Survey and research fleet seeks knowledge of world’s oceans, but requires recapitalization
A new report by the National Ocean Council, the Federal Oceanographic Fleet Status Report, notes the challenges faced by operators of the United States fleet of survey and research ships.
“These 47 ships are part of our Nation’s critical infrastructure, collecting vital information to help protect lives and property from marine hazards; measure and project global climate change and ocean acidification; enhance safety and security and more.” Retired Navy Capt. Edward Lundquist talked to several key stakeholders in the Federal Oceanographic Fleet to get a sense of where the fleet is today, and what the future holds. His report summarizes his conversations with the National Science Foundation (NSF); Office of Naval Research (ONR); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and University of California-San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO).
NSF: Operating Costs Rise, Budgets Fall
The report is an update of a similar 2007 report that summarizes the status of the federal oceanographic fleet and identifies deficiencies and priorities.
“We’re continuing to evaluate the federal oceanographic fleet and the requirements of our ships to support future science needs in the context of budget constraints,” said Bob Houtman, section head for the Integrative Programs Section (IPS) in the Division of Ocean Sciences within NSF’s Geosciences directorate.
Houtman said the federal agencies are continuing their efforts to modernize the fleet, while at the same time retire older, less capable ships. “As budgets are decreasing, not all ships are being utilized at the same rate. The owners have had to carefully evaluate if it is cost effective to keep every one of those ships in the fleet.”
Two of the oldest global ships, ONR-owned Melville and Knorr, are being retired and replaced with new ocean-class ships in CY14-15. The NSF-funded arctic research vessel Sikuliaq will replace the R/V Alpha Helix that was retired at the end of 2006.
The two biggest cost drivers, fuel and manpower, account for two thirds of the operating costs. According to NSF’s Rose Dufour, program director for the Ship Operations Program, one third of the cost is for fuel alone, and another third is for crew and shore support. “It’s increasing ahead of inflation and exacerbating our level-funding situation.”
Newer ships, Houtman said, are technologically more capable and are more efficient. “The cost to get a ship to sea is not going down. Operating costs for the fleet are going up faster than our budgets.”
Houtman said an interagency working group continues to look very carefully at how the federal agencies can share the ships that are in the fleet. “If a funded science research cruise is going to be in a geographic location, scientists can put in additional science proposals to take advantage of the fact that ship is already going to be in that location, permitting more science to be accomplished for a relatively small incremental cost.”
But ships optimized for survey work are different than ships designed for research. And global class ships can travel to more distant areas and remain at sea longer than the smaller ships, although they have higher operating costs.
“Not all ships are equally capable,” Houtman said.
Research ships do a lot of work on station and have a large working deck aft with the ability to launch and recover vehicles and sensors in the water over the side. Survey ships are designed to travel back and forth collecting data over large areas of ocean with installed shipboard equipment while underway.
Sending a small ship a long distance may cost more money in the long run due to the transit costs than using a large ship that might already be in the area.
Dufour said some ships are specialized for a capability or an operating environment. “Not all ships have the ability to go anywhere,” she said.
In some areas, it may be more cost-effective to deploy unmanned vehicles from the shore instead of from a research ship underway. Buoyancy gliders can travel long distances and use very little power, but are slower, so they take a longer time to get where they are going or to cover an area of interest, and they are limited in the sensor payload they can carry Many underwater vehicles are battery powered, and so have limited endurance.
“They don’t necessarily have the longevity for long-duration missions, and you have to place them very specifically where you want them working, so it takes a ship.”
Dufour said many specialized instruments, like ocean bottom seismographs, need ships for deployment and recovery and cannot be done autonomously. Some deep submergence vehicles, like Alvin, are deployed from a mother ship. If there’s a mission for Alvin, you have to use R/V Atlantis,” she said. Jason and other ROVs can be operated from many of the ships in the Federal Oceanographic Fleet but require special winches and control vans (or labs).
Houtman said NSF is developing new mooring arrays as part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative that will have satellite links and the ability for Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) to dock with the array without surfacing to recharge, exchange data and receive instructions.
There’s been a significant investment in new technology, Houtman said, particularly with unmanned, off board systems such as buoyancy gliders, unmanned aerial systems and autonomous underwater vehicles. “With advances in handling equipment, vehicles, sensors and connectivity, new off board systems will enable us to increase the quality and quantity of data collected.”
The new generation of research ships will incorporate the latest in dynamic positioning, satellite communications and a “telepresence” capability that allows scientists and students who can’t get to sea to participate from ashore.
