Events 2000: The Best and Worst of Times?
By DON WALSH
DON WALSH served 24 years in the Navy, during which time he was involved
in many aspects of Navy oceanographic activity. He heads International
Maritime Inc., which he founded in 1975.
Federal budgets are supposed to be in place by 1 October, but 2000 set
a special record for tardiness. President Bill Clinton did not sign off
on a long list of spending bills until mid-December. In the interim the
106th Congress passed more than 16 "continuing resolutions"
so the government could continue to operate.
For the U.S.-ocean community the situation was not too bleak. By mid-November,
Congress had passed 12 of the 13 annual appropriation bills needed to
run the government. These were the fiscal year 2001 appropriations bills
for defense (Naval Oceanographic Office, Office of Naval Research), NASA
(National Aeronautics and Space Administration), and the National Science
Foundation (NSF). One major "ocean player"--the Department of
Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), had
to wait until December. The total FY 2001 budget will be an estimated
Despite their other conflicts--before and after the national elections--Congress
and the Clinton administration did agree on significant increases in the
federal research-and-development (R&D) budgets for the agencies named.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) estimates
that total R&D appropriations will be $91 billion, a 9.2 percent increase
over FY 2000. This is an all-time record, and 5-plus percent real growth
over the inflation rate. Apparently, all 10 of the largest federal recipients
of R&D funding will receive significant increases.
Most of the news is positive for agencies with embedded ocean programs.
DOD's R&D budget will increase by 6.8 percent; NSF's by about 14.3
percent; NOAA's by 7.4 percent; NASA's by 5.6 percent; Interior's by 3.2
percent; and EPA's by 6.1 percent. Only time will tell if the higher FY
2001 funding measurably improves investment in the national ocean program.
Overall budget figures are available for the agencies, but it is not known
precisely how much will actually pass down to their ocean programs.
Clinton's Ocean Legacy
President Clinton may not be known as "The Ocean President,"
but several ocean-related activities during his eight-year tenure were
positive, even unique. The National Ocean Conference in May 1998 in Monterey,
Calif., marked the first time that a president, a vice-president, cabinet
officers, and key leaders of the national ocean community met together
to consider the way ahead. Somewhat flawed, perhaps high on symbolism
and low on actual progress, the conference did focus the uppermost levels
of government on the many challenges the nation faces in the oceanic arena.
During the conference the president ordered his Cabinet to produce a comprehensive
federal ocean-policy plan. The plan, "Turning Towards the Sea: America's
Ocean Future," was released in 1999.
Various White House legislative initiatives and executive orders dealt
with a variety of ocean-related issues--e.g., the establishment of new
marine protected areas, a coral-reef preservation initiative, and international
cooperation on the mitigation of global warming. In addition, federal
agencies sent Congress many legislative proposals to promote better knowledge
of the sea and its interaction with the atmosphere. Only a few of those
initiatives were approved by Congress, however, and the international
community was unable to translate growing concern over global warming
into practical solutions as 2000 drew to a close.
The White House also hosted a "Millennium Matinee" event, "Exploration:
Under the Sea and Beyond the Stars." About 150 explorers, academics,
government leaders, and high school students heard presentations by President
and Mrs. Clinton, and a number of distinguished scientists. The president
announced a "new era of ocean exploration" encompassing three
expeditions to explore the sea floor off New York, Florida, and California.
He also ordered NOAA to form an "Ocean Exploration Panel" of
leading U.S. ocean scientists whose task would be to make recommendations
within 120 days for a national oceans exploration strategy.
The 23-member panel met twice and sent its report, "Discovering
the Earth's Final Frontier: A U.S. Strategy for Ocean Exploration,"
to the Secretary of Commerce on 10 October. What will be done with the
recommendations is uncertain. The timing of the effort was not particularly
helpful: A lame-duck president and lame-duck Congress cannot do much,
if anything, to implement any report received so late in an election year.
One can only hope that President-elect Bush and the new Congress will
find the panel's suggestions useful in developing future legislation.
