In This Issue
Fall Bridge on Ocean Exploration and its Engineering Challenges
September 18, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 3
This issue is dedicated to the engineering methods used to enhance understanding of the world’s oceans.

America's Ocean Observations: A Perspective

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Author: Paul G. Gaffney II

America is the greatest maritime nation, a nation whose place in the middle of the global ocean system has enabled prosperous trade and a unique security situation. Yet that ocean system is still largely unexplored, under-surveyed, and sparsely observed. A world power unavoidably dependent on the ocean still does not understand the oceans’ full range of opportunities and dangers.

This paper concerns exploration, surveys, and observations: collecting measurements (data) to equally advance commercial, security, conservation, and science decision making. Along the way, I offer points to consider for future endeavors.

Nearly Two Centuries Preparing

The US Ex Ex,” a creation of Congress (PL 24-24), a voyage of ocean discovery 175 years ago, was a deliberate step by a tentative nation with an eye on becoming a world power. A six Navy ship flotilla, with 346 military and civilian scientists, was charged to explore the vast Pacific, north and south. Called “The US Exploring Expedition,” it sought to discover the natural characteristics of the Pacific, extend US presence by connecting to new -peoples, and collect data useful to US seaborne commerce and naval operations.

The notion to explore, survey, and observe was the happy result of a decade-long bureaucratic campaign involving both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Lobbying for the expedition started in Congress and was endorsed by President John Quincy Adams, but finally got under way in the presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren (delays were not new then, nor are they now) (Philbrick 2004). This national expedition brought together scientists, the Navy, culturists, those interested in foreign affairs, and the interests of commerce.

In the early 20th century, thanks in part to the invention of the sonic depth finder—the first fathometer and precursor to sonar, developed by the Naval Research Laboratory’s Harvey C. Hayes—others saw the opportunity to explore, survey, and observe again, together. Two geology professors (William H. Hobbs, University of -Michigan, and William M. Davis, emeritus at Harvard), Navy physicist Hayes, Yale professor Herbert E. -Gregory, and others thought of other joint surveys enabled by Navy ships and instruments. An initial Pacific exploratory survey occurred, but all wanted a larger and more enduring expedition plan. The then assistant secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (son of the president), gave enthusiastic support for such campaigns. The idea had life in the early to mid-1920s, only to fall victim to budget pressures (Weir 2001). Nevertheless, its planning was another example of leaders in physical oceanography, geology, biology, national security, and commerce coming together to form an ocean campaign in which all would contribute and all would benefit.

The Navy continued to explore, survey, and observe to support its own missions, especially to gain and retain undersea superiority during World War II and the Cold War. Its investments gave birth to several of the great US academic oceanographic centers. Its deep ocean, -acoustic-focused oceanography data collection efforts shifted to more complex shallower water research as the Cold War subsided and issues like mine warfare and -coastal special operations took on new priorities. Today, there is a new oceanography and acoustic -urgency spurred by the Chief of Naval Operations himself -(Nicholas 2017).

In addition to the Navy, a number of federal entities as well as independent groups and business leaders, philanthropists, and venture capitalists have led efforts to enhance knowledge of the ocean.

The National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) has provided continuous, global coverage of the ocean surface at many wavelengths and inferred information about the shape of the ocean bottom.

In 1970 Robert M. White, the first National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) administrator (and subsequent NAE president), brought together fisheries, weather, charting, oceanography, ocean management, and much more in America’s lead federal ocean agency.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the US Geological Survey (USGS) have been significant gatherers of new information about the ocean, with principal interest in US resources in/near our exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Outer Continental Shelf.

The National Science Foundation today is the largest federal investor in ocean science.

There are still more agencies with interest: the Army Corps of Engineers, the departments of Energy, Homeland Security (with its US Coast Guard), Transportation, and State and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Now business leaders/philanthropists are stepping in, running ships that explore, survey, and observe. Just review the at-sea science accomplishments of the Schmidt family and Messrs. Dalio, Allen, and -Cameron. Venture capitalists too are wetting their toes in ocean technologies. What a grand new complement to a historic government sponsorship monopoly in ocean science.

The Oceans Act of 2000 enabled a federal study on national ocean matters, authorizing the bipartisan US Commission on Ocean Policy (USCOP). The Pew Charitable Trusts chartered a parallel, but wholly independent, Pew Oceans Commission to study the same ocean issues. Rigorous efforts were made to ensure the independence of the two commissions. In the end, they validated each other by essentially recommending the same actions, with 80 percent or more con-gruity between the two reports (Pew Oceans Commission 2003; USCOP 2004).