Telepresence, enabled by vehicles with video and data connections, are still “ship centric.”
“We’re looking for efficiencies,” said Houtman. “We want to line up multiple cruises in a specific geographic area that make sense in terms of cost-effective operations.”
“We really feel we have a bright future for the Federal Oceanographic Fleet,” Houtman said.
The National Science Foundation’s Ocean Sciences Division Integrative Programs Section (IPS) supports the operation and acquisition of major shared-use oceanographic facilities needed to carry out oceanographic-related research programs. This includes funding operations and technical services support for numerous facilities such as the Academic Research Fleet, the National Deep Submergence Facility, the National Ocean Science AMS Facility, the Monterey Accelerated Research System Cable Test-bed Facility and the Aloha Cabled Observatory. IPS also funds the development of new ocean research technology through the Ocean Technology and Interdisciplinary Coordination (OTIC) Program and is responsible for managing the acquisition of new ships such as the R/V Sikuliaq and the new Ocean Observatories Initiative multi-scale ocean observatory system.
ONR: Many Times, a Ship Works Best
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) operates six oceanographic research ships, primarily for use by the academic community said Frank Herr, head of the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Ocean Battlespace Sensing Department. “These are marine scientific research ships rather than military survey vessels. We’re very careful to distinguish between the two categories.”
ONR’s ships are operated by Scripps , WHOI, University of Washington and the University of Hawaii.
“These ships are worldwide assets,” Herr said. “They may be away for two years at a time. The two new ships being built will replace the two oldest.”
The Navy, NSF, NOAA and the academic institutions have created the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) consortium, established in 1972, to coordinate scheduling and share best practices.
“We recover the cost of ship operations with a day rate which is adjusted every year. The ship operators work very hard to keep their costs down so they will attract customers. The more efficient they are, the lower the day rate. The ships are very competitive in their operations,” said Herr.
That said, some ships have special capabilities or are optimized for specific areas. “Ships that operate in the Atlantic will probably stay in the Atlantic, and the same with the Pacific. We try to minimize transit costs,” Herr said.
ONR’s Oceanographic Facilities Program Manager Tim Schnoor said ONR is part of a Federal Interagency Working Group on facilities and infrastructure and includes Navy, NSF, NOAA and agencies that do not have their own ships, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Ocean Energy management. “We work closely together and meet frequently.”
“We not only coordinate our activities, but we have had multi-ship projects that have involved ONR, NSF and NOAA vessels at the same time. During the response to the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, we were all involved.
“UNOLS scheduling ensures a balance and optimized employment of the U.S. academic research fleet, arranging research cruises on the various ships based on required ship capabilities and locations in the world to support research objectives,” said Schnoor. “It helps minimize non-productive transit days.”
Much of the at-sea research is planned well in advance, but some opportunities come up without notice. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, a number of UNOLS research vessels were brought in to study the impact of oil dispersal in the water column. “We saw new sonar technologies being used to learn about gas seeps. We’ve been able to study earthquakes off Japan, Haiti and South America, and deploy ocean-bottom seismometers to compare data and understand what the various tectonic plates are doing,” said Schnoor.
Some ships are highly specialized, Schnoor adds. “The R/V Marcus Langseth, for example, owned by NSF and operated by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of Columbia University, is outfitted for seismic research work.”
There are also vessels owned by states and institutions. For example, the University of Delaware owns the 146-foot region research ship R/V Hugh R. Sharp; and the University of Miami owns the 96-foot F. G. Walton Smith. Both are part of the UNOLS fleet.
Herr said there are some drawbacks to using large research platforms. “Ships are expensive to operate, and they can’t go everywhere. We’re in the business of getting information about environment from as many means as possible. Our needs are large, so we rely on a variety of methodologies. Ships are one, along with satellites and remote sensing systems. 30 years ago people thought that remote sensing would replace ships. We’ve found that for many missions a ship is the best alternative.”
Herr said unmanned systems, including unmanned aerial systems, unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles have been very useful and their numbers are growing. “ONR is very much in the business of autonomy, so unmanned autonomous systems are a major focus for us. We see that these systems extend the reach and capability of the ships, not replace them. One augments the other. Not all of these unmanned systems can be launched from land and need to be taken by a ship to where they will operate. And there’s real value in getting scientists together on a ship to collaborate and learn from each other.”