Congress also completed some helpful "ocean business." The
long-awaited "U.S. Oceans Act" introduced in the previous two
congresses finally cleared both houses and was signed into law by the
president on 7 August. The "Oceans Act of 2000" creates a 16-member
Commission on Ocean Policy that will undertake an extensive review of
U.S. ocean activities. Members of the commission are to be appointed within
three months of the start of the new administration and hold their first
meeting within 30 days after being appointed. All members will be appointed
by the president, but 12 will be selected from nominations submitted by
the House and Senate.
Findings and recommendations must be reported to the president and Congress
no later than 18 months after the committee is activated. Four months
after receiving the report, the president must send to Congress a plan
implementing the Commission's recommendations.
The Oceans Act of 2000 also requires the president to send biennial reports
to Congress on federal ocean-and-coastal programs. The reports would describe
the ocean-related programs of each federal agency and include a five-year
budget projection for each program.
Also, a congressional "House Oceans Caucus" was formed in 2000.
A coordinating and information-gathering group, it brings together legislators
with ocean-related interests and responsibilities. The primary activity
of this bipartisan forum is to sponsor periodic meetings during which
government agencies, academe, and the private sector discuss ocean issues
with caucus members.
The executive and legislative branches of government were not the only
players in the "commissions and committees" business. In May,
the Pew Foundation established a "Commission on Oceans and Marine
Life," chaired by New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. The
vice chairman is former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. Seventeen
commissioners already have been appointed from government, industry, and
academe; more may be added later. Funded at $3.5 million by the Pew Charitable
Trusts, the commission will take 18 months "to assess the conditions
of America's oceans and living marine resources," emphasizing conservation-related
aspects of ocean uses. The final report will be issued at just about the
same time as the report from the president's Commission on Ocean Policy.
It will be interesting to compare outputs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts also supports the Pew Center on Global Change,
which it founded in 1998. Independent and nonprofit, the Center was founded
to educate citizens and governments about the consequences of global warming
and what can be done to mitigate its adverse effects. More than 20 Fortune
500 companies are members of the Center's Business Environmental Leadership
Council. Their role is to help industries understand the negative effects
of global warming and what can be done to mitigate them.
The Washington-based H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics,
and the Environment sponsors studies on a variety of coastal and ocean
issues. Among its activities and studies are: U.S. leadership role in
the 1998 Year of the Oceans; sustainable oceans, coasts, and waterways;
fisheries management; and evaluating costs of coastal hazards. Last year,
in cooperation with the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the Heinz Center
organized a series of colloquia, "Oceanography: The Making of a Science--People,
Institutions and Discovery." Six were held between January and March
at the major U.S. oceanographic institutions. More than 100 presentations
were made on the historical development of ocean science in the United
States. While such an activity might not fall into the category of future
planning, one can make the case that considering lessons of the past is
a helpful means of anticipating the future.
The year's spate of reports, legislation, and conferences prompts one
to ask if there is a variety of "Potomac Oceanography" at play--another
example of "paralysis by analysis"? This would not be the first
time that federal agencies have studied a problem to death, but there
is every indication that an increasing number of people have gradually
awakened to the reality that the oceans really are important to humankind's
well-being on Earth. Now, with more generous federal funding coming into
play, it is important to have well-researched plans and programs in place
to use those dollars wisely. Interagency coordination and cooperation
are equally important, because ocean-related functions are spread across
many federal departments.
Global Warming and Rising Oceans
Several unmistakable environmental changes are occurring as the Earth's
average temperature continues to climb. While the scientific community
may debate the precise causes, the effects are being carefully monitored,
recorded, and evaluated.
Current research indicates that the Arctic Ocean's permanent ice cover
has decreased in volume by 40 percent since 1958. Since 1970 there has
been a three-and-a-half-foot reduction in ice thickness and a 6 percent
loss of the total area covered by ice. Some researchers have predicted
that this ocean will be ice-free in 50 years if current warming trends
continue. This could have drastic effects on Northern Europe's climate.
Greenland's land-bound ice mass (about 8 percent of all land ice on Earth)
also is thinning. In some places the rate of melting may be as much as
three feet a year. Unlike the Arctic's ocean of floating ice, land-bound
ice runoff contributes to a rise in sea level. In the case of Greenland,
the contribution is equal to about 7 percent of the present annual rise
in sea level. This statistical snapshot may seem like a comparatively
small amount, but it equals 50 billion gallons of water flowing into the
Atlantic and Arctic Oceans each year.
