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January 2017 Issue

Enhancing Environmental Information
For Our Oceans and Our Nation

By Manson K. Brown
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for
Environmental Observation and Prediction,
Deputy Administrator, NOAA

Never before has there been a greater need to understand our planet and to help communities anticipate and respond effectively to change. From more intense storms and sea level rise to increased coastal development and fast-accelerating demands on coastal resources, the future holds steep challenges to our nation’s safety, security and economic and environmental resilience. The good news is that the U.S.’s $7 billion annual ocean enterprise is on the front lines of tackling such challenges with inspired and innovative solutions. Effectively addressing these challenges requires the actionable information essential to protect lives and livelihoods, safeguard the environment and ensure that America’s economy has a competitive edge. Environmental observations are indispensable to gathering this information, and they have infused NOAA’s DNA from the start. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to investigate geography, weather and soil in their explorations of the new West. They returned with maps, sketches and journals, early bits of environmental information that helped shape President Jefferson’s vision of an emerging America. In 1807, he signed a bill creating the “Survey of the Coast” to chart America’s waters. In 1970, this agency evolved to become a North Star of the newly established NOAA.

Extraordinary Progression of Environmental Observations
Environmental observations have progressed in extraordinary ways ever since, from the Survey of the Coast’s still-current charting mission to the remarkable capabilities of NOAA ships, planes, buoys, tide gauges, weather balloons, gliders, satellites and autonomous aerial and undersea craft, among many other tools. With observing systems, we can sense from the surface of the sun to the depths of the sea, and across the electromagnetic spectrum. We can count the largest whales and the smallest elementary particles. NOAA’s environmental observations enable collection of the timely, practical, reliable data essential to making informed decisions about weather, climate, fisheries and ocean and coastal conditions. They enable us to view Earth with a wide lens, yielding a highly integrated look that lets us consider community resilience rather than solely improving forecasts or assessing fish stocks. We can now plan for social, economic and ecological resilience.

Smart investments in monitoring and observations are revolutionizing the capabilities to build this resilience. With the dedicated talents of many partners, NOAA has achieved several recent advances.

Sustained Arctic observing is critical, as climate change is happening twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere. As sea levels and extreme weather increase and the oceans grow more acidified, there’s a global urgency for predictive models to prepare for these changes.

In this harsh environment, the whole picture must be seen, and NOAA scientists are developing under-ice moorings, profiling drones and other autonomous systems to support new models.

“Robotic oceanographers” in the deep sea are beginning to provide long-term ocean and salinity measurements 6,000 m below the surface. Until now, these deeper waters have been difficult to measure. The “Deep Argo” floats add to the Argo array deployed by a NOAA-led, 30-nation consortium, which has revealed important new ocean, weather and climate data down to 2,000 m.

Vital new applications for unmanned systems are providing fresh insights into the reproductive status of endangered orcas; assessing the health consequences of endangered North Atlantic right whales tangled in fishing gear; and precisely augmenting gravity measurements from piloted aircraft to generate maps, charts and shoreline information for multiples uses.

Global NOAA leadership in monitoring ocean acidification has helped establish the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) to monitor profound changes in ocean and coastal waters; develop strategies to assist vulnerable coastal communities and industries in mitigating ocean acidification’s effects; and provide data necessary to create forecast tools.

Safer, more cost-effective navigation for mariners entering seaports is now available through an updated acoustic Doppler current profiler system that provides real-time current, speed and direction observations where mariners often need it most—at U.S. Coast Guard Aids-to-Navigation buoys along major shipping channels. The system will help safeguard both cargo and the environment.

New U.S. IOOS access to coastal data provides an Environmental Data Server Model Viewer that harvests, integrates and displays global, national and regional model output and near-real-time environmental observations. The new tool enables a wide array of applications for marine operations, forecasting, search and rescue, and public health and safety, among many other uses.

Faster, easier digital charts dramatically reduce the bandwidth needed to keep a vessel’s charts current. Commercial users can access tiles, or sections of nautical charts, online. Recreational boaters and other users can download geographic information that is updated weekly and contains only those tiles that have changed since the last update.

There is, of course, an exciting, oceanic frontier yet to explore. Ever-expanding reams of data and an open toolbox of technological capabilities offer great promise of significantly leveraging these and many more investments in monitoring and observing.

Dynamic Advances
On the Horizon

On the horizon is an improved Self-Contained Ocean Observing Payload that will work within NOAA’s moored weather buoy network. The lightweight modular design will make it easier to put the payload together at sea, modern sensors will improve environmental measurements, and data transmission will be reduced to every 10 min.

U.S IOOS national underwater gliders have already proven their value in supporting long-term ecosystem monitoring, enabling a quick response to measuring oil presence. They cover a wide geographic range and, with the capability to measure physical, chemical and biological environmental parameters, can support multiple missions. The Saildrone is an unmanned sailboat controlled via satellite that can make a wide range of scientific measurements with reduced environmental impact at lower cost. In 2015, a successful test mission in the Bering Sea mapped pollock distributions, documented fur seal foraging habits and searched for endangered right whales in the Bering Sea, demonstrating potential fisheries applications. Next, researchers hope to test the Saildrone’s capacity to map Arctic oceanographic features, including shrinking ice, which profoundly affects long-term weather and global climate change. Unmanned systems for hydrographic surveys have been tested for utility in collecting quality data. They’re low-cost and rapidly deployable in shallow water. The large aerial systems improve deepwater mapping by producing high-resolution results. DART-4G, the fourth-generation Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting Tsunamis, offers greater reliability for near- and far-field tsunami monitoring and reporting and adds flexibility by allowing new array configurations.

The New Blue Economy
Also on the horizon is a knowledge-based blue economy that turns to the sea not just for extraction of material goods but also for data and other information to address societal challenges and generate solutions. This new blue economy can bridge the divide between the continuing flow of scientific knowledge drawn from observations and other platforms and the growing number of consumers seeking customized solutions for particular market needs. Port-by-port fog forecasts, for example, could substantially cut shipping costs. Improved seasonal sea ice predictions would impact Arctic navigation. Real-time observations of deep-ocean health would support oil spill recovery. We now have the know-how and technology to take care of our fragile, finite ocean and coastal treasures, while simultaneously spurring economic growth. Along with the dramatic progression of environmental observations, the new blue economy will be pivotal in redefining community resilience and economic opportunity. Besides the immense growth and breadth of scientific knowledge and all our technological marvels, I think Thomas Jefferson would quickly relate to the exhilarating nature of NOAA’s 21st-century portfolio, which upholds NOAA’s mission to understand Earth, predict changes and optimize that knowledge for the good of our nation.

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