The USCOP started with a simple philosophy: credible ocean information should inform policy. It is logical that its most prominent theme was the value of ocean observations—getting the data needed to understand the ocean so that reasonable policies could be made. Perhaps because it was written in Washington, its opening section laid out recommendations for a structure to bring more of the agencies together to do important work in the ocean. The ocean campaigns in America’s first two centuries had relied more on dazzling leadership and persistence.

Explore, Survey, and Observe

Oceanographers at sea explore, survey, and observe. These words, used separately, are found in federal budget documents. It is critical to bow to the line item descriptor if funding is expected, but it can set up silos that may not be entirely helpful. Generally, the ocean community uses the same talent, instruments, and processes to explore, to survey, or to observe.

This point was reflected in the work of one of the founders of the national ocean program, Roger Revelle. His incredibly influential role in the Navy in World War II and in helping to establish the principles of the Office of Naval Research at the end of the war showed the value of military and civilian cooperation in oceanography (Hlebica 2003).

Dr. Revelle used information gathered for either military use or civilian discovery, and he saw the value of exchanging that information. He could put together operational readings from a comprehensive, systematic survey with data collected from an exploration expedition with regular, repeated observations. When I spoke about him in 2009 for the 100th anniversary of his birth, I noted that he set an important example of the great value in any information source (military or civilian) of any type, from one-time, one-spot exploration to geographically complete baseline surveys to long-time-series observations of places or cubes in the ocean.[1]

More recently another astute, but rather new student of the ocean, Ambassador Cameron Hume (2016), wrote a piece for the National Ocean Exploration Forum (NOEF) that captured this same idea. He warned that the public does not understand or need to understand the difference between exploration and observation.

America has the second largest EEZ (after France): these submerged land holdings—roughly 3 billion acres—are equivalent in surface area to the country’s land holdings. Yet, pick your ocean champion or alarmist, each will tell you very little has been characterized and even less observed over long time frames—less than 10 percent. Moreover, scientists would like to understand the whole ocean, not just that which contains American-owned resources.

Yes, too, absolutely, a globally ranging US Navy must understand the physical, geophysical, chemical, biological, and acoustical variability of the ocean, everywhere, all the time, to retain its undersea superiority.

In an enlightened decision, in the mid- to late 1990s, the Navy decided to make much of its previously -unreleased ocean data available to civil researchers. It was done carefully with rigorous review to ensure that security would not be compromised. At the time, there was a national program called MEDEA whose principal task was to determine whether data collected or held by the national security community could be helpful to civilian scientists wrestling with global-scale environmental challenges (e.g., forest fire detection, pollution, climate variability). The Navy played a big role in MEDEA and even led an effort for US (Navy and NOAA) and -Russian (Navy) Arctic data to be safely shared and merged into an atlas.

Point 1: It is a big US ocean, it is a bigger -global ocean. There is too little baseline or regularly collected information, information so necessary to create understanding and policy. Let’s get data from any source, of any type, regardless of budget line item descriptor, regardless of the explorer’s, surveyor’s, or observer’s organizational affiliation. We cannot afford to be picky.

The American Campaign: New Efforts

NOEF 2016 and similar events started just a few years ago thanks to congressional direction in PL 111-11,[2] which called for ocean explorers to come together regularly to better coordinate national tasks. The 2016 forum had two themes: campaign planning and doing more without absolute reliance on the few dedicated exploration vessels (Ausubel and Gaffney 2017).

The “US Ex Ex” and later expeditions showed that oceanographic campaigns could be organized and gain support. They had many partners, the data to be collected were for several reasons, different types of observations would be made, and joint advocacy and planning were apparent.

A slightly different kind of campaign, equally successful, was concocted in a little room at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in 1996. Fred Grassle, then of Rutgers University, and Jesse -Ausubel, then of the Sloan Foundation and Rockefeller University, dreamed of a multiyear, multiparticipant, international and global census of life in the ocean, aptly called the Census of Marine Life (CoML; Their dream came true during the decade 2000–10.

CoML was a coalition effort, a campaign. Many methods of discovering marine life were used, and ancillary oceanographic data from the waters surrounding the creatures were discovered. And, like Wilkes, Hayes, Hobbs, Revelle, and other predecessors, Ausubel and Grassle were indefatigable champions.

In 2017 NOAA (as principal funding sponsor and leader), the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), the Navy, and the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s exploration vessel Falkor completed their first designed-from-scratch exploration campaign of parts of the central and eastern Pacific. The mission, which included deep sea mapping and close-up video inspection of specific deep ocean features (geological and living), gathered data for navigation safety, fisheries management, and archaeological priorities (Bell et al. 2017).