In the Antarctic, which holds 91 percent of the world's land-bound ice,
giant ice sheets are breaking off into the sea. Last year nearly 1,000
square miles of ice was lost from coastal shelves. This ice forms massive
tabular icebergs (some as large as the state of Delaware) but, because
ice shelves float on the sea, they do not cause a sea-level rise when
they break up. However, the absence of these barriers to the land-locked
ice behind them results in more glaciers flowing directly to the open
ocean--leading to an eventual rise in sea level. Concern for the impact
of this phenomenon is growing around the world.
In the Indian Ocean, the government of the Republic of the Maldives claims
that much of its population may have to abandon their homes during this
century--more than a quarter million people will simply have to leave
and live elsewhere. The culprit: inexorable sea rise. Most of the 1,200
islands of this nation are now only three feet above sea level, on average.
Several other low-lying nations will face similar problems if the sea's
level continues to rise.
With most of the world's population living within 200 miles of a coastline,
problems will not be limited to Third World countries. Eight out of ten
major cities in the world are located on a coast. Coastal inhabitants
of Louisiana are losing approximately 30 square miles of marshes each
year as the Gulf of Mexico encroaches along the shoreline. It is estimated
that 50 towns in the area may be submerged by the middle of this century.
In the atmosphere, the Earth's weather also is changing. Severe weather
is more frequent and more severe. The average global climate is 5 degrees
Fahrenheit warmer than it was 500 years ago, but more than 80 percent
of this increase took place during the 19th and 20th centuries as the
pace of industrialization accelerated. Estimates of the global temperature
increase by the end of 2000 now are as high as 8 degrees Fahrenheit.
As a consequence, the oceans are changing too. They are getting warmer,
and this results in an average sea level rise. Water also expands when
it is warmed, and many experts believe that much of the current sea-level
rise is due to expansion of the oceans. The rate of rise may be in the
range of 1.5 to 3.0 feet this century. This may not strike a casual observer
as a significant change, but the 20th century's rise of "only"
1 foot made the shoreline of the East Coast retreat as much as 300 feet
in some places.
A warmer ocean also produces several meteorological effects. Increased
thermal energy transferred to the atmosphere can increase the number and
intensity of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. These weather systems
require a surface water temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to
generate and sustain them. When a larger area of the ocean surface reaches
this temperature level, more frequent severe weather systems result.
An 11-degree Fahrenheit rise in the Earth's average temperature by the
end of this century would be more than enough to greatly accelerate the
present global melting of land-bound ice--with dramatic consequences.
For example, if all of the ice in Greenland and the Antarctic were to
melt, oceans would rise about 260 feet--reaching to the tip of the Statue
of Liberty's fingers. Such a catastrophic event is unlikely, but even
small rises in sea level will result in major damage in coastal areas.
These changes in the global environment result from two primary causes:
(1) human actions in burning large quantities of fossil fuels, which create
"greenhouse gases"; and (2) natural causes such as climatic
cycles and periodic events. Today there is some conflict in the scientific
community about how much effect each of these forces--man and nature--have
on global change, but there is no mistaking the results.
Man-induced changes occur largely as the result of releasing nearly 20
billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2)--the major greenhouse gas--into the
atmosphere each year. Much can be done to mitigate this damage. The obvious
solution is difficult to develop and apply equitably around the world:
a massive reduction in atmospheric pollution.
A few experts have suggested that the reduction in CO2 emission levels
should be as high as 80 percent. Drastic measures to achieve this solution
are easier said than done; an abatement of the magnitude that might be
needed would require the world's populations to change their lifestyles
dramatically. And, of course, it is the wealthy industrialized nations
that generate the highest levels of this pollution. More specifically,
the United States, which is the world's largest producer of greenhouse
The world community has recognized the problem, and in mid-1997 discussed
solutions at the Kyoto Conference on Climate Change in Japan. The resulting
"Kyoto Protocol" (treaty) has been signed by more than 150 nations.
