SAN FRANCISCO — Scientists are planning an ambitious mission to a new and barely explored world that isn’t far from the old one: the oceans.
The watery depths cover more than two-thirds of the planet’s surface and drive the Earth’s climate, but for the most part have been largely ignored compared to the continents, atmosphere and even parts of the solar system.
“Despite efforts over the past 25 years, 95 percent of the oceans remain unknown and unexplored,” said Marcia McNutt, president of the American Geophysical Union and of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.
McNutt was chairwoman of the Ocean Exploration Panel, which recently finished a report calling for a new era of ocean exploration. The panel of ocean explorers, scientists and educators was formed last summer at the request of President Clinton.
The group’s proposal, which was discussed at the AGU’s fall meeting Friday, calls for an approach involving both the physical and social sciences. Current research is too driven by specific theories; the new program will be powered by the spirit of discovery, panelists said.
“We tend to focus on a particular scientific problem, at a particular place and at a particular time,” said John Orcutt, professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
“What we’re asking is to return to the idea of exploring this one last huge remaining part of our planet. It is a major departure that we’re asking for.”
At the center of the proposal would be a voyage of discovery circumnavigating the globe. It would start in Maine, sail down the East Coast and points south, circle Antarctica, head north through the Indian and Pacific oceans, and finish with a trip under the Arctic polar cap.
Before that happens – at a still undisclosed time – researchers hope to develop the best plan of attack by developing new tools and maps and setting up oceanic observatories. They also must somehow acquire all the equipment for the voyage.
All the data from the project would be made instantly available to researchers and others via satellite links.
“This is the first national report written by any nation that lays out the strategy for ocean exploration,” said D. James Baker, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The panel, which earlier this month presented its report to Clinton, recommended $75 million each year for 10 years. NOAA, taking the lead so far, is asking for half that amount starting in its fiscal year 2002 budget request.
Other federal agencies – such as the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Navy – could provide the rest of the money, panelists said.
“This kind of program doesn’t work unless there are funds behind it,” Baker said.
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