A Rising Tide for Ocean Research?

MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA--Vice President Al Gore has promised ocean scientists an extra dollop of two ingredients necessary for their research: money and data. Speaking at the National Oceans Conference here last week, Gore announced plans to ask Congress to spend $24 million over 3 years for efforts to explore the ocean floor and monitor climate change. He also unveiled the declassification of scads of Cold War military sound recordings, which could be used for everything from tracking whale migration to improving weather forecasting.

The exploration funds--$12 million over 3 years--are earmarked for four offshore observatories: the LEO-15 in New Jersey and the Aquarius in Florida, and two planned deep-water observatories, one on San Juan de Fuca Ridge in the Pacific Ocean and the other in the Gulf of Mexico. The money will also fund research into two new submersible vehicles that will dive deeper than any in existence.

Another $12 million over 3 years will contribute to a network of NASA satellites and buoys maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that will monitor the ocean for signs of climate change. Ocean scientists point out that in their expensive and technology-dependent field, $24 million is small change. "The resources are minor, just symbolic," says marine biologist Donald Potts of the University of California, Santa Cruz, "but they create an environment to build on." Or, as oceanographer Sylvia Earle, the National Geographic Society's Explorer in Residence put it, "we have our flipper in the door."

The declassified data offers a bigger payoff. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. Navy recording devices on the ocean floor listened for Soviet submarines. The years of sound recordings, stored on magnetic tapes, will be scrubbed to filter out submarine information without removing sounds that could have biological significance. "The data are better, more thorough, of higher resolution, and more complete than anything in the civilian sphere," says Katie McGinty, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The Navy will also release computerized nautical charts of the sea floor over the next 5 years that will have higher resolution than current paper charts. "The charts you can purchase are old, out of date, and they contradict each other," said Potts. "Obviously, they're not the ones the Navy has been using."