
The United States has been a leader in national and international investments and cooperation that have created ongoing global observing programs for priority ocean climate variables. Federal agencies, academic institutions, and, more recently, philanthropic organizations have played roles in establishing and maintaining the U.S. contributions to the ocean observing system for climate. The private sector is increasingly becoming a key in the production of observing system components, an innovator of technology, and developer of data platforms. The committee carefully considered the central question of the appropriate roles of these sectors. Given the significant contribution of these observations to national security, the economic and social outcomes that span the nation, and the
intergovernmental negotiations, the committee found that the resources required for sustained observations are primarily a federal responsibility. Federal agencies have established observing programs, conducted research and development, and provided program management and financial support to academic institutions. Academic institutions have conducted basic research and technology development to bring observing programs to life and educated and sustained the requisite workforce. In recent years, the philanthropic sector has engaged in the support of ocean research and conservation, yet long-term observing is generally not funded by this sector. Federal funding has provided the vast majority of resources for climate/ocean observing to date but is subject to the annual fiscal cycle. Additionally, most academic projects are subject to 3- to 5-year funding cycles. This fundamental disconnect between short-term funding increments and the decadal commitment required for ocean climate observing requires ongoing education and awareness campaigns.
Further, the committee reviewed the past performance and future plans for sustaining ocean observations for climate and found ocean observing to be dependent on multiple federal agencies. There are two key legislative acts associated with ocean observing and interagency coordination mechanisms. The National Oceanographic Partnership Act created the National Ocean Partnership Program and NORLC to help foster coordination among federal ocean agencies. The Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observing System (ICOOS) Act of 2009 established the Interagency Ocean Observations Committee (IOOC) and seeks to promote a coordinated ocean observing system organized by federal agencies and nonfederal entities. Although the interagency bodies described above have responsibilities to coordinate activities associated with ocean climate observing, the committee has not been able to identify a clear leadership position for this intersection of ocean, climate, and observing although NORLC is the most likely. The NORLC could guide the development of a long-term plan and identify needed resources relying on the legislatively established IOOC focused on ocean observing and engaging the Ocean Research Advisory Panel (ORAP). Although there are active interagency coordination bodies, there is no long-term plan to guide development and establish investments in sustained ocean observing.
Sustaining the Ocean Observing System: The committee has found that the full value of ocean climate observations can only be realized through continuity of measurements to capture variability and change, and through a long-term commitment to observe processes on the extended time frames required to monitor variability and changes in the climate system.
Finding: The continuity of ocean observations is essential for gaining an accurate understanding of the climate. Funding mechanisms that rely on annual budget approval or short-term grants may result in discontinuity of
ocean climate measurements, reducing the value of the observations made to date and in the future.
Finding: To avoid data gaps and ensure the required data quality and the accessibility of the data for monitoring climate over decades, ocean observing initiatives will need to plan for the end-to-end scope of expenses associated with observing programs, including appropriate logistical planning and all processing including data analysis, data management, and scientific involvement.
The committee has concluded that a focus on both long-term planning and building partnerships across public, private, and academic sectors as described below would be beneficial in this context for sustaining U.S. ocean observing contributions and aligning them with the long-term observational priorities of GOOS. The first approach is the development of a process for creating a decadal plan for ocean observing.
Conclusion on Planning: Because of the extended time frame required for climate observations, a decadal plan for the U.S. ocean observing system would be the most effective approach for ensuring critical ocean information is available to understand future climate. Consistency of the decadal plan with the Framework for Ocean Observing would optimize U.S. investments relative to contributions of the international community, with plan updates likely required to align with international activities during the 10-year period. Elements of a decadal plan include identification of requirements, assessment of the adequacy of the current system, components to be deployed over the 10-year period, potential for technological advancements, and an estimate of resources necessary to implement the plan. The NORLC has the mandate under the ICOOS Act to oversee development and adoption of a long-term plan and NORLC could be responsible for its periodic assessment and update, possibly utilizing the IOOC and the ORAP. Progress in implementing the plan would depend on the engagement of the broader stakeholder community and coordination with international partners in the global ocean observing system.
A high-level federal coordinating body such as NORLC would be able to provide program oversight and prepare budgets for a successful observing system. A key role of this coordinating body would be sponsoring the development and periodic review/update of a long-term strategy with associated resources for sustaining ocean observations for understanding climate change. This long-term strategy and periodic assessment would engage a broad representation of experts and stakeholders through an existing advisory group such as the ORAP or a new mechanism. Ideally the advisory group would be engaged in regular strategic planning, supporting decadal surveys, and be available for rapid-response analy-
sis and decision making. This advisory group could also be charged by NORLC with periodic assessment of the effectiveness of the program and progress toward goals. Membership requirements would include a strong background in the science of ocean observing, oceans’ role in climate change, ocean modeling, program management, and knowledge of critical methods, techniques, platforms, and programs involved in ocean observing.