Its first goal is to reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions to the
1990 level. As of mid-December 2000, no industrial nations, the largest
contributors of these gases, had ratified the treaty.
While President Clinton signed the conference agreement, the treaty draft
was not submitted to the U.S. Senate. Much initial resistance to the treaty
and pressure on the Senate came from U.S. industries, who believed that
the cost of achieving emission reductions would hurt their competitive
advantage in global markets. This concern was more than hypothetical,
because the Kyoto Protocol proposed to exempt developing nations from
most requirements to reduce emissions while mandating that developed nations
adhere to a stiff schedule of reductions.
An Impasse in Oslo
Corporate America has largely reversed course during the past two years.
Most of the largest U.S. corporations have changed their views and embarked
on aggressive programs to cut their atmospheric emissions without waiting
for government direction. Now the stage may be set for the Kyoto Treaty
to be introduced to the Senate in the first session of the 107th Congress
The outlook was not promising in December, however, as the United States
rejected an invitation to reopen talks in Oslo, Norway, with the European
Union (EU); the U.S. refusal followed a breakdown in negotiations at The
Hague in November. The impasse centered on how best to implement emission
reductions. As reported by The New York Times on 18 December, the United
States proposed to count the carbon stored in its forests and farmlands
against the target for emission reductions set at Kyoto in 1997. The EU
held the line on limiting the use of such flexible mechanisms.
"Without additional convergence between the parties on important
issues," said U.S. Under Secretary of State Frank Loy, "a further
ministerial meeting would not be useful at this time." The Times
reported that, while no new talks were scheduled, the Dutch environmental
minister chairing negotiations in The Hague said the aim is still to bring
all parties together to reach a final agreement during the first half
of 2001. Time will tell how the Bush administration will approach the
resumption of negotiations, but the imperative for achieving consensus
and for taking meaningful action is a stark reality.
Unlike man-made pollution and its environmental consequences, natural
changes in the global environment are much more difficult to measure and
understand. They can occur over cycles that can range up to thousands
of years. Paleoclimatology scientists have determined that the Earth's
temperature has varied from between 10 degrees cooler to 20 degrees warmer
than at present. These natural swings occurred long before man became
part of the problem.
In addition, there are singular natural events--major volcanic eruptions,
massive movements of crustal plates that change large areas of coastlines,
and large objects from space striking the Earth--that have profound effects.
As an example, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991
was responsible for a measurable drop in average global temperature--an
effect that lasted about four years.
These natural changes clearly are of such magnitude that man can do nothing
to change them. The only "action" possible is to try to understand,
and to predict, these events so mitigation measures can be taken. An example
is the U.S. Global Change Research Program created in 1989. More than
$19 billion in research funds has been spent by the program since that
time, making important contributions to the formulation of an authoritative
understanding of the significant changes affecting "the good planet
The Rain Forests of the Sea
Disturbing trends also are evident in the world's coral reefs--often
described as the "rain forests of the sea." While accounting
for less than 1 percent of the Earth's surface, they are one of its most
biologically diverse habitats. In the tropics, about 25 percent of the
world's coral reefs--some of them more than two and a half million years
old--have died. During November's International Coral Reef Symposium,
researchers presented strong evidence that--absent new protection--as
much as half of the world's remaining coral reefs could disappear within
25 years. Nearly 50 percent of Indonesia's reefs have already died.
In December, President Clinton announced strong new protections for the
remote and pristine coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,
which represent more than 70 percent of all U.S. coral reefs. During a
ceremony at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., Clinton
issued an executive order establishing the 84- million-acre Northwestern
Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. It is now the largest protected
area in the United States.
Clinton's action followed his direction to the secretaries of the Departments
of Commerce and the Interior in May to develop recommendations for "strong
and lasting protection" for these coral ecosystems. In June 1998,
Clinton established a U.S. Coral Reef Task Force to lead the development
and implementation of a program to map and monitor U.S. coral reefs. The
task force was charged to reduce and mitigate coral reef degradation resulting
from pollution, overfishing, and other causes. Efforts also are underway
to implement conservation strategies worldwide.