In addition to the ships, the research community has the deep submergence Alvin, owned by ONR and operated by WHOI. There are also extremely capable deep diving systems like Jason and Hercules, and completely unmanned, untethered high-endurance sea gliders. “We’re using Scan Eagle UAVs off the R/V Knorr as part of the Trident Warrior exercises to study the physics of the marine boundary layer, to develop better environmental forecasts for warfighters. There’s only so much you can know about your environment using a weather balloon or dropping an expendable bathythermograph over the side. Our research can help create better operational models to predict sensor and weapon performance,” said Herr.
“Some of the more recent research conducted from ships of the federal oceanographic fleet have surprised oceanographers with how little they knew about the currents and air sea interaction around the Philippines. There are large ‘internal waves,’ underwater currents and mezoscale eddies being formed in the Luzon Strait. Other research in the Indian Ocean, conducted in collaboration with India and Sri Lanka, has also yielded astonishing results. We’re taking ships into the Bay of Bengal and finding out that there is an astonishing amount of fresh water being dumped into the Indian Ocean during monsoons. And as we study typhoons, we’re finding that there are three times as many typhoons as hurricanes in the Atlantic, and they’re bigger. We can study the effect of typhoons I and their ‘storm wake’ to see how the storms bring up colder water that extracts heat from the upper ocean. It takes time for the ocean to relax back to the previous current conditions,” said Herr.
ONR owns Alvin, and its support ship Atlantis. Both are operated by WHOI.
There is the potential to discover a new life form every time Alvin dives. “If it’s investigating hot smokers along the ocean ridges it might discover new microbial life forms. There’s always something new to find in deepest part of the oceans,” Schnoor said.
“Ships are still an indispensable element of tool kit,” said Herr. “I expect that will persist for the foreseeable future. We need to be on the ocean, to put our instruments where the problems and questions are.”
Scripps operates the ONR-owned Floating Instrument Platform, or FLIP, which can be towed to a location and anchored or allowed drift. “It’s fairly large, but still a smaller footprint than a ship when vertical,” said Herr. “It’s a very stable, noise-free platform for instruments.”
NOAA: A Balanced Approach
Rear Adm. Mike Devany is the director of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA’s) Commissioned Officer Corps and the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. In his position he co-chairs an interagency working group on facilities and infrastructure. “The National Ocean Policy directed us to get a baseline of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we need to go with the Federal Oceanographic Fleet. We all face budget issues, so we have to be realistic, but we set out to show what it costs to operate and maintain the vessels. We looked at what it costs to operate, maintain and sustain the fleet—both for the government operated survey ships and the university operated research ships. Fuel is the big cost driver. Fuel was $0.84 a gallon when I was in command in 2004, and today it’s almost $4.00 a gallon—so, a pretty dramatic increase.”
Devany said the other big cost driver is the hiring, training and retaining of qualified crew. “Here at NOAA, we are able to do that and compete successfully, because we have a blended work force of wage mariners—which are the same as CivMar for the Military Sealift Command; civilian technicians such as electronics technicians and survey specialists; and then the NOAA corps which generally does the overall operation and the running of the platforms in the command for them.”
“Once we started putting together the report, we noticed that things were changing rapidly because this was the year of sequestration, and last year was the real point where declining budgets started to show up,” Devany said. “We could see that it was important to optimize the fleet. In our case, we’ve taken several ships either offline—either decommissioned them or placed them in a warm layup status—until we could make a decision on what we wanted to do with them down the road.”
NSF and the Navy have done the same with the university operated ships, he said. “We all have a goal of creating a fleet that we can operate under today’s budget and the constraints that go with that. When we looked out 10 years into the future, we could see that we need a balanced approach that leverages resources, partnerships and new technologies. We also need to ensure the fleet is properly capitalized to meet the nation’s scientific requirements.”
Devany said the report is divided between survey and research ships. “The UNOLS community operates generally for academic research. In order to keep them at a higher utilization rate, they take on some of the survey responsibilities for other agencies, including NOAA. The ships that I operate for NOAA and the different communities that we support are gathering data for environmental, mapping, weather, oceanographic or fisheries. And we wanted to make sure that we could match the requirements to the fleet. This is a nationwide enterprise. And if you want to leverage your cost, you need some commonality, the ability to share assets or resources and a way to get to a platform that’s going to be less expensive to use because it might already be working in the area we’re interested in. Transiting eats up fuel and people time.”
The Navy also operates survey ships. “There are some exceptions, but generally NOAA is responsible for the survey work in domestic waters, and the DoD ships operated by the Navy work in international waters,” Devany said.
