Ocean Exploration: A Supply Demand Mismatch - Editorial by VADM Paul Gaffney USN (Ret)
10/26/2016 12:00:00 AM
Demand is up; supply is down. We are talking about Ocean Exploration; the simple characterization of a cube of ocean for the first time. In recent months the President rocketed the size of the marine sanctuary that heads out northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. A few weeks later he designated a new marine sanctuary off New England. Both will now demand some sort of comprehensive characterization; ocean exploration campaigns.
Meanwhile, NOAA, in issuing a draft Environmental Impact Statement, has asked for public comment on options to expand, eastward, the Flower Garden Banks marine sanctuary in the northern Gulf of Mexico. New demand.
Logically, exploring an ocean area precedes designating it for protection. Such has rarely been the case, but the nation should take the area seriously once designated and characterize it better.
It just makes sense to learn about the living and mineral resources that make our sanctuaries their home. And for the appetite of the public and for the further edification of American historians and archeologists, America might make a few excursions to investigate wrecks and evidence of submerged human cultures in these areas, as well.
In one week in October, leading up to the National Ocean Exploration Forum, nearly 300 news stories about recent American ocean exploration discoveries earned time and space in the media in 36 countries. Some reporters seized on strange new “ purple” creatures discovered for the first time, but nearly all wrote about the 500 new methane seeps fizzing from seafloor along the US West Coast. Those discoveries inspired renewed interest in natural oceanic methane releases into the atmosphere – oh no, another greenhouse gas! And, the speculation that if these gigantic pools of gas in the ocean sediments could be accurately located and then safely captured there would be an energy source for America for centuries; cleaner than coal or oil.
Where exactly does the methane seep, how do we best find seeps, how deep are they and what happens to the methane as it bubbles up toward the surface? Exploration demands -- demands likely to increase as the USGS and NOAA start a campaign to explore the continental slope and its canyons off the US Southeast coast over the next few years.
Then there is the Arctic. Scientists and politicians are currently focused on the great variability of ice cover and the changing ocean below it. It makes sense to measure the change. But picking the right spot to make long-term measurements is crucial, because, conditions in the Arctic are harsh thereby requiring that the few measurement sites that we can afford are the right spots. Priority exploration campaigns in the Arctic will help us identify the best places for longer-term measurements.
A compelling paper2 written for the Forum pointed out how little we know about the minerals in the sea – e.g., seafloor massive sulfide (SMS) deposits. Is there a national demand to explore for these resources? Other nations have recognized the demand.
At the end of October, The Rockefeller University and Monmouth University convened the fourth National Ocean Exploration Forum, in New York City, on the venerable Upper East Side Rockefeller campus. One-hundred top explorers, scientists, industrialists, public and private funders, NGO representatives and diplomats came together to talk about emerging technologies for exploration in the next 5-10 years. They foresee a fast-evolving cluster of technologies including: autonomous surface vehicles that deploy sensors, AUVs and even ROVs; to swarms of disposable “rubber ducks” and drifting buoys; to passive acoustic methods to sense biodiversity; to better connectivity between all oceanographic ships and scientists and the public ashore and to modular fly-away sets of exploration tools to be used on “mudboats” and other atypical ships. There was much more.
The point: we can explore the ocean in more ways, covering more territory, more comprehensively, affordably. Supply can then increase and better match demand. That likely does not mean just building new dedicated exploration vessels. We have other, better ways to augment traditional exploration.
Through technology America can lift its exploration supply to match the demand and discover America’s submerged territory. Much of it for the first time: the dry 50% of America is largely explored; the 50% that we own below sea level is largely unexplored.
The supply to meet the demand is technologically within reach. The national commitment to align supply with a demand has lagged. A new Administration may want to know what natural resources America owns and which of those it wants to use, sustain or mange. The demand is high. The supply is low. Small investments can help the market to clear and thrill Americans and the world.
1Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney USN (Ret.) is President Emeritus, Monmouth University and chairs the national Ocean Exploration Advisory Board. He co-convened the National Ocean Exploration Forum in October 2016 with Professor Jesse Ausubel, Rockefeller University.
2 A Discussion Paper on Marine Minerals by Mark Hannington and Sven Petersen, October 20, 2016, for the National Ocean Exploration Forum 2016.