Beauty of the deep. This graceful octocoral clings to an undersea cliff near Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oceangoing Lewis and Clark Expedition

SAN FRANCISCO--Nearly 2 centuries after President Jefferson asked Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the American West on a budget of $2500, oceanographers are calling for a similar journey of discovery through the world's oceans. Their vision, described here today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, carries a modern price tag: $750 million over 10 years. The funds aren't yet committed, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will seek half of the first-year costs in its budget request for fiscal year 2002.

A June 12 order by President Clinton directed the U.S. Department of Commerce to come up with a long-term plan to understand and protect the sea, more than 95% of which remains unexplored. Within 4 months, two dozen marine scientists and educators completed their report, titled "Discovering Earth's Final Frontier: A U.S. Strategy for Ocean Exploration." Some of the panel's recommendations were released earlier this year (ScienceNOW, 4 October).

If the strategy wins support from Congress and the new Bush Administration, oceanographers will prepare a "signature mission" to circumnavigate the globe with the same spirit of open-ended discovery as Lewis and Clark's expedition, says panel chair Marcia McNutt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California. The multiyear cruise would employ surface ships and deep-water submersibles to probe the ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back. Scientists would pay special attention to the biology and geology of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), within 320 kilometers of the U.S. coast, to identify untapped resources such as promising pharmaceutical compounds.

The mission of discovery would expand the horizons of American oceanographers, who lag far behind their international counterparts, McNutt says. She points to Ireland, which is exploring the seabed off its coast in a 7-year project. Already, Irish scientists have mapped almost one-fifth of their EEZ, including potential gas reserves. "It's personally embarrassing that Ireland is ahead of our own nation in terms of exploring its EEZ," McNutt says.

Several federal agencies and the U.S. Navy would fund and conduct the research, with NOAA in the lead. "This is the first national report written by any nation that lays out a strategy for ocean exploration," NOAA administrator James Baker said today via conference call from Washington, D.C. "It's long overdue."

Related sites
Background information about the ocean exploration panel, including the full report
National Ocean Service