Plea for Global Ocean Watch System

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Federal officials on Thursday presented the U.S. Congress with a plan to establish a global program to collect data from the world's oceans, modeled after a surveillance system used for weather forecasting. The report, drawn up by the National Ocean Research Leadership Council (NORLC), an alliance of 12 agencies dealing with ocean matters, calls for streamlining current and future ocean observation research. In an open letter to Congress and the Administration, some 1800 ocean scientists support the NORLC plan, urging the government to fund its implementation.

After holding hearings last summer on the state of the nation's ocean research, Representatives Curt Weldon (R-PA) and James Saxton (R-NJ) asked the NORLC to "propose a plan to achieve a truly integrated ocean observing system." What NORLC has come up with, says D. James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NORLC vice chair, is a "significant first step" in that direction. The plan would expand the "ocean observatory"--a network of floats already operating in the Pacific that permitted last year's successful El Niño forecasts--to a global observation system. That would help researchers get a better grip on global warming, improve forecasts of natural disasters such as tsunamis, preserve ocean ecosystems, and better understand marine health hazards, such as algal blooms. As a first step, ocean researchers would scatter some 3000 research buoys across the world's oceans in the next 3 to 5 years. The floaters would collect data on temperature and salinity, for example, and store it for analysis in huge databases.

The report "is the result of a 5-year effort to pull the ocean science community together," says James Watkins, president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, which represents more than 50 research institutions and federal laboratories and initiated the open letter. "The call for action is clear. Now we need the commitment of the federal government." Saxton expects more details from NORLC by the end of the year, such as what technologies to use, a timetable, and a price tag.