According to Devany, the NOAA ships are specialized platforms. “We categorize them into natural resources versus commerce, which would be the hydrographic ships, equipped and crewed to conduct nautical charting or surveys. We also have FSVs (fishery survey vessels) that are configured to be acoustically quiet. They assess fish stocks, monitor marine mammals and do some bathymetric mapping, which is different from charting in terms of being able to go out and survey the bottom and know what’s down there so they could do some habitat mapping for fisheries for resources. “
Hydrographic ships have an advanced multi-beam system for ship-mounted charting, as well as two-four launches for working at the bays and inlets. A ship like the Thomas Jefferson, for instance, assisted with post-Sandy recovery in New York Harbor. The ship deployed its launches, to see where all the wreckage was and determine what needed to be cleared, while the ship went and steamed its track lines with a multi-beam to determine what was there In the main part of the channel. So it’s a combination of equipment and the specialists on board to collect and process that data, then turn that into the information necessary for the Coast Guard to reopen the port.
Devany said partnerships are important. “We work together through the International Research Ship Operators, IRSO. We have an annual meeting and we come together to talk about best practices, where we’re at, what have we learned from ship design. A good example would be the relative merits of modernizing a 20- or 30-year-old hull versus recapitalizing? Are your maintenance costs going to become so high that it makes more sense to get rid of that vessel and either replace it or find another way to do business? The European community has a barter system, where they are able to trade time among platforms. They have the same issues as we do when it comes to the cost of fuel and people. So, if you have, for example, a Dutch ship operating somewhere and there are four buoys that I need to pick up near where they are, and they have five buoys to be picked up near where I am, then we can work out a trade.
That collaboration includes the NATO Center for Maritime Research and Experimentation in La Spezia, Italy, which operated two research vessels. “We’ve discussed having their Global-class ship, the Alliance, do some work for us in the Atlantic, and perhaps we can support them in some way,” Devany said. “We’ll share our project plans and see if there is some commonality there. We’re talking with NATO about commonalities that we have in mission areas or data sets that we both need. In the end, most of this data is flowing across all the nations; and it’s information that everybody needs, especially if you start talking about climate and what’s going to happen with either an ice-diminished Arctic, fisheries or transportation.”
Devany said operating and maintaining the NOAA fleet is a challenge. “You’re always looking at the budget numbers and trying to match the budget with mission. But we’ve been sustaining very well. We have to manage within what we have. In terms of ship operations, the shoreside is more heavily civilian-dependent. We run our engineering and ship repair with a port engineer, and the work is all contracted out. We don’t have our own shipyards and we don’t have our own repair guys. Training is very similar. We contract out most of our training. For most of our training for the CivMars, we send them to MITAGS (the Maritime Institute of Technology and Graduate Studies), MEBA (Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association) or we send them to SIU (Seafarers International Union). They all have great schools and provide a standardized set of training.
Devany said the proudest moments for the NOAA fleet have been in the response to natural disasters and events like Deepwater Horizon and Hurricane Irene. “We had to get ships to where they were needed quickly and ready to go to work. During Irene, we had to get the Chesapeake Bay opened back up again. After Superstorm Sandy, we had to get in there and clear that harbor and get it open so that people and commerce, can go back and forth. We flew damage assessments on the King Air. People were able to look at the imagery from that flight up on the website and were instantly able to go in and see if their house was still there, or what damage was done to their neighborhood or a relative’s community. I think that’s where we’ve been able to step in and make a difference when the nation needed us.”
“I think we’re responsive, flexible, and adaptable,” Devany said. “That’s what I ask my folks to be, and I think they ably step up to the charge.”
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
The White House Federal Oceanographic Fleet Status Report more of a status report than a strategic plan or an analysis with conclusions. It looks at all of the federally funded research vessels, including special mission hydrographic survey or fisheries research ship, such as those operated by NOAA or the Navy. “Scripps operates four ships; more than anyone else in the academic research fleet,” said Bruce Appelgate, associate director for ship operations and marine technical support with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. “We are able to share these facilities with institutions and scientists all over the U.S. and the world.”
“We’re seeing a trend over the past five years, with fewer and fewer days at sea on our ships,” said Appelgate. “This isn’t because there’s decline in demand or need for these facilities. The demand for ship time has remained consistently strong, both in terms of the number of scientists who need to go to sea, and in the number of days they request to conduct their work.”
According to Appelgate, the reduction in underway time is driven by costs, which have gone up steadily over the past ten years. Why?
