Because of a $3.5 million budget shortfall, NSF may sell off the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, which explores marine geology.

Bob Vergaras, A.P.S. for Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

U.S. marine seismologists fear loss of research ship

The R/V Marcus G. Langseth is a remarkable research ship. The 70-meter vessel, owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in Palisades, New York, can tow long chains of floating acoustic receivers, which catch seismic reflections off the ocean floor and the layers of marine sediments below it when an array of airguns are set off in the water. Using these reflections, researchers can build 3D pictures of structures like subduction zones, the regions where one tectonic plate dives below another, setting off large earthquakes and tsunamis in the process. Yet these days, thanks to tight NSF budgets, the Langseth typically has another view: a New York dockyard. Last year, it spent only 128 days at sea.

And much to their chagrin, marine seismologists may lose the services of the Langseth altogether. NSF is reviewing proposals, due on 21 August, that would deal with a $3.5 million gap between the $13.5 million cost of operating the ship and the $10 million that NSF is willing to pay. The Langseth has been in the crosshairs ever since 2015, when an influential “Sea Change” report—the ocean sciences decadal survey sponsored by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine—recommended that NSF trim its ocean infrastructure in favor of more research support. If an academic institution or consortium is willing to take over the ship and provide NSF with just $10 million worth of time—or if an institution can bring $3.5 million to the table to balance out the budget—then great, the agency says. If not, the ship will be sold off to the highest bidder, and the money will be used to procure ship time for marine seismology with third-party contractors. “It's just not working with this current financial and ownership model,” says Richard Murray, NSF's director of ocean sciences in Arlington, Virginia. “We end up in a situation where the ship is tied up at the dock and not being used in different ways.”

Combined with the agency's planned cuts to its pool of ocean-bottom seismometers, the U.S. capacity for imaging the ocean crust is on the cusp of taking a severe step back, says Douglas Wiens, a marine seismologist at Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri. “It has created a lot of anxiety for scientists who depend on this. There isn't another way to do their research in most cases.” 

One hope is that third-party ownership could free up the ship for work that government ownership doesn’t allow, Murray says. Right now, for example, LDEO can't bid on contracts to image the Gulf of Mexico for the Department of the Interior. Also, government data policies require the public disclosure of any data Langseth acquires—a rule that makes its services a stretch for the private sector, says Sean Higgins, LDEO’s director of marine operations. But this is also a pretty small market. “This boat was really never set up to do industry work,” he says.

NSF’s request for ideas to deal with the Langseth problem came in May, on the heels of another announcement—that the agency was looking to cut its support for ocean  bottom seismometers by several million dollars. With NSF's support, three ocean research powerhouses—LDEO, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography—operate a pool of more than 200 of these special seismometers, which can work in concert with the airguns from ships like the Langseth, or listen for natural earthquakes. Many have been deployed recently, for example, as part of the large-scale project to study the Cascadia subduction zone off Oregon and Washington state.

NSF thinks it can save money if one institution takes over this pool of instruments. The Cascadia project and others revealed inefficiencies in how the three institutes managed the seismometers and handled their data. Streamlining their operation is “good stewardship,” Murray says. But some scientists say NSF’s proposed cuts seem to go beyond simple efficiency gains, and could mean a loss of instruments. “Downsizing the pool was not part of the Sea Change report,” Wiens says.

Marine seismologists are now feeling besieged. And many other earth scientists rely on marine seismic data to inform their global reconstructions of Earth's interior; the possible loss of the Langseth may come as a shock to them, says Nathan Bangs, a marine seismologist at the University of Texas in Austin, who until last year led NSF's external oversight over the ship. “A lot of earth scientists really aren't aware of this situation.”

It's an understandable frustration, says Murray, who wants to keep the agency’s marine seismic capabilities from declining. “We wouldn't be going to all these lengths if we didn't think there was a need.” Still, Bangs says he would have a hard time recommending that students enter the discipline, given its prospects. “It's difficult to build a career on this very gloomy outlook.”