Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment

Ocean Research for
Understanding Global Climate

Prepared by John Justus

Specialist in Earth and Ocean Sciences
Science Policy Research Division

Issue Definition
Background and Analysis
Status of the Issue
Continuing Concerns
Sources and References for Further Information

Issue Definition

Advances in scientific understanding are frequently enabled by new technology that allows a sharper focus and a different perspective on some of Earth's natural processes. When such advances affect economic and societal issues, benefits of national importance can accrue. Oceanography is a case in point, with prospects of acquiring new data and new understanding of the ocean's role in global dynamics. The decade of the 1980s was one of significant oceanic discoveries and a heightened recognition of the importance of the world ocean in global environmental dynamics. In fact, the last half of the decade of the 1990s is noteworthy, because a number of national and international programs and planning efforts were begun for cooperative, global studies that hold the promise of answering major questions about the world ocean and its role as a component of the Earth system. But it is not to be assumed that new programs -- some planned, some underway -- will actually take place as designed. Costs, priori ties, and international cooperation are problematical.

Background and Analysis

A more fundamental understanding of the structure and functioning of the Earth's natural Systems and the forces that interconnect or change them is widely regarded as essential to protecting global habitability. The global population is now considered large enough and accomplished enough to alter the chemical composition and balance of the ocean and atmosphere and to affect the biological composition of Earth. Recently, a perceived need has emerged to study the climate system of the Earth, largely because of scientific findings that project future depletion of Earth's protective ozone layer or a possible warming of Earth's climate. The possible ramifications of such projections for human health and welfare and for the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems led to an international consensus among scientists, who propose that the Earth's natural systems are best studied as one interacting whole. In such an "Earth Systems science approach, the biosphere is studied together with the atmosphere, the world ocean, the land surface, the polar regions, and the Sun. This approach, scientists explain, gives them the best change of describing and understanding the interactive physical, chemical, and biological processes that regulate the total Earth system, the unique environment it provides for life, the changes occurring in this system, and the manner in which these changes are influenced by human actions.

Nowhere has the value of such an approach been more evident than in the conjugate study of atmosphere and ocean. The role of ocean circulation and the coupling of the ocean and the atmosphere are basic to understanding change and variability as fundamental properties of Earth's climate. In fact, the ocean plays a predominant role in regulating climate change, whether natural or human influenced, both because of its huge capacity to store or release heat and because it can moderate concentrations of atmospheric constituents believed to control average global temperatures.

World weather and long-term climatic change are strongly linked to oceanic behavior. Heat released by the ocean in a region remote from where it was absorbed interacts with the overlying atmosphere, moderating daily and seasonal cycles of temperature on the Earth's surface and helping to shape regional weather and climate. Clearly, the scientific debate over concentrations of carbon dioxide and certain other atmospheric trace gases, the likelihood of a global warming, and the predictability of its extent and timing, clearly would be incomplete, much less capable of resolution, without proper recognition of the major role played by the world ocean, both as a factor in climate maintenance and as a major actor in the variability and change of Earth's climate over decades to centuries to millennia. A better understanding of the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere is necessary, if predictions of global change, or the lack of it, are to be based on sound scientific judgement and, particularly, if forecasts of monthly, seasonal, and interannual climatic variability are to be accurate and useful for policymakers, meaningful for the public, and functional for a widely ranging user community.

In the 1990s, there has been a demonstrable interest and commitment among many countries and groups of countries to contribute funds and in-kind support for ocean science. This, coupled with developments in the civilian and defense sectors in basic understanding and technology bring within reach dramatic advances in ocean science, especially given such new observational tools and techniques as remotely operated vehicles, satellite-borne sensors, trace chemical measurement, ocean acoustical techniques, long-life buoys and floats, and seafloor seismometers.

The international scientific community is capable of mounting initiatives, on a scale not previously feasible, to observe and understand the world ocean, employing instruments and techniques for observing the state of the ocean and for measuring oceanic constituents, properties, and processes, both remotely and in situ. Linked with vastly expanded capabilities in microelectronics and computer technology for sensing, transmitting, processing, analyzing and disseminating data and for constructing numerical models of ocean dynamics and air-sea interaction, there is a fair prospect of major progress in describing and understanding oceanic behavior.

