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NSF & Congress


Dr. Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
Director Designate
National Science Foundation

Before the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans
July 30, 1998

Chairman Saxton and members of the committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify today on the important topic of ocean monitoring and assessment. This is my first hearing as Director of the National Science Foundation, and I look forward to many more opportunities to keep Congress apprised of the important research and educational activities that we support.

I am pleased to report to you that the National Science Foundation plays a substantial and critical role in the design and development of the Nation's oceanographic monitoring and assessment capabilities. We can identify a number of areas within which significant progress has been made in recent years, and in the few minutes available I will summarize for you some important successes.

The contribution that NSF-supported researchers make to ocean monitoring is fundamental. Effective and efficient oceanographic observation systems cannot be designed without knowledge of the active processes that they are intended to monitor. One exciting theme emerging from the past decade of ocean sciences research is the degree of complexity and variability of the oceans physical, chemical and biological processes, frequently on spatial scales of as little as half a mile. It is clearly impossible to monitor anything other than the surface of the global ocean (or even coastal waters) with such minute spatial resolution. Therefore, it is essential to understand the underlying processes sufficiently well so a small number of key observations can be identified that reliably tell us how the system changes over time. Only with an understanding of the process can we make good decisions about what measurements will best characterize changes in the ocean, and, most importantly, how many measurements are required, and where they should be located.

The NSF-funded Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program focused on the physical processes occurring in the tropical ocean and atmosphere. The result was a recognition of the forces underlying the El Niño phenomenon, which in turn led to the design and deployment of the existing El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) observing system. The classic example is the array of buoys maintained by NOAA in the equatorial Pacific. This array is proving to be a powerful predictor of El Niño events. A small number of buoys, only 70 in total, in conjunction with satellite remote sensing methods is sufficient to monitor a vast area of the tropical Pacific Ocean. This capability was made possible by the basic research carried out by NSF-supported investigators cooperating with NOAA, NASA and international scientists in the early 1980's on the Tropical Ocean Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program

In addition to the complexity and variability of the oceans, a monitoring strategy must recognize the intimate links that exist between the chemical, physical and biological changes that we are witnessing. Today we know that it is impossible to understand the dramatic fluctuations in fish populations on the Georges Bank, for example, without understanding subsurface current systems that control dispersal of fish larvae. We cannot understand the development and distribution of plankton in the ocean (a primary food source) without understanding the chemistry of the ocean. The "blooms" of plankton in the ocean depend on availability of nutrients, including micronutrients such as inorganic elements and vitamins.

Clearly, monitoring the ocean must be a multidisciplinary activity because of the interconnected physical, chemical and biological processes that control the health of the oceans. Support of those activities require inter-agency cooperation and partnerships.

One helpful way of categorizing the measurements that need to be made to monitor the oceans is to consider the following three overlapping classes:

  • First, we need sustained time-series monitoring that provides data useful perhaps decades from now to detect subtle changes in the chemical, biological and physical characteristics of our oceans. These measurements provide the early-warning of changes in our earth system.

  • Second, we need selected long-term observations that allow us to predict changes in our oceans and weather systems and thereby alleviate negative impacts -- unquestionably this year's El Niño activity is a clear example of this. The real time experiments and the predictive capacity they provided gave us some extraordinary new insights on climate and health.

  • Lastly we need measurements, observations and experiments to help us understand the dynamic processes -- physical, chemical and biological -- that are responsible for the changes, that are the root cause of all the changes that occur -- the understanding of which is essential to any capability for skilled prediction. It is the interactions of these processes that provide the elegant complexity that sustains both human and environmental health.

There is an intriguing shift that is slowly occurring in the emphasis of oceanographic research. Two decades ago the most exciting and unexpected discoveries occurred because researchers traveled to new locations in the oceans -- this is the traditional mode of 'exploring'. However, today many of the biggest surprises are coming from measurements made at the same location but over long periods of time. It is the dynamics of the earth that is opening up many of the most intriguing secrets. Today oceanographers are becoming more explorers in time, as well as explorers in space, an important phenomenon of the science in this area of study.