A key aspect of the planning and assessment process would be the identification of resources needed to sustain the ocean observing system. This would include the development of suggestions for possible best practices in budgeting given the existing disconnect between the decadal mission and the annual budget cycle. Planning and budgeting would cover the entire end-to-end system of ocean observing, from technology development to support for open data usage and access. A critical component for success of the ocean observing enterprise is the ongoing involvement of the scientific community in observing programs that are maintained over long time periods. However, there is not a standardized approach or coherent policy for ensuring the engagement of scientists throughout the evolution of systems from research to operations. This shortcoming could be addressed as part of the decadal plan described in “Conclusion on Planning.”
While philanthropic organizations are not currently inclined to commit to the direct sustainment of observations, they can play a key role in technology development, building global capacity, and other areas. The committee found genuine interest among foundation representatives in supporting the goal of long-term ocean observing to further understand climate change. Philanthropists may be able to contribute to long-term ocean observing to understand climate change through the endowment of faculty or senior graduate billets at academic institutions or through continuing support of training and technology development programs. Given an interest by foundations in supporting ocean conservation initiatives and the trend of flat or reduced federal funding, particularly for ocean observations linked to understanding climate change, there may be opportunities to seek philanthropic support for sustaining key ocean observations and observing capabilities.
Finding: Raising awareness of the importance and value of sustained ocean climate observations could increase support for the observing system from multiple sectors, including philanthropic organizations.
Ocean observations for climate are at the root of a value chain that provides broad social and economic benefits. For example, seasonal forecasts of great importance to the U.S. agricultural enterprise depend directly on these observations. Skillful seasonal forecasting ability has been monetized by weather and climate
companies that provide specialized services to businesses. Other companies (e.g., shipping, fisheries, insurance, and energy supply companies) benefit directly from these observations. Efforts could be made to entrain these commercial companies with the goal of gaining their support for the system. Types of support could range from advocacy for the system to federal decision makers or financial or in-kind support to accelerate technology improvements. The committee concludes that another effective approach for sustaining long-term ocean observations is the engagement of these partners.
Conclusion on Partnership: An Ocean-Climate Partnership (OCP) organization would be an effective mechanism to increase engagement and coordination of the ocean observation science community with non-nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, academia, U.S. federal agencies, and the commercial sector. Through their shared interests in the observational data and associated products, the OCP members could work together toward the goal of sustaining the ocean climate observing system.
The OCP’s mission would be to communicate the ocean climate observing system’s socioeconomic benefits to potential partners and policy makers with the goal of ensuring the long-term fiscal viability of the ocean observing enterprise. It would seek to demonstrate value for investment to federal funders and entrainment of nonfederal partners, including businesses and philanthropy to harmonize and leverage their contributions. The role of the OCP could be hosted in an existing entity, such as a nonprofit with experience conducting such activities.
Additional tasks of the OCP could include conceiving and seeking sponsorship of projects designed to
- Accelerate the implementation of new observing and data technologies, perhaps through prizes or a program modeled after the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) program directed at ocean technology;
- Support workforce development by attracting and training qualified personnel through the establishment of engagement workshops, internships, and postdoctoral programs, endowed faculty positions, national/international scientist exchanges, and international recognition and reward mechanisms;
- Contribute to efforts to build global capacity;
OCP member requirements would include a strong background in communication and science outreach, knowledge of the ocean observing system and goals, experience working with public–private partnerships, and experience working with philanthropic entities. The structure and responsibilities of this entity can be further explored through a potential second phase of this study.
DEVELOPING AND SUSTAINING THE FUTURE WORKFORCE
The key to maintaining climate-quality, long-term observing system elements is direct scientific involvement and oversight, including, where possible, involvement in actual operations of the observing programs by academic or government scientists. Successful sustained ocean observing in the United States has relied on human resources in the form of strong individual performers holding leadership and program-level positions supported by capable technical staff. This requires individuals dedicated for a decade or more to these observing programs. For individual scientists, starting up and implementing an ocean observation activity is time-consuming and may be difficult without substantial institutional support and guarantees for long-term funding. By its very nature, observational science typically requires some years of data collection before results are publishable and this can be out of line with traditional career-advancement metrics. This acts as a disincentive for early-career scientists contemplating participation in ocean observing activities beyond utilization of existing datasets.