Status of the Issue

Several ambitious field programs are being coordinated by such international organizations as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP); the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO); the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU). These programs include:

· Global Climate Observing System (GOOS);

· World Climate Research Program (WCRP);

· Global Energy and Water Balance Experiment (GEWEX);

· World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE);

· Tropical Ocean/Global Atmosphere Program (TOGA);

· International Global Atmospheric Chemistry Program (1GAC) and the Global Tropospheric Chemistry Program (GTCP);

· Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS);

· Global Ocean Euphotic Zone Study (GOEZS);

· Land-Ocean Interactions in the Coastal Zone;

· Atlantic Climate Change Program;

· Arctic System Science Program (ARCSS);

· Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics Program (GLOBEC);

· Marine Aspects of Earth System History (MESH);

· Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC);

· Global Ocean-Atmosphere-Land System (GOALS);

· Climate Variability and Predictability (CLWAR);

· Ocean Drilling Program; and

· International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (1GBP).

These global programs employ space-borne observations for measuring oceanic wind stress, sea level variability, wave height, sea surface temperature and topography, ice sheet topography, oceanic circulation, gravity, and color of the sea surface for chemical information and biological productivity. Simultaneous collection of surface and subsurface data from research vessels and platforms is pursued in direct support of these programs and also for correlation with the data received from satellites.

U.S. national support for and participation in these projects are integrated under the Global Ocean Science Program (GOSP), a multi-agency effort coordinated under the auspices of the Federal Global Change Research Program. The Federal Global Change Research Program itself is overseen by an interagency coordinating body known as the Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR), a standing committee of the President's National Science and Technology Council. Complementing this effort is the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, which was enacted in the 104th Congress as section 281, subtitle E of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY97 (P.L. 104-201). This Partnership Program directs the Secretary of the Navy to leverage national oceanographic capabilities by establishing and funding a National Ocean Research Leadership Council and an Ocean Research Advisory Panel. These entities are to serve as formal mechanisms to coordinate existing partnerships and establish new partnerships for the sharing of resources, intellectual talent, and facilities in the ocean sciences and education among federal agencies, academic institutions, and industry.

The GOSP activities are centered on live key areas: (1) global ocean structure and dynamics; (2) atmosphere-ocean interactions that drive global climate; (3) global ecosystems and productivity processes; (4) the global ocean lithosphere and geoprocesses; and (5) processes in the coastal margins and polar oceans. These activities are conducted by the federal agencies with major ocean science interests and responsibilities: Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, U.S. Geological Survey) and the U.S. Navy. The National Research Council through its various boards, committees, and panels serves in an advisory capacity.

These agencies, together with the President's Committee on Environment and Natural Resources and the Office of Management and Budget, have implemented a coherent program of focused global ocean science research. This research is comprised of enhancements of existing programs plus some new starts and is carried out in the scientific context of active national and international planning to support the broader studies of global environmental change mentioned above.

When space-borne data from these global-scale, international observing programs are complemented with data obtained from accompanying remote sensing technologies such as drifting buoy arrays, moored data buoy platforms, subsurface drifters, surface floats, and acoustic tomography networks, the potential exists for observing the ocean three-dimensionally on basin to near global scales, for comprehending its controlling processes, and for predicting its behavior. The non-scientific challenges are cost and infrastructure requirements, and effective management of this scale of operations.

Continuing Concerns

These concerns and questions are provided to stimulate further discussion of the issues noted above.

