Katy Croff Bell testifies on Ocean Exploration for House Science Committee

House Science Committee

June 5, 2019

Open Ocean Director, Dr. Katy Croff Bell, testified before the Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology for a congressional hearing on Ocean Exploration: Diving to New Depths and Discoveries. Her full testimony and archived video of the hearing can be found here

Dr. Bell's Oral Testimony for the House Science Committee Hearing on Ocean Exploration

Chairwoman Fletcher, Ranking Member Marshall, members of the Environment Subcommittee, and members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, thank you for this opportunity to testify on the importance and future of ocean exploration. 

The deep ocean below 200m is the largest ecosystem on our planet, supporting life for every human on earth. The ocean provides most of the oxygen we breathe; supplies food for billions of people; supports a trillion dollar global ocean economy; nourishes our souls; and astonishes us with its wonders. 

In turn, we are impacting the deep sea at an unprecedented rate with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, extraction industries, and more. And yet, we only have a rudimentary understanding of the ocean’s role in our survival; we are at a critical point where we may be irreparably impacting the deep sea without truly understanding what those impacts may be.

In 2000, an expert panel led by Dr Marcia McNutt published the Report of the President’s Panel for Ocean Exploration. The distinguished group of academic, industry, and government leaders called for the establishment of a federal Ocean Exploration Program to map the physical, geological, biological, chemical, and archaeological aspects of the ocean, funded at $75 million/year. Within months, the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration was created and funded at $4M, and has seen a maximum of $42M in FY19. 

If high-risk research like exploration is under-funded or unstable, agencies will tend to invest in safe bets that result in incremental progress, rather than riskier, but potentially transformative, endeavors that can truly change the future, enhance our understanding of the ocean, and ensure US leadership in the field.

Today, deep sea exploration sits at a crossroads. We could continue making incremental progress—or—we could invest in new technologies, research methods, and social systems to transform and accelerate discovery for the 21st century. 

I believe that America is better served with the latter.

To do so, we must first maximize the efficiency of discovery. Current practices focus on large, ship-based equipment, which afford spectacularly-detailed observations, but only on hyper-focused spatial and temporal scales and at a very expensive rate. To truly maximize our investment, we should:

  • leverage economies of scale to dramatically decrease the cost of sensors and systems by orders of magnitude to significantly increase the amount of area we can explore; 
  • develop data systems, standards, archiving, access, and advanced analysis, to fully understand data at new scales in an integrated way; and 
  • innovate across the spectrum of exploration by applying advances from other industries to ocean challenges, and creating a responsive environment in which to deploy and operationalize new tools to re-establish the United States as the global leader. 

Second, we must use these new tools to explore the world’s undiscovered places. To be sure, the mandate to explore the entirety of the US EEZ is a significant challenge. But it is not enough. The ocean does not know boundaries, and it is an incredibly interconnected system, from coastal communities to the high seas; the atmosphere to deep sea trenches. 

We therefore must view ocean exploration as a global imperative, not a national one, to achieve something greater than we could ever do alone. 

And finally, we must lead a global community of explorers. Traditionally, exploration is conducted by those with advanced degrees and access to costly equipment, limiting the number, and diversity, of people involved in the enterprise. To fully explore and understand our vast oceans, however, we need to work outside of the traditional structures. 

One strategy for thinking beyond our current model is to build new bridges with communities who have not yet been invited into oceanographic exploration, including underrepresented communities within the US, as well as developing countries around the world. 

Instead of only an elite cadre of academics participating in ocean exploration—limiting the types and amount work we are able to do—we need to nurture new communities, build greater global capacity for exploration, and look for ideas and expertise in unexpected places.

Creating a global program of ocean exploration is ambitious, but imperative, and will yield a significant return on investment with innumerable benefits to the United States and the world. 

To do so, we need to:

  • invest in high risk research & development to maximize discovery; 
  • explore the world’s undiscovered places; and 
  • lead a global community of explorers. 

By undertaking a long-term global strategy for ocean exploration, we will leverage all that we know, and all that we will discover.

Thank you.

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