Finding: Direct scientific involvement in sustained observing programs, from design to implementation to analysis, synthesis, and publication, ensures that the ocean observing system will be robust in terms of data quality, incorporation of new methods and technologies, and scientific analyses; all are essential elements for realizing the value of long-term, sustained observations.
One responsibility of the OCP would be to engage universities and sponsor activities to educate, attract, and retain the talent needed in sustained observations, whether carried out by government programs or within universities or the private sector. Institutions interested in retaining scientists engaged in ocean observing would need to recognize individual and team contributions to creating and sustaining observing programs that constitute original research, and reward them accordingly. This would help grow and maintain the ocean observing workforce.
Conclusion on Workforce: Direct scientific involvement in sustained observing programs, from design to implementation to analysis, synthesis, and publication, ensures that the ocean observing system will be robust in terms of data quality, incorporation of new methods and technologies, and scientific analyses. Thus, intergenerational succession of scientists is critical for sustaining the observations on climate timescales. The OCP could focus on improving career incentives for the scientific workforce as a priority.
The ocean observing enterprise is an end-to-end system that not only relies on ocean climate observing scientists, but also on the development of technologies by engineers, the deployment and maintenance of observing platforms from ships, and the management and application of the processed data. The ocean presents significant physical challenges for ocean observing technology, as outlined in Chapter 2. New sensors, materials, and battery technology and more efficient electronics would allow optimizing ocean observing. Further, key processes and variables, such as vertical mixing, could be routinely observed and new scientific challenges could be addressed if new sensors and methods were developed and taken to maturity. Yet, the committee perceives a decline in investments for new technology, particularly given an overall flattening of funding for ocean observing over the last decade. Improvements to current technology may extend the lifetime of observing system elements where appropriate. For example, with attention to battery technology, sensor stability, and care in production, Argo float lifetimes might be extended from about 4 years at present to at least 6.
Conclusion on Technology: Declining investments have slowed the development of new technology, which is proven to expand the capability, the efficiency, and therefore the capacity of the observing system. Philanthropic efforts have in part filled this gap and the OCP could encourage more support there.
THE RESEARCH FLEET
While improving current technologies and developing new ones, such as autonomous ocean-going vehicles, holds promise for increasing the efficiency of observing system operations, ships and, in particular, global and ocean class vessels will continue to be required to deploy and maintain ocean observing platforms. These vessels are indispensable to the ocean observing system, providing direct observations and deployments of moored and drifting instruments. While there is a need to regularly evaluate the substantial investments made in research vessels and determine the “right size” of the fleet for contemporary research needs, it is vital to continuously consider the importance of global and ocean class vessels for ocean observing. The committee shared the concern motivating recommendation 5 of the NRC report, Sea Change: 2015-2025 Decadal Survey of Ocean Sciences (NRC, 2015): “NSF should reconsider whether the current RCRV [Regional Class Research Vessel] design is aligned with scientific needs and is cost-effective in terms of long-term O&M [operations and maintenance], and should plan to build no more than two RCRVs.” The committee also supports the plan for two new NOAA vessels capable of conducting ocean monitoring (NOAA, 2016b).
Conclusion on the Research Fleet: While new technology holds promise for access to the ocean, a capable fleet of research vessels, including those with global reach, is essential to sustaining the U.S. contribution to ocean observing.
POTENTIAL NEW MODELS OF SUPPORT FOR SUSTAINED OCEAN OBSERVING
This report identifies the many benefits of sustaining and growing the capabilities of the global ocean observing system to advance climate science and improve capabilities to anticipate changes critical for decisions on mitigating and adapting to climate change. Because ocean climate data are needed to inform national security, economic, and societal decisions on climate change and other ocean-related issues and given the intergovernmental negotiations required for participating in a global system, responsibility for supporting the ocean observing system falls predominantly on the federal government in the United States. However, limited funding means there is a need to prioritize efforts and increase the efficiency of existing operations. In addition to prioritizing limited government spending, there is also an opportunity to create new models for partnerships of the government with the private and nonprofit sectors in order to accomplish shared goals for ocean observing and research.
A potential second phase of this study is a workshop to explore new models for sustaining ocean observations. The workshop could discuss a full range of potential options for aligning resources and governance structures to ensure continuity and quality of the most critical ocean climate observations over the long term. The workshop could include discussion of governance issues such as scientific oversight, coordination with U.S. and international observing initiatives, and multiyear financing structures. Opportunities for leveraging private and philanthropic support within these government structures would also be important to explore.
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