Marine Sanctuaries and Protected Areas
The Clinton administration was active on other fronts to protect the
world's oceans and marine sanctuaries. This past year marked the 25th
anniversary of the U.S. Marine Sanctuaries Program. In November, President
Clinton signed a law to reauthorize the program for another five years.
Managed by NOAA, the program has established 13 sanctuaries along the
coasts of the continental United States, Hawaii, and U.S. possessions.
The first was designated in 1975--the wreck of the historic ex-USS Monitor,
located in 185 feet of water off the North Carolina Capes.
In October, Thunder Bay in Lake Michigan--the resting place for several
historic shipwrecks--was designated a sanctuary, the most recent addition
to the list. The sanctuaries range in size from 5,328 square miles in
Monterey Bay to less than one quarter of a square mile in American Samoa.
The purpose of the program is to select, designate, and protect underwater
areas having distinctive natural and cultural importance. Public and commercial
use of these areas is carefully regulated by NOAA. While the sites are
not quite underwater parks, some sanctuaries do have provisions for visits
by divers, and all of them have nearby "interpretive centers"
on land where visitors can learn about the natural history and cultural
importance of the sanctuaries.
Last May, the president also signed Executive Order 13158, "Marine
Protected Areas." Its intent is to achieve better coordination among
the several federal agencies responsible for the protection of coastal
and marine areas under their management. The order establishes several
cooperative, coordinating, and advisory mechanisms within the Executive
Branch. If successful, better coordination can reduce duplication and
waste, thereby permitting appropriated funds to be applied even more effectively
in this important area.
Woods Hole's manned submersible Alvin had another busy year in 2000.
By the end of December the world's most famous research submarine had
made more than 150 dives in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf
of California, and the Gulf of Mexico. First put into service in 1964,
and completely reconstructed over the years, Alvin has made nearly 3,700
dives carrying almost 11,000 people on underwater voyages that averaged
seven hours and reached depths of about 6,500 feet. Total time submerged
since 1964 has been roughly 1,046 days--2.9 years. Alvin has to be one
of the most productive scientific platforms in the world.
While Alvin may be the most productive, it is not the only U.S.-owned
manned submersible supporting oceanography. Seven others are presently
operational. At the private Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in
Fort Pierce, Fla., there are two submersibles--the 3,000-foot-capable
Johnson Sea-Link and the 1,000-foot-capable Clelia. The University of
Hawaii operates the 6,000-foot Pisces V. And the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered
2,400-foot NR-1, while not wholly dedicated to oceanographic research,
continues to make important contributions.
Last January, Texas A&M University's affiliated Institute for Nautical
Archaeology (INA) took delivery of a SEAmobile MKII submersible. Capable
of diving to 150 feet with two on board, it will work on underwater archaeological
projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. INA, founded by noted marine archaeologist
Dr. George Bass, needed a shallow-diving manned submersible to assist
divers at various work sites. With its all-acrylic pressure hull, SEAmobile
MKII provides an excellent work platform for a relatively low cost.
Finally, there is the very successful Delta submersible, which can take
two people to 1,200 feet. It is privately owned and, since 1983, has made
more than 5,350 dives doing mostly scientific contract work. During these
13 years it has had no days lost due to "equipment failure,"
an enviable record for any machine--all the more so for a platform operating
beneath the ocean's surface.
One of the more bizarre developments in the "submersible community"
happened in September in Colombia. A police raid discovered a 100-foot-long
submarine under construction that was intended for the covert smuggling
of drugs into the United States. The $10 million sub was large enough
to accommodate a cargo compartment with an estimated 11-ton capacity.
Its pressure hull and many of the other major components were about 40
percent complete. Its estimated diving depth was 325 feet and cruising
speed was 8 to 10 knots. Technical manuals recovered from the craft were
written in Russian with Spanish translations.
A Good Year for Marine Archeology and Salvage
A major salvage expedition--consisting of three ships, two manned submersibles,
and two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs, tethered unmanned submersibles)--visited
the Titanic wreck site in August. Two Russian Mir manned submersibles
(capable of diving to 20,000 feet) made 28 dives to the wreckage field
and recovered more than 850 artifacts which are now undergoing a three-year
conservation program before they will be available for display.