NOAA, with support for USGS and BOEM, has been planning and is currently executing an ocean exploration off the Southeast US coast. It will use various platforms including its own dedicated ocean exploration vessel, Okeanos Explorer. The campaign will map extensively and characterize ocean bottom geology and deep marine life habitats (USGS 2017).

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s (NASEM) Gulf Research Program is making solicitations for a decadal campaign to better understand the physical processes of the Gulf Loop Current system to improve forecasting (NASEM 2018). Core funding will come from NASEM-held penalty monies from the Deepwater Horizon incident, not from federal agencies. But strong emphasis in the planning, and in successful proposals, will be on partnerships among principal investigators (when selected) and with federal agencies and international colleagues. The campaign will also feature spot exploration, systematic survey, and long-time-series observational components.

Point 2: It is a big ocean, insufficiently understood, expensively measured. Campaigns that bring together several funding or other types of sponsorship (ships, data centers, instruments, talent) and plan to gather many types of data during those expensive days at sea make sense. There are models for success. A charismatic leader helps.

The Future Is within Reach

Measurements are nonpartisan: they serve civil and military, research and operational needs. Observations are necessary in the 3 billion acres of US undersea “lands” and in the broad oceans that both connect and insulate America. Tools are at hand to do the work needed to advance knowledge of the oceans.

Measurements at Sea and Modeling

The observations collected must be analyzed, -quality controlled, and archived. Their numerical -values are then assimilated for insertion in models, which are continuously updated in their physics and their -mathematical techniques.

None of this is cheap, but most costly is going to sea or launching and operating an ocean instrument from space. Observing is so “not cheap” that the temptation exists to cut back on at-sea observing infrastructure, even autonomous observing. If the job is nearly done, then yes, cut back. But the job is not even 10 percent done.

If ocean science cheats on observations it becomes “cubicle science” carried out in 10' × 10' × 10' rooms on laptops where just a few bits of data can be inserted in a model and, voila, a new result. But is it a better result?

The ability to use sophisticated computation in the ocean sciences is as revolutionary in our lifetime as satellite observations, multibeam sonar, and autonomous vehicles. But the need to feed the beast has not diminished. The brilliant and exceptionally polite Walter Munk is quoted: “I’m a little worried about so many people doing computer experiments and losing their ability, the American leadership, in measurements at sea” (Galbraith 2015). The community and its sponsors must commit to a balanced measurement-model path.

At the 2016 NOEF, it was noted that the distinction between exploration and observing is smudged. The forum championed campaigns and organized its working sessions around basin campaigns. As important was that ocean exploration and observing no longer had to be confined to dedicated single-purpose exploration -vessels, of which there are very few (Ausubel and -Gaffney 2017).

Fortunately, decades of federal investment in the great academic ocean centers spawned new autonomous devices, now commercialized.

  • The Navy is purchasing over 100 gliders, from businesses, to deploy worldwide.
  • Recently, WHOI discovered a deep wreck off -Colombia with a completely autonomous bottom mapping/imaging vehicle (the Remus 6000).
  • OET is complementing its exploration vessel -Nautilus with a “flyaway” remotely operated vehicle (ROV) system that can be put on any moderately sized oceanographic vessel or offshore support ship, -anywhere.

Such autonomy and agility increase the aperture to observe, without increasing the number of ships or people at sea.

Speaking of people at sea, OET and NOAA (through the Inner Space Center that it sponsors at University of Rhode Island) can connect the few oceanographers at sea in real time to the many scientists (and the public) ashore. This telepresence concept is well proven and will likely advance as commercial digital communications improve. It yields more exposure to the sea, with only marginal new cost.

Point 3: “Flyaway” ROV systems, gliders, autonomous undersea vehicles, and even autonomous surface vehicles enable more exploration, surveys, and observations with less reliance on -classic, -single-mission oceanographic ships. And the oceanographic ships that continue in service will have a much wider aperture.

Passive Acoustics: An Oceanographic Tool, Again

Navies always have focused on the relationship between the dynamic ocean and acoustic paths. Acoustic sensors are critical in undersea warfare. Navies have collected acoustic data in key parts of the world at many frequencies to understand the ambient soundscape. Some would argue that US Navy investment drooped at the end of the Cold War. This is a concern. Fortunately, several NAE acousticians are advising on the Navy’s acoustic future in the Navy’s Task Force Ocean study.

