Oceanographic Research and Survey Fleet
The US research, exploration, and monitoring fleet consists of more than 400 vessels ranging in size from the 470-foot JOIDES RESOLUTION ocean drilling ship, to small boats that support coastal and inshore water activities. Vessels in this inventory have an average length of 92 feet and are 23 years old. Approximately 21 percent of the vessels are large ocean-going vessels (over 130 feet).
The inventory of vessels is sorted into five organizational categories: University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), federal, state, academic, and commercial. UNOLS vessels include U.S. Navy and NSF-owned vessels in operation with various universities. Federal vessels are those owned and operated by federal agencies, including the Navy and USCG. Academic vessels are non-UNOLS vessels operated by academic institutions and nonprofit, private oceanographic research institutions such as Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institutions and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Commercial vessels are vessels owned by for-profit organizations, including vessels chartered or leased by federal, state or academic institutions. For smaller vessels with a limited operational range, the homeport region approximates the vessel's operational region. For some large oceangoing vessels, the operational region surpasses their homeport region. These larger vessels have a global reach, and occasionally operate for significant periods of time conducting missions through multiple regions.
UNOLS was created in 1972 with the objective of coordinating and reviewing access to and use of facilities for academic oceanographic research. UNOLS plans to reorganize the five categories of vessels into four new classes based roughly on length and capabilities: Global, Ocean, Regional, and Local.
The Global Class will include vessels longer than 230 feet that are able to work worldwide in ice-free waters. These vessels carry more than 30 scientists and can conduct missions longer than 50 days. The Ocean Class is a new class of vessels for interdisciplinary research, similar in design to the Global Class, but without the global range. These vessels are expected to be from 180 to 230 feet in length and will have greater capabilities than the currently existing Intermediate Class vessels. Regional Class is the smallest class, which is expected to depend primarily on federal funding for their construction. These vessels are expected to range from 130 to 150 feet. Regional Class vessels will carry about 20 scientists for up to a month and have laboratory space for multidisciplinary research.
Local vessels are vessels under 130 feet, and their characteristics and number will reflect the research priorities of the sponsoring institutions with input from the UNOLS community. The main factor for the new vessel classification will be the operational capabilities of the vessels and not the length.
The missions supported by these vessels range from water-quality monitoring in the Great Lakes to deep-ocean drilling for geophysical research. The type of deployment mission dictates the vessel's characteristics. Some vessels have a unique role that cannot be replicated by any other vessel in the fleet. For example, the 360-foot FLIP is designed to be towed to a station and "flipped" into a vertical position to act as a research platform. Other vessels frequently support multidisciplinary investigations and cannot be classified within a defined mission (e.g., fisheries, geophysics survey).
The Federal Oceanographic Research and Survey Fleet consists of sophisticated ships that permit scientists to survey and conduct research on the complex ocean, seafloor, and sub-seafloor environment, as well as the most remote polar regions of the world. Ships in the Federal Oceanographic Fleet are instrumental in collecting observational data on Earth systems that provide a foundation for understanding how these systems interact and for improved modeling. Survey vessels play a vital role in providing high-quality data that are used to inform the public and advise natural resource managers. Research vessels are important educational platforms for graduate students and undergraduates in the marine sciences, providing valuable training and at-sea experiences for young researchers. Ships in the Federal Oceanographic Fleet also provide opportunities for teachers to acquire skills that translate into innovative class projects, thereby inspiring a new generation of scientists.
Through at-sea sampling and observing, researchers have begun to understand, model, and predict the responses of marine populations to both long-term and episodic changes in ocean conditions. Scientific ocean drilling and seismic reflection surveys have led to a deeper understanding of Earth’s physical state that can generate earthquakes. Data collected by ships have led to the identification of new energy resources and the discovery of life in extreme environments at and below the seafloor.
The Federal Oceanographic Fleet continues to be a critical national infrastructure that supports Federal agency and academic oceanographic operations, surveys, and research across a broad spectrum of national needs. Ships provide access to the world ocean and Great Lakes, and enable data collection and research for thousands of stakeholders from academia, government, and the public. As costs continue to escalate, improving coordination and efficiency across the Federal government and with non-Federal partners are key principles of the National Ocean Policy.
