More than three-quarters of what lies beneath the surface of the ocean is unknown, even to trained scientists and researchers. Taking steps toward discovering what resources and information the seas hold, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Aquarium of the Pacific released on Wednesday a report that details plans to create the nation's first ocean exploration program by the year 2020.
The report stems from a national convening of more than 100 federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, nonprofit organizations and private companies to discuss what components should make up a national ocean exploration program and what will be needed to create it.
"This is the first time the explorers themselves came together and said, 'this is the kind of program we want and this is what it's going to take,'" says Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific, located in Long Beach, Calif. "That's very important, particularly when you put it in the context that the world ocean is the largest single component of Earth's living infrastructure ... and less than 10 percent of it has ever been explored."
In order to create a comprehensive exploration program, Schubel says it will become increasingly important that federal and state agencies form partnerships with other organizations, as it is unlikely that government funding for ocean exploration will increase in the next few years.
Additionally, Schubel says there was a consensus among those explorers and stakeholders who gathered in July that participating organizations need to take advantage of technologies that are available and place a greater emphasis on public engagement and citizen exploration – utilizing the data that naturalists and nonscientists collect on their own.
"In coastal areas at least, given some of these new low-cost robots that are available, they could actually produce data that would help us understand the nation's coastal environment," Schubel says.
Expanding the nation's ocean exploration program could lead to more jobs, he adds, and could also serve as an opportunity to engage children and adults in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
"I think what we need to do as a nation is make STEM fields be seen by young people as exciting career trajectories," Schubel says. "We need to reestablish the excitement of science and engineering, and I think ocean exploration gives us a way to do that."
Schubel says science centers, museums and aquariums can serve as training grounds to give children and adults the opportunity to learn more about the ocean and what opportunities exist in STEM fields.
"One thing that we can contribute more than anything else is to let kids and families come to our institutions and play, explore, make mistakes, and ask silly questions without being burdened down by the kinds of standards that our formal K-12 and K-14 schools have to live up to," Schubel says.
Conducting more data collection and exploration quests is also beneficial from an economic standpoint because explorers have the potential to identify new resources, both renewable and nonrenewable. Having access to those materials, such as oils and minerals, and being less dependent on other nations, Schubel says, could help improve national security.
Each time explorers embark on a mission to a new part of the ocean, they bring back more detailed information by mapping the sea floor and providing high-resolution images of what exists, says David McKinnie, a senior advisor for NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and a co-author of the report. On almost every expedition, he says, the scientists discover new species. In a trip to Indonesia in 2010, for example, McKinnie says researchers discovered more than 50 new species of coral.