News Release

US ocean observation critical to understanding climate change, but lacks long-term national planning

The ocean plays a critical role in climate and weather, serving as a massive reservoir of heat and water that influences tropical storms, El Nin?o, and climate change

Peer-Reviewed Publication

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

WASHINGTON - The ocean plays a critical role in climate and weather, serving as a massive reservoir of heat and water that influences tropical storms, El Nin?o, and climate change. In addition, the ocean has absorbed 30 percent of the carbon dioxide associated with human activities, lessening the climate effects of fossil fuel combustion.

Ocean observing systems are important as they provide information essential for monitoring and forecasting changes in Earth's climate on timescales ranging from days to centuries. A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine finds that continuity of ocean observations is vital to gain an accurate understanding of the climate, and calls for a decadal, national plan that is adequately resourced and implemented to ensure critical ocean information is available to understand and predict future changes. The report notes that federal activities provide an opportunity for sustained and coordinated ocean-observing in the U.S., but require coordinated and high-level leadership to be effective. Additional benefits of this observational system include improvements in weather forecasting, marine resource management, and maritime navigation.

The United States' contributions to the international network of ocean-observing activities are substantial today, and have advanced our understanding of global climate. Particularly, the U.S. is a leader in the efforts of the Global Ocean Observing System, an international organization that identifies priority ocean variables for understanding climate and technical requirements for their measurements. But issues related to flat or declining funding are jeopardizing the country's leadership and creating challenges in maintaining long-term ocean-related climate observations, the report says. Funding mechanisms that rely on annual budget approval or short-term grants may result in discontinuity of ocean-climate measurements, reducing the value of the observations made to date and in the future.

The reports also identifies other challenges that impact sustained observations, such as the declining investment in new technological development, increasing difficulty in retaining and replenishing the human resources associated with sustained ocean observing, and a decreasing number of global and ocean-class research vessels.

The vast ocean area and harsh environment presents a challenge for observing systems, but new sensors, materials, battery technology, and more efficient electronics could increase the effectiveness, efficiency, and longevity of ocean-observing instruments. Ships will continue to be required to deploy and maintain ocean-observing platforms. The report says maintenance of a capable fleet of global and ocean-class research vessels are an essential component of the U.S. effort to sustain ocean observing. At the same time researchers and technicians in key government and academic laboratories are integral to success in the U.S. at sustained ocean observing and are a resource that requires support.

Given that ocean observations for climate provide a wide range of benefits to the agricultural, shipping, fishing, insurance, and energy-supply industries, the committee that wrote the report suggested that efforts could be made to draw support for ocean observing from the commercial sector. In addition, philanthropic organizations have provided support for technology and capacity building initiatives that benefit ocean observing. The committee concluded that establishing an organization to enhance partnerships across sectors with an interest in ocean-observing, particularly nonprofits, philanthropic organizations, academia, U.S. federal agencies, and the commercial sector, would be an effective mechanism to increase engagement and coordination.


The study was sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences' Arthur L. Day Fund and NOAA. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. For more information, visit A roster follows.


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Office of News and Public Information
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Copies of Sustaining Ocean Observations to Understand Future Changes in Earth's Climate are available at or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


Division on Earth and Life Studies,/p>

Ocean Studies Board

Committee on Sustaining Ocean Observations to Understand Future Changes in Earth's Climate

Mary M. Glackin (co-chair)
Senior Vice President, Public-Private Partnerships, and
Director of Meteorological Science and Services
The Weather Company, an IBM Business
Washington, D.C.

Robert A. Weller (co-chair)
Senior Scientist
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole, Mass.

Edward A. Boyle*
Professor of Ocean Geochemistry
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and
MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Joint Program in Oceanography

Robert B. Dunbar
William M. Keck Professor of Earth Sciences
Department of Environmental Earth Systems Science
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Robert Hallberg
Oceanographer and Head
Oceans and Ice-sheet Processes and Climate Group
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Princeton, N.J.

Patrick Heimbach
Associate Professor, and
Fellow, W.A. "Tex" Montcrief Jr. Endowment in Simulation-Based Engineering and Sciences Chair No. 3
University of Texas

Mark Merrifield
Department of Oceanography
School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology
University of Hawaii

Dean Roemmich
Professor of Oceanography
Integrative Oceanography Division and the Climate, Atmospheric Science, and Physical Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California
San Diego

Lynne D. Talley
Professor of Oceanography
Scripps Institution of Oceanography
University of California
San Diego

Martin Visbeck
Head of Research Unit, Physical Oceanography
Kiel, Germany


Susan Roberts
Director, Ocean Studies Board

Emily Twigg
Associate Program Officer, Ocean Studies Board

April Melvin

*Member, National Academy of Sciences

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