  1. Global change programs are receiving high priority in the funding plans of many nations; however, there are likely to be more programs being planned than could be funded adequately by the mechanisms and arrangements used in the past. A variety of methods might exist for funding some of these initiatives (e.g., government-industry-academia cost sharing). In the current era of fiscal austerity, American lawmakers (and taxpayers) are looking for practical results from big-budget scientific research. Are the U.S. Global Change Research Program and its global ocean science components configured to yield results of a practical nature in the near-term, with recognized present value for the public and for policymakers? The program may be yielding scientific knowledge, but are the results contributing usable information on policy choices for government and private decisionmakers interested in responding to global changes, to the extent changes occur?
  2. Possible legislative and budgetary actions by the 105th Congress and parallel moves in the executive branch have led to questions about the evolution of federal research priorities under the funding control of this Congress, the extent and pace of such changes, and whether a whole new set of priorities might result from a rigorous congressional reexamination of federally funded research. Various criteria would result in different assessments of the effectiveness and value of the ocean science elements of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Congressional or executive branch actions might result in less funding for global change research, a rearranging of priorities, or both.
  3. Does the Administration consider there to be priority national interests and benefits to be derived in pursuing global change research? Have goals been articulated in a sufficiently compelling way to engage major efforts by the Nation as a whole in the international scientific arena?
  4. Even if programs are stretched out and appropriately sequenced, are the physical resources and facilities adequate for, or national interests commensurate with, sustaining research and analytical initiatives over time frames sufficient to process and interpret the vast streams of data contemplated and to yield clear scientific results?
  5. What improvements, if any, in the infrastructure would be needed to sustain these scientific efforts or to conduct them in ways that are better, faster, and cheaper: global measurement systems already in place; new in situ measuring techniques and instruments, such as autonomous underwater vehicles and unmanned aircraft; new supercomputers, and new communications technologies and networks for delivering data as needed to researchers and operational users; newly developed and validated models to use the new global data sets; etc? Adequate access by oceanographers in academia, the private sector, and government to the necessary tools -- i.e., ships, satellite sensors, in situ instruments, oceanic cores, and computer resources -- is needed to assure completion of these programs. What changes in infrastructure might be required to continue access to such "tools1 for oceanographers who need them?
  6. Offshore oil production platforms provide unique opportunities for conducting oceanic and atmospheric research domestically and worldwide. Efforts toward implementing such a capability would be prime examples of industry, government, and scientific communities forming partnerships to address complex environmental problems. Traditional platforms (e.g., ships, buoys, and aircraft) used for gathering data from the atmosphere, through the air-sea interface, and down to the seafloor, often lack capabilities needed by researchers. Normally, they do not allow for long time-series measurements (10 to 20 years); depend on weather and sea conditions; are of limited use in harsh and remote environments; and often allow only minimal experimental flexibility. A network of staffed research laboratory units on offshore platforms and located throughout the world ocean would address many of these limitations. Researchers could conduct real-time and in situ experiments as well as establish a network of long time-series monitoring. The resulting data could be collected at an international repository, such as the proposed Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) being planned under the auspices of the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the U.N. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU).
  7. Present and future satellite instrumentation can affect ocean science and research efforts, but the status of key supporting missions, such as the SeaWiFS ocean color sensor. is uncertain. For example, the current design configuration for NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS) might not be adequate for the research and instrumentation needs of the ocean science community. The issue for Congress is whether EOS can be economically adapted to meet such needs, or whether small satellites dedicated to specific missions might be more timely and budget conscious.
  8. A joint French-U.S. satellite mission to measure ocean surface "topography", TOPEX-Poseidon, has been routinely mapping global ocean circulation since September 1992, and the project has been judged to be well on its way to observing global ocean circulation. Given the promising results obtained by the TOPEX-Poseidon mission thus far, and the need to observe ocean circulation and sea-level changes over decades to help understand climate dynamics, might a follow-on series of altimetric missions with the TOPEX Poseidon level of accuracy, or better, be implemented cooperatively and multinationally under the auspices of the International Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).
  9. What are the special needs, if any, of the federal and academic fleets and laboratory centers and of special large facilities to support the U.S. GOSP? How might any needed improvements be funded in the near term, and could mechanisms be found to fund, on a sustainable basis, regular or periodic improvements in the long term?
  10. The long-term nature of much ocean science research makes it especially vulnerable to unstable support, and interruptions might lead to disbanding active research teams, in and out of government, that could not easily be reassembled. Noting the quest for fiscal restraint and deficit reduction, many programs supported with federal funds, including the GOSP, seem likely to feel budget reduction pressures. What research funding strategies and priorities might best serve the national interest in such a period of budgetary stress? What options have been examined for maintaining a functioning ocean research enterprise while reducing the deficit? Would support be more likely for reduced longer term programs?
  11. To what extent might outside participation of a direct or in-kind nature be anticipated from private entities (e.g., labs, institutions, industry) as possible partners in sponsoring and funding portions of the U.S. GOSP? Should creating university-industry alliances and establishing government-industry or government-university cooperative institutes or partnerships be investigated? Such responsibilities are within the domain of the newly created National Oceanographic Partnership Program (P.L. 104-201).
  12. The long-lived nature of global change research programs particularly highlights the need for institutional responses that are more stable and of longer duration than those of individual scientists. How can academia and federal agencies be encouraged to work together to assure that appropriate long-term measurements are extended beyond the work of any individual scientist or group of scientists, or political leadership, and that the quality of such measurements is maintained; what mechanisms are feasible, appropriate, and affordable?
  13. The continuity of ocean programs depends on manpower, education, and training. There appears to be no shortage now, but it is questionable whether young talent will continue to be attracted and retained. This issue bears continuing attention in the executive, congressional, and academic sectors.
  14. Many policymakers are attracted to international collaboration, because it can be a way of saving U.S. dollars. Concerns arise over the possibility that foreign partners might opt for a "free ride" on U.S. technological expertise. In these collaborative ocean science projects, to what extent is the United States gaining access to foreign technical expertise or facilities, and are our international partners sharing equitably in the burden of funding and implementing projects?
  15. Concerns also may arise among potential international partners over the record of the U.S. government in funding large, international science projects. To what extent might this discourage some nations from cooperative involvement with the United States in ocean science projects?
  16. Involvement of developing-country scientists in ocean science programs would expand options and opportunities for broad understanding. What efforts have been made or what international programs exist to facilitate productive and meaningful involvement of developing-country scientists? Would Senate approval of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea have any appreciable effect on scientific exchange and technology cooperation among developing-country scientists and U.S. ocean scientists?
  17. The continued viability of existing international organizations, whose responsibilities are to foster and facilitate cross-frontier cooperation in oceanic research, is also a concern. New or different organizations might be possible vehicles for developing the fiscal and material resources in oceanography that could be tapped by the ocean science community.
  18. The end of four decades of world-system competition could alter the volume and intensity of oceanic research, much of it having been based on national defense concerns and undersea warfare. The possible consequences of such a shift to greater global cooperation are uncertain, but could be significant for ocean research.