New acoustics challenges rose in the 1980s related to perceived impacts of manmade noise on marine life. Books and court transcripts chronicle the debate between those who worry about these perceived impacts and the scientists who use acoustic energy in geo-physical investigations, industry that uses sound for initial prospecting or renewable energy site construction, and navies that emit sound to prevail in serious undersea “cat and mouse” games.

Passive acoustic sensing is not controversial. Some trade routes and enterprises have shifted since the Cold War. Should we not measure chronic sound changes associated with those shifts? Navies need to know if there are new ambient noise patterns. So too the diligent conservation community will be better off if armed with facts about changing noise patterns: frequencies, source levels, and areas.

Long-time-series listening to a broad range of -frequencies—near a reef system, for example—can help map baseline biodiversity and changes to that activity over time. This could be a complementary follow-on to the successful CoML.

Several experiments, like the current National Ocean Partnership Program–funded ADEON (Atlantic Deep-water Ecosystem Observatory Network) expedition, match up oceanographic conditions, passive acoustic recordings, and marine life observations (Miksis-Olds et al. 2018). Others use acoustics to gain rainfall-at-sea data. Wonderful.

Could oceanography sponsors devise similar experiments in key places over a very long time series? There are many moorings that could host passive sensors. The famous Navy underwater listening system, called -SOSUS, at one time could have been part of such a plan. That opportunity has passed. Nevertheless, the Navy is using passive acoustics to create soundscapes in some training areas to make responsible decisions about sonar emissions when whales might be lurking. Biologists should soon find passive acoustics observation investments very useful as well.

Point 4: It is time to renew the nation’s commitment to passive acoustic sensing. It is a trusted tool, useful in new ways and in new places.

Tracking Marine Life: eDNA

Have whales returned to the “dirty” and “noisy” New York Harbor? That busy thoroughfare has oft been characterized as polluted and the New York–New Jersey maritime roads are bustling with ships putting noise in the water.

Yet progress has also been reported. Whales have been spotted under the George Washington Bridge. But what about other species interesting to recreational fishermen, commercial sea harvesters, and sentries who watch out for biodiversity or invasive species?

A new tool is available. From simple collections of water samples, observers can strain free-floating DNA, called environmental or extracellular DNA (eDNA). After it is analyzed and compared to an expanding DNA reference library one can say that X fish or Y marine mammal passed this way. This technique to spot a particularly delicious fish or a dreaded invasive species is useful to all kinds of decision makers as an alert. The work of Mark Stoeckle in and around New York City shows the possibilities in this new observation (Stoeckle et al. 2017). Perhaps whole volumes of water in interesting areas can be categorized, by season, poststorm, post–oil spill, post-anything.

Perhaps passive acoustic information and eDNA collections together can more assuredly determine how marine life and humanity can best live together . . .  with fewer partisan or legal arguments. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s ocean biologists at the New York Aquarium, led by Howard Rosenbaum, are discussing such a campaign with regional colleagues.

Point 5: In laboratories from New York–New Jersey to Monterey Bay to Seattle to those abroad, marine eDNA is an emerging observation concept that can lead to a more complete understanding of the ocean.


America is unique in that she sits among the great oceans. Her prosperity and safety can be linked directly to the “greatest maritime nation” label. As populations migrate closer to the ocean edge and increasingly rely on the ocean, they will need to understand more than 10 percent of the surrounding wet space. Thus, the need to explore, survey, and observe grows. A day at sea is always expensive, but campaigning together is naturally synergistic. Opening the observing aperture to more off-board collection devices relieves the oceanographer of the burden of too few dedicated, special-purpose ships. Finally, new and renewed techniques are opportunities to understand that are not to be missed.

Measurements are nonpartisan: they serve civil and military, research and operational needs. The Trump Ocean Policy Executive Order (Trump 2018) has its advocates and critics, but its data-centric theme should inspire explorers, surveyors, and observers to make their case to do more, now.


The author is indebted to Jesse Ausubel, director, Program for Human Environment, Rockefeller University, and Tony MacDonald, director, Urban Coast Institute, Monmouth University, for advancing the themes discussed in this paper, and to Cameron Fletcher for skillful and patient editing.


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[1]  The centennial symposium, held March 6, 2009, was organized by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Video of my remarks is available at

[2]  The 2009 law is available at pdf.

About the Author:Paul Gaffney (NAE) is a retired Navy Vice Admiral, former Chief of Naval Research, and president emeritus of Monmouth University, and he was a full-term member of the US Commission on Ocean Policy.