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—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.”