The Fleet is composed of research and survey ships greater than 40 meters (130 feet) in length owned and operated or leased by the government, along with those Federally or institutionally owned ships operated by the member institutions of the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System. The Fleet has four ship classes based primarily on size:
- Global Class ships are the largest and most capable with the ability to work worldwide with the greatest endurance and large scientific parties. With their extensive deck space, equipment, and a broad and diverse complement of laboratory space and outfitting, they are equipped to handle a wide array of instruments and to deploy suites of moorings, autonomous vehicles, large and complex sampling tools, and sophisticated acoustical equipment. Some vessels in this class support specialized services, including the operation of deepsubmergence vehicles or multichannel seismic reflection equipment. Some are ice-strengthened (e.g., ship’s hull is reinforced with strengthening cross members and double planking) for operations in higher latitudes. The NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown and three Navy vessels—Thomas G. Thompson, Roger Revelle, and Atlantis — are between 15 and 21 years old. Two Navy vessels — Melville and Knorr — were retired in 2014 after 45 years of service. ONR is identifying requirements for a mid-life refit and service life extension program for the Thomas G. Thompson, Revelle, and Atlantis, potentially extending the service life of the three ships to 40 years, which will significantly increase the overall Federal Oceanographic Fleet Global Class research capacity out to 2030. The Navy owns the six active Global Class survey vessels, all of which are less than 20 years old. The Navy’s newest vessel, TAGS-66, became operational in 2014.
- Ocean Class ships are slightly smaller than Global Class vessels and are highly capable but typically not globally ranging. This class includes the older and less-capable “Intermediate” ships that are being phased out. Designed to support integrated, interdisciplinary research and survey missions with many of the same capabilities of the modern Global Class. Generally operating from their home port, these ships will occasionally work worldwide. The older and smaller Intermediate vessels of this class are being phased out as they are less capable of meeting the requirements of the scientists. The ONR-owned R/V Kilo Moana entered the Fleet in 2002 and is expected to be in service until 2032. The Navy appropriated funds in FY11 and FY12 for the construction of two Ocean Class ships (AGOR-27 and -28). These new ships represent an important transition of the Fleet research capacity to modern, technologically advanced ships capable of meeting the scientific research missions of the Nation for the next 30 years
- Regional Class ships are smaller than Ocean Class vessels and are optimized for operation in coastal waters, bays, and estuaries.: These vessels operate on the continental shelf and in the open ocean of specific geographic regions. Regional Class vessels are designed to optimize unique regional conditions, such as the capability to work in shallower areas like estuaries and bays, or under seasonally harsh weather conditions. Regional Class are the smallest vessels for which Federal funding is anticipated to be the primary source for construction
- Local Class ships are the smallest and are used primarily in waters adjacent to their home ports. Most of these ships are not Federally owned.
As of 2012 there were 12 Global Class, 11 Ocean Class (four of which are the older Intermediate Class ships), and three Regional Class research ships. Seven of these research ships were expected to remain in service beyond 2025. As of 2012, three funded (appropriated) ships (Sikuliaq, AGOR-27, and AGOR-28) should enter the fleet between 2013 and 2015. The two Ocean Class ships appropriated by Navy (AGOR-27 and AGOR-28) and the three Regional Class ships (RCRV 1–3) being studied by NSF would support transition of the Fleet from the technologically obsolete Intermediate Class to a capable and properly capitalized research Fleet for accomplishing U.S. research objectives in ocean science for the next three decades.
The ships are grouped into Research and Survey categories, based on their primary purpose and capabilities.
- T-AOR - Research ships carry a broad array of scientific instrumentation, winches, wires, cranes, and articulating frames capable of supporting activities such as water-column and seafloor sampling, monitoring, and acoustic and bathymetric mapping. Laboratories equipped with sophisticated analytical equipment and computers allow preliminary data analysis and sample storage while underway. Data collected often provide real-time input into cruise execution, enabling scientists to make adjustments to mapping or sampling plans. Most vessels are multipurpose and are able to conduct a variety of research activities during a single expedition. Some research ships are specialized, having the ability to conduct multichannel seismic operations, deploy and recover humanoccupied vehicles (HOVs), recover long sediment and rock cores, and conduct ocean drilling experiments in all parts of the ocean, or operate at high latitudes in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.