Sources and References for Further Information

"Changing Climate and the Oceans." Oceanus, v.29, no.4 [entire issue].

Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education. Oceans 2000: Bridging the Millennia; Partnerships for Stakeholders in the Oceans. A Report on the Interagency Partnership Initiative by the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education (CORE). Washington, DC: 1996.51 p.

National Research Council, Ocean Studies Board. Oceanography in the Next Decade--Building New Partnerships. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1992. 202 p.
-----The Ocean's Role in Global Change.
Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994.85 p.

"The Oceans and Global Warming--An Update." Oceanus, v.32, no.2 [entire issue].

Oceanus, v. 35, numbers 1-4, 1992. Four special issues featuring basic disciplines in ocean sciences: no.1, spring 1992, marine chemistry; no.2, summer 1992, physical oceanography; no. 3, fall 1992, biological oceanography; no.4, winter 1992/93, marine geology and geophysics.

U.S. Congress, House Committees on Science, Subcommittee on Energy and Environment; on National Security, Subcommittee on Military Research and Development; and on Resources, Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. Leveraging National Oceanographic Capabilities. Joint hearing, 104th Cong., 2nd Sess. Jan.25, 1996. Washington, DC: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1996. 737 p.

U.S. Executive Office of the President, Office of Science and Technology Policy. Our Changing Planet: the FY1997 U.S. Global Change Research Program; An Investment in Science for the Nation's Future. A Report by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, National Science and Technology Council. A Supplement to the President's Fiscal Year 1997 Budget. Washington, DC: 1996. 162 p.

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. Global Climate Change. CRS Report for Congress No.IB89005. [by John Justus and Wayne Morrissey4 Washington, DC: updated regularly.

U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service. "The Role of the Ocean in Global Warming." [1,y John Justus.) CRS Review, v.11, Nov.-Dec.1990: 17-19.


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