“The reduction in ship usage has been driven by reduced funding, not reduced demand. Global Class research vessels have experienced annual cost increases over the past 10 years of about six percent. For comparable commercial vessels, that number is about seven percent. At the same time our most significant sponsor of oceanographic research, the National Science Foundation, has only been able to fund increases of about three percent per year. When ship time is available, there’s tremendous demand – for our own institutionally-supported ship time we recently received four times more requests than we could support. NSF gets more than three times as many requests as they can now support.”
In the face of budget constraints, Scripps makes every effort to attract and retain career mariners. “We’re very motivated to improve quality of life issues for our mariners. That’s why they stay with us. We do fascinating work involving unique skills and ports of call, and our mariners like the kind of work we get to do. The quality of our mariners, and the dedication they have to conducting important scientific research, is of tremendous value to the scientists and funding agencies who utilize our ships.”
“This funding crisis couldn’t come at a worse time. It’s not a stretch to say that the fate of humanity depends of the oceans,” said Appelgate. “Most of the oxygen we breathe comes from the oceans. The acidification of the oceans that is occurring now due to the presences of high atmospheric CO2 caused by the burning of fossil fuels will change the web of life in the oceans. Understanding the processes taking place out there is vitally important to society, because they will affect you even if you live in Kansas.”
The population curves continue to rise, and the numbers of people are increasing especially in the coastal areas, where people depend on the oceans for food, resources and habitat. Much of our ability to do the right thing and understand these big global issues depends on how well we understand oceans. The best – often the only – way we can accomplish this understanding is through ship-based research. We need the oceanographic fleet to be as active as scientists require them to be.”
“When people think about oceanography, they think about the water, fish, and marine mammals. But seagoing research cuts across every scientific discipline. Geoscientist use ships to study deep earth structure, earthquakes and volcanoes. Seafloor seismicity is related to tsunami risks to our coastlines. Climate and weather are influenced by deep ocean circulation and surface currents. Atmospheric chemistry is influenced by interactions at the air/sea interface. Marine plants and animals provide oxygen, food, and perhaps contain important compounds that will yield important new antibiotics and other drugs. To study these, you need ships.”
Appelgate said the academic research fleet is a remarkable asset for the nation and science. “I’ve worked on lots of different vessels. The organizations that maintain these ships and the mariners that sail them take remarkable care of these vessels. As an example, the two oldest ships in the fleet, the R/V Melville and R/V Knorr, are both over 40 years old—43 and 42 respectively—yet both are well maintained and have modern equipment. “But,” Appelgate admits, “They are getting old. Both are in great shape. But with ships this age, whenever you get them into dry dock and dig into them you find things that need to be replaced.”
In fact, the entire fleet is aging. However, efforts now underway will revitalize segments of the research fleet. Scripps and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have been selected by the Navy to operate the two newest ships in the research fleet, the Ocean-class Sally Ride and Neil Armstrong. The NSF recently launched Sikuliaq to be operated by University of Alaska in the Arctic and around Alaska. And plans are now being considered for midlife refits to the three largest research vessels in the fleet (Thomas Thompson, Roger Revelle, and Atlantis) that could extend the useful service lives of these vessels 15 years beyond their current design at significant overall savings. “Our three Global Class research vessels are uniquely capable in the fleet, with seakeeping and scientific capabilities that enable scientific missions impossible on smaller vessels. With no existing plans to construct new Globals, and a cost of at least $250 million per ship in today’s dollars, it’s vitally important to the community that we invest now to extend the useful lives of these ships.”
Scripps provides the technical support for the ice breaking research ship USCGC Healy in the Arctic on a five-year contract. “The Arctic provides a tremendous research opportunity,” Appelgate said. “I expect a growing demand across a lot of marine sectors in the Arctic. With more open water during the year, more ships can get up there where they couldn’t operate before, and this includes research vessels that will be able to work in ice-free parts of the Arctic Ocean. “
Appelgate said the U.S. research fleet is manned by highly competent career scientific mariners.
Appelgate said the University of California funds research opportunities for its students, through the innovative UC Ship Funds Program. “We fund it. The students dream up novel scientific research at sea and submit proposals that are competitively judged. If selected, the students execute the research, under the mentorship of experienced seagoing scientists. Each program is different, and all have been outstanding. We’re seeing a crossroads between old school technology—ships—and ongoing innovation used by early career scientists to create ways of studying the ocean and broadcasting the results to a wide audience, which greatly amplifies what we are able to learn and say about our oceans and planet.”
(As published in the September 2013 edition of Marine Technology Reporter - www.seadiscovery.com)