- T-AGS - Survey ships acquire a wide range of oceanographic, atmospheric, hydrographic, fisheries stock assessment, ecosystem, and habitat data in direct support of resource management and monitoring programs. Survey ships are frequently involved with temporal and spatial studies to monitor, document, and report changing trends. Shipmounted sensors collect continuous oceanographic and atmospheric data. J-frames, A-frames, cranes, and winches are used to deploy scientific equipment, including trawl nets, longlining gear, small boats, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), and conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD) sensors. Laboratories carry a variety of calibrated instruments for on-site data processing and analysis, specialized software, software suites for nautical chart development and scientific computer systems, and sample storage. The majority of today’s survey ships are specially designed to meet specific mission requirements. NOAA’s Fisheries Survey Vessels (FSVs) have been acoustically quieted in accordance with standards defined by the International Council for Exploration of the Seas, while others have been equipped to collect high-resolution bathymetry, gravity, and magnetic data to enable construction of detailed seafloor maps.
The Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR) funds basic and applied research and technology demonstrations in support of near-term and future naval capabilities needed for the preservation of national security. ONR research ships support its programs in coastal geosciences, ocean acoustics, ocean engineering, undersea signal processing, marine meteorology, physical oceanography, and ocean optics, and biology, primarily carried out by university laboratories through funded grants.
The Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) optimizes seapower by applying relevant oceanographic knowledge in support of U.S. national security. NAVOCEANO conducts multidisciplinary ocean surveys in support of national and Navy requirements, provides global oceanographic and geospatial products and services to meet the Department of Defense and Navy safe navigation and weapon/ sensor performance requirements, and generates and disseminates global oceanographic observations and forecasts to Naval forces.
NAVOCEANO had technical control of six multi-purpose oceanographic survey ships as of 2012. These vessels are designed and constructed to provide the full spectrum of oceanographic capabilities in coastal and deep-ocean areas. Surveyors onboard collect multidisciplinary global oceanographic, hydrographic, and geophysical data used to gain a better understanding of the ocean’s volumetric physical oceanography and seabed properties. This data is used to support the warfighter, navigational safety, and the Navy’s Undersea Warfare and Maritime Homeland Defense activities. Typical missions of NAVOCEANO vessels may include oceanographic sampling and data collection of surface water, mid-water, and ocean floor parameters; launch and recovery of small boats known as hydrographic survey launches; launch, recovery, and towing of scientific packages (both tethered and autonomous), including handling, monitoring, and servicing of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs); shipboard oceanographic data processing and sample analysis; and precise navigation, trackline maneuvering, and station-keeping to support deep-ocean and coastal surveys. Expanding programs and continued support of other Federal agencies’ survey missions may increase the use of NAVOCEANO ships in support of national priorities.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) owns and operates two ships. OSV Bold operates in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean Sea to monitor water quality, effects of dredged material, coral reef health, and other special assessments. R/V Lake Guardian operates in the Great Lakes, monitoring water quality and studying the biological community.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) mission is centered around science, service, and stewardship: To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, ocean, and coasts; to share that knowledge and information with others; and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Underlying NOAA’s continued success is its unique infrastructure. NOAA’s core mission functions require satellite systems, ships, buoys, aircraft, research facilities, high-performance computing, and information management and distribution systems. NOAA’s fleet of research and survey ships collect hydrographic and coastal assessment data, conduct fisheries scientific survey operations and ocean exploration, and collect sustained oceanographic and atmospheric data in various marine environments.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has three fundamental roles: maritime safety, security, and stewardship. To carry out these roles, USCG has 11 missions: ports, waterways, and coastal security; drug interdiction; aids to navigation; search and rescue; living marine resources; marine safety; defense readiness; migrant interdiction; marine environmental protection; ice operations; and other law enforcement. USCG ships are indirectly part of the Federal Fleet. In support of the oceanographic fleet, USCG provides icebreaking services that give NSF and the other Federal agencies access for research in the Arctic. USCG polar icebreakers are also capable of breaking a channel into McMurdo Sound in support of resupply efforts for research facilities in Antarctica.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds research activities that span the globe, from domestic coastal waters to remote polar regions, in support of its mission to promote the progress of science, basic research, and education. NSF’s research ships advance programs in biological, chemical, and physical oceanography; marine geology and geophysics; and oceanographic technology development. On behalf of the United States Antarctic Program, NSF leases one research icebreaker and one ice-reinforced research vessel to support science operations in the Antarctic. NSF contracts with the U.S. Coast Guard to provide research icebreaker support for Arctic ocean science operations and is constructing an ice-strengthened research vessel scheduled for delivery in 2013. NSF contracts national and international sources for heavy icebreaking services and also leases a vessel for deep ocean drilling activities.
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