It is in the process-oriented category of monitoring and observation that NSF is vitally active, and I am pleased to report that we are involved in a remarkably diverse and exciting set of projects. I have sufficient time here to describe only a few representative examples.

  • The ocean moderates how rapidly the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is increasing. We are just finishing the fourth regional experiment of the Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) to trace the organic and inorganic pathways of carbon through the ocean. The goal is to learn how carbon dioxide cycles through the Earth system. The Southern Ocean experiment followed those in the North Atlantic, the Equatorial Pacific and Arabian Sea. The processes of these unique regions will be combined into a global model that will allow us to better predict, for example, future climate change.

  • This past winter, a team of researchers has lived on an icebreaker that is frozen into the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, drifting with the ice floes as a floating science station. The project is part of a set of activities, taking place under the US Global Change Research program, known as SHEBA (Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean), which pulls together data and information on how the sun, clouds, air, ice, and ocean interact and affect the annual melting and refreezing of the Arctic ice cap. This has long been a major uncertainty in climate models, and the SHEBA project has already helped to improve our understanding of climate change.

  • Although the unique biological communities associated with ocean floor hydrothermal sites have been known for more than two decades, new organisms are still being discovered and the evolution-with-time of these sites is being explored -- they are severely affected by volcanic eruptions on the ocean floor but re-establish themselves with remarkable rapidity. NSF-funded repeat visits by both manned submersibles and remotely operated vehicles to ocean depths of 12,000 feet and more are providing these remarkable observations.

  • We recognize the need for long term continuous observations on the ocean floor (not just repeat visits once every few months), and it is indeed a challenge to devise approaches to this that are reliable, flexible and affordable. We are heavily involved in three particularly exciting pilot projects: two that use fiber optic cables (a volcano observatory off the island of Hawaii, and a coastal monitoring site off New Jersey) and a third located in mid-Pacific between Hawaii and California that will use an abandoned ocean floor telephone cable thousands of miles long to provide real-time access to an earthquake monitoring station and other sensors.

This scientific research can help us learn how to monitor changes on the ocean floor, and satellite remote sensing is a uniquely powerful approach to global observations of the sea surface. But how can we keep track of what is going on in the miles of ocean that exists in between? This is a realm in which we have seen some of the most remarkable innovation over the past five years fueled primarily by the needs of the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE).

As I present this to you this morning there are approximately 500 robotic vehicles distributed over the thousands of square miles of the north Atlantic oceans, drifting along with the ocean currents over half a mile beneath the surface. Approximately every two weeks each of these small instruments rises to the surface collecting data (temperature and salinity) as it moves to the sea surface, and then via satellite, telemeters these data as well as its position to investigators on shore. After being on the surface for about a day, they sink back down to their profiling depth of about half a mile and then repeat the cycle month after month after month. These robot floats, called PALACE (Profiling Autonomous Lagrangian Circulation Explorer) floats, are for the first time providing physical oceanographers with a real time synoptic view of ocean dynamics.

Technological innovation is changing the way we do oceanography --permanent seafloor observatories, new optical and acoustic imaging methods, long-term moorings, deep-diving manned submersibles, satellite communications, robotic vehicles, -- all are mechanisms for discovery that NSF supports as part of the revolution in the way we observe our planet's oceans.

We are in a time of rich opportunity for research in oceanography. As new observation systems are implemented we will learn ever more about the changes that are occurring on our planet on time scales of days, years, decades and centuries. Hurricanes, droughts, floods, destruction of coral reefs, coastal erosion, climate change, El Niños, fisheries, human health -- all are phenomena that are affected by, and in some cases, controlled by the oceans.

US investigators in our nation's universities and oceanographic institutions are the world leaders. We do not lack for talent, or ideas or plans. If NSF can provide its community of researchers with adequate resources, as requested by the President in his 1999 budget, then a spectacular future of continuing new discovery and understanding is assured, that will build the intellectual foundation, and provide the knowledge of the ongoing processes, that is essential to the design of an effective ocean monitoring system.

Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to share with you and the members of your committee the exciting research being supported by NSF. I would be pleased to respond to any questions that you might have.