The Largest Void on Earth?

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Science  07 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5672, pp. 795
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5672.795

A milestone in the effort to rationalize national policy on the oceans will be reached on 21 May 2004, when the comment period ends for 50 state governors who are reviewing the preliminary report by the United States Commission on Ocean Policy (

The report, released on 20 April, is the first comprehensive review of marine issues in more than 30 years, motivated by the recognition that our approaches to ocean policy are not working today. The report was mandated by Congress, with commission members appointed by the president. Some of the problems identified by the academic, governmental, and commercial constituents of the commission are neither new nor necessarily exclusive to the United States: overfishing, shoreline erosion, pollution, and harmful algal blooms. Others, such as dead zones and the introduction of invasive species, are growing in prominence. These problems, further compounded by a growing coastal population, call for new strategies and more and better information.

The main function of the report is to provide the missing strategies and policy framework for our national ocean agenda. From a scientific and research perspective, the report comes none too soon. The oceans cover 70% of Earth's surface, govern climate and weather variability, and provide most of the oxygen on the planet. Unfortunately, ocean research funding in the United States has not kept pace with demands for ocean knowledge. Europe now leads in important areas of climate research, Japan is building a research ship capable of drilling into and sampling the upper mantle, and South Korea is an emerging presence in the field of autonomous underwater vehicles.


The Commission on Ocean Policy not only recognizes the importance of enhancing the U.S. contribution to the international research and monitoring efforts directed at this global resource, but indicates that our lack of understanding of how the oceans specifically affect the United States (and vice versa) may underlie our largest policy void today. The preliminary report emphasizes research as the foundation of informed policy, as a prerequisite for improved prediction, and as the nursery for technical innovation that may yield commercial dividends. The recommendations therefore include a doubling of federal ocean and coastal research spending over the next 5 years to $1.3 billion per year, plus annual funding of $650 million to $750 million for an Integrated Ocean Observing System, a modernization fund for ships and infrastructure, and developing 5-year science plans for long-term advances in basic and applied ocean science and technology.

The proposed investment in ocean technologies is particularly essential, because it could put the U.S. research community within reach of meeting current challenges such as environmental prediction. Our ability to predict environmental change on the scale of hours to decades would not only help save lives but also billions of dollars in property and crop damages. Prediction about the ocean has been limited, in part, by a simple lack of data. We have seen that with the development of ocean observatories worldwide, this is beginning to change.

Born of advances in electronics, sensors, satellite communications, and battery endurance, observatories are platforms equipped with instruments that continually measure diverse properties of the sea in fair weather and foul. They float with currents, lie on the seabed, or hover in midwater or at the surface. Some are self-propelled robots that swim at sea for months and telemeter their data ashore. A network of such observatories will mean richer, more continuous data that will provide new understanding of conditions that affect fisheries and help track shifts in weather and long-term climate change. It will illuminate the migratory patterns of marine mammals, the reasons for drought or floods, and the fate and long-term effects of pollutants. It will immediately detect the occurrence of tsunamis, undersea earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and extreme weather at sea, improving prediction of their devastating effects at sea and ashore. For example, the economic value of accurate prediction of El Niño/Southern Oscillation phenomena to U.S. agriculture alone is estimated at half a billion dollars per year in improved cropping decisions.

If the commission's recommendations are upheld and these initiatives are undertaken, our country will be on a new course of not only understanding our oceans but in conserving, managing, and using them wisely.

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