As many as three new coastal research vessels are slated to join the United States' oceanographic research fleet—and Oregon State University will take the lead in designing and building them, OSU President Edward Ray announced yesterday. The National Science Foundation (NSF) will give OSU an initial $3 million to coordinate the concept design; the total expected cost will be $290 million, assuming the U.S. Congress comes up with the money for the new ships.
The vessels are part of a long-term plan to replace some of the vessels in the rapidly aging U.S. scientific fleet. Now, that fleet consists of 20 ships, down from 28 in 2004, and one-half of the remaining vessels are more than 30 years old. In 2002, the consortium of academic institutions and national laboratories that coordinates the ships' schedules, known as the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), drafted a plan to renew the fleet. It called for building10 new ships by 2020—but plans for many of those have yet to materialize.
So yesterday's announcement is good news, not just for OSU but also for the fleet in general, says Clare Reimers, an oceanographer at OSU who helped draft the university's successful proposal. Reimers is also the current chair of the UNOLS Fleet Improvement Committee. The last time that NSF funded a three-ship build was in the 1970s. OSU's proposal calls for building the new vessels over 10 years. Each will be about 53 meters long and fall into UNOLS' "Regional Class," meaning they are some of the smaller ships in the fleet and will be used for scientific missions near the coasts, exploring such issues as ocean acidification, hypoxia, and harmful algal blooms. Each ship will have a state-of-the-art propulsion system that allows for dynamic positioning—holding the ship in place while putting instruments over the side—as well as suites of acoustic sensors for seafloor mapping. If all three are built, they will be distributed around the country: One vessel would be based on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and one on the Gulf of Mexico.
Reimers is hopeful the full funding will materialize. "There has certainly been a lot of work leading up to this that has led to some confidence that it will go forward -- and that the time is right," she says.