Dispatches from Oceans ’16: Understanding Oceans in the Face of Climate Change

Increasing understanding of the oceans as the climate changes will require attention to robotics, prediction, security and innovation.

The plenary sessions at MTS/IEEE OES Oceans ‘16 have taken place in the historic Golden State Theatre. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

The plenary sessions at MTS/IEEE OES Oceans ‘16 have taken place in the historic Golden State Theatre. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Monterey, California – At the plenary session on Sept. 21, 2016, speakers Marcia McNutt and Jon White called on the assembled scientists and engineers to step up public understanding of oceans and involvement in policy agenda setting.

McNutt, president of the National Academies of Science and former editor-in-chief of Science magazine, spoke about how the Academies has been pivotal in influencing the scientific policy in the United States and internationally. She noted that the 1999 “From Monsoons to Microbes” workshop report made the case that ocean health is intimately connected to public health.

“It made climate impacts in the ocean a global health risk,” McNutt said. “It meant all sorts of new stakeholders would be interested that we are changing the health of the oceans through what we are doing with climate change.”

To stay at the forefront of understanding how climate change is affecting the world’s oceans and to reduce the impacts on ecosystems, McNutt discussed how robotics and ocean prediction are becoming increasingly necessary.

“In the oceans we’ve known for decades robotics is the only way we can get many of our tasks done because of the difficult environment we work in,” she said.

Dr. Marcia McNutt sees robots tackling work in a wide range of areas from deep ocean exploration to healthcare. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Dr. Marcia McNutt sees robots tackling work in a wide range of areas from deep ocean exploration to healthcare. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

During her tenure at Science magazine, McNutt helped launch the new, interdisciplinary journal Science Robotics, which she said she hopes will be a showplace for world-class and game-changing papers from all aspects of robotics – space, oceanic, medical, service and more – so those research communities have one central place to learn from each other.

And while the scientific community turns its attention to autonomous robots and research vehicles, McNutt noted that pursuit of better, long-term prediction models will be essential to our understanding of how the climate and the weather are changing.

“The climate skeptics always go after the land measurements. They never go after the ocean measurements,” she said. “They never have any answer to ocean acidification. Those effects are so large. They are so uncontaminated by heat island effects. It’s so important for the ocean community to be front and center in talking about climate change.”

Jon White, retired U.S. Navy admiral and president of Consortium for Ocean Leadership, approached the question of how climate change is affecting the oceans from the angle of national security.

“In the a balance of our understanding, it’s all about security,” White said. “As we look at our planet’s growing population, each and every individual is tied to the ocean and relies on the ocean for so many things they many not even realize. We see various threats to our ocean, to our world, to our sociopolitical structure. How do we balance to maintain a secure ocean and secure world around us – this is the challenge we face.”

Matt Gardner, competition technical manager for the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center, shows how a camera embedded in epoxy can withstand extreme ocean conditions. Image Credit: Kelley Christensen

Matt Gardner, competition technical manager for the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center, shows how a camera embedded in epoxy can withstand extreme ocean conditions. Image Credit: Kelley Christensen

He noted that what affects an emerging blue economy in reality affects the entire economy, and called on conference attendees to strive for increased innovation and research.

“Our future relies on … the people in the audience,” he said. “In terms of understanding the ocean, to know the sea we have to go to the sea. We have been doing this with ships, but we can’t afford to do it on ships in the future. We must go to sea in very new ways and that’s why I’m excited about the new technology I see here.”

The innovations he spoke of were in full display in the exhibition halls where the latest in acoustic, sensor, and robotic technologies lined the aisles.

The Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center showcased remotely operated vehicles (ROV), which are used to educate and engage students from third grade to undergraduate levels.

MATE provides educators with kits and technical support so students can design and build their ROVs — a process which teaches technical and abstract skills like problem-solving and working with others. The hope is that students will be inspired to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers to meet the demands of an increasingly complex world. Once the ROVs are built, the students compete in themed competitions with unique challenges, such as exploring shipwrecks, coral reefs and deep ocean canyons. Competitions are held in 28 regions around the U.S. as well as eight other countries.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) is an obvious presence here at Oceans ‘16 with Francisco P. Chavez, senior scientist and biological oceanographer, sitting on panels and joining important discussions about ocean observation. At MBARI’s booth in the exhibition hall, the institute’s long-range autonomous underwater vehicle Tethys is showcased for all to see.

According to MBARI, Tethys is part of a new class of autonomous vehicles designed to cover ranges of 1,000 kilometers or more. Tethys has a payload power consumption of about 8 watts, optimized to allow high-power sensors to operate intermittently without sacrificing endurance. Tethys communicates with researchers on shore via satellite link.

Annette Gough, who works in the research department, helps staff the booth for Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Annette Gough, who works in the research department, helps staff the booth for Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

The Schmidt Ocean Institute brought a little whimsy to the event with a 3,000-piece Lego replica of Research Vessel Falkor, named for the luck dragon in Michael Ende’s classic 1979 book, “The Neverending Story.” An engineer working for the institute used computer software to design the boat, which was carefully shipped to Monterey from Tonga. The bow of the boat was damaged in transit, but once displayed at a conference full of engineers, the temptation to build was too much to resist and two conference attendees took time out of their busy schedules to repair.

Institute founder Wendy Schmidt funded the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health xPrize, which accelerated the development of cost effective and durable ocean sensors to help aid our understanding of ocean acidification. In 2015, Sunburst Systems took the top prize for chemical sensors for marine and freshwater applications.

Stay tuned for more from Oceans ‘16 in Monterey, California.

Diana Aguilar, operations administrator for Schmidt Ocean Institute. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Diana Aguilar, operations administrator for Schmidt Ocean Institute. Image Credit: Jenny Woodman

Kelley Christensen is IEEE Earthzine’s science editor.

Jenny Woodman is science writer and Writing Club coordinator for IEEE Earthzine.

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