The salvage company mounting the expedition, RMS Titanic Inc. (the "salvor
in possession"), emphasized that the artifacts would not be sold,
but would instead be displayed in a series of for-profit exhibitions around
the world. During six expeditions to the site since 1987, the company
has recovered more 5,800 artifacts. There is considerable concern that
the wreck is deteriorating very rapidly. Some experts have said it will
fall apart and collapse within 20 years.
The August recovery of the Civil War submarine CSS H.L. Hunley off Charleston,
S.C., was a signal triumph for historians and salvage experts alike. The
Hunley was sunk 136 years earlier during an attack on a blockading U.S.
Navy ship, the USS Housatonic. The mission was successful and the Housatonic
sank, but so did Hunley. It was the first successful attack in naval history
in which a surface warship was sunk by a submarine.
Hunley was found in 1995, but it was not until last August that it was
brought to the surface. After being raised from 30 feet of water it was
placed on a barge and moved to a special conservation facility in Charleston,
where it is expected to take five years to preserve it. The first task
will be to remove the remains of the Confederate Navy crew for a proper
military burial. Total costs for the conservation will be from $16 million
to $20 million.
On a tragic note, this past August the Russian Oscar II-class submarine
Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. She was on maneuvers with surface ships
and another submarine when a massive internal explosion ripped open the
forward part of her hull, killing most of the crew instantly. The cause
of the explosion is still being investigated. The U.S. Navy has staunchly
refuted Russian allegations that any U.S. submarines operating in the
vicinity of Kursk were in any way involved in her loss.
Diving operations in October recovered the bodies of eight Kursk crewmembers
before bad weather set in. The Russian government reportedly will begin
salvage of the submarine late next summer.
Finally, in an interesting turn of events, the Spanish government has
intervened with U.S. courts in a case where salvage rights were being
sought to develop Spanish colonial warship wrecks found in U.S. waters.
Spain claims these are, and always have been, government vessels and therefore
remain the property of the Spanish government. A U.S. court of appeals
agreed, and now the salvager may not work the site (off Virginia) without
Spain's approval. It should be pointed out that the United States has
always maintained that it owns all U.S. government ships and aircraft
on the seafloor no matter how long ago or where they were lost. U.S. government
support of Spain's claim creates reciprocity between the two nations.
Who Will Eat the Last Fish?
International experts estimate that nearly three quarters of the world's
fish stocks are already "over-fished" and require "urgent
conservation measures." About 43 percent of the U.S.-managed marine
fisheries are declared "over-fished." If the world's fishing
industry maintains its present catch levels and fishing practices, there
will be an inevitable collapse of many of the world's fisheries. The present
world catch is about 86 million tons, and this figure has not changed
very much since 1990. Limits have been reached, and perhaps exceeded.
But two-thirds of the world's population depends on fish as their primary
source of protein. This population is growing by about 80 million people
a year. Fishing and livestock will not be able to meet the added demand
for protein as world populations continue to rise.
What can be done? One answer is more aquaculture, the farming of fish
and certain seaweeds. Aquaculture now produces 31 million tons of fish
a year and, with an 11 percent annual growth rate, is the fastest growing
sector of the world food business.
China ranks first in the world with 21 million tons a year of aquaculture
production. This is nothing new for the Chinese, who have been farming
fish and seaweed for nearly 3,000 years.
There is growing international concern about the health and future of
marine fisheries. But at present there is more talk than action. Once
a stock collapses, though, it may be too late to restore it.
The Best and Worst of Times?
In many ways, the present global oceans outlook is, as Charles Dickens
characterized an earlier age, the best and worst of times. The problems--be
they global warming, a continued rise in sea level, severe changes in
weather patterns, pollution, overfishing, and a precipitous extinction
of the world's coral reefs--are reaching critical proportions. Yet, at
the same time, a global consensus appears to be growing on the need to
take cooperative action across a broad front.
With improved knowledge and understanding, informed decisions can be
made and appropriate solutions implemented. The Clinton administration
deserves much credit from the oceanic community for the role it played
in showing the way ahead for the United States. The need for the Bush
administration--and for Congress--to sustain this momentum is manifest.