The R/V Marcus G. Langseth, 1 of 16 ocean-going research facilities in the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS) research fleet. The Langseth serves as the UNOLS National Oceanographic Seismic Facility. Credit: LDEO

Understanding the global environment and predicting its future require that scientists arm themselves with solid working knowledge of the oceans. Researchers from institutions large and small devote their careers to examining oceanic nutrient cycles, the formation of currents, and the evolution of ocean basins through time.

Researchers aboard the R/V New Horizon recover a conductivity-temperature-depth sensor. The mission, part of the California Cooperative Fisheries Investigation (CalCOFI), studies the marine environment, resources, and climate change effects off the coast of California. Now retired from the UNOLS fleet, the New Horizon was operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Credit: James Wilkinson/SIO CalCOFI
was operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Credit: James Wilkinson/SIO CalCOFI

Collecting data from the oceans, their basins, and their subseafloors, particularly in remote locations or on global scales, proves very expensive and far beyond the means of a typical lab or academic science department. How do scientists from the hundreds of universities and research institutions in the United States gain access to the equipment they need?

Since 1971, one answer has been the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), an organization with membership of 62 U.S. academic institutions and national laboratories. UNOLS is governed by ocean scientists, who form an elected council and nine standing committees that collectively comprise more than 60 volunteers. Together, these volunteers manage the operations of 16 ocean-going research vessels and other critical facilities.

At age 44, UNOLS is still going strong, but to continue providing the highest-quality facilities vital for conducting oceanographic research, we need ongoing community input and active engagement.

A Need to Better Understand the Sea

In the decades after World War II, U.S. government officials recognized that meeting national needs—from basic science to defense to food security—required an understanding of marine processes (e.g., see Panel Reports of the Commission on Marine Science from 1969). This recognition, and associated funding increases, spurred rapid growth within marine science research.

This research showed that Earth’s vast oceans influenced the rest of the Earth system through a myriad of Earth-ocean-atmosphere system processes. These involve both near-shore and open-ocean processes, including ocean circulation, biogeochemistry, ecosystem structure, continental slope failure, tsunami and earthquake potential, ecosystems and venting fluids, and deep-sea mineral deposition.

By 1970, the nation boasted 17 laboratories operating 33 research vessels.

Further, the government and the public began to realize—prompted by a nascent environmental movement—how strongly humans could affect the Earth system, including the oceans.

By the 1960s, academic and government institutions were operating an unprecedented number of ocean-going research ships, and the sizes of these ships were increasing. By 1970, the nation boasted 17 laboratories operating 33 research vessels. Twelve of the ships were large enough to require regulatory inspection.

Growth Creates Challenges

Although the explosion in marine research generated important new knowledge, several major challenges became apparent. Investigators from non-ship-operating institutions needed ship access, but there was no organized way of accommodating them. Federal funding agencies also grew concerned about the increasing costs of the vessels and their different modes of operation. And as time progressed, the operating costs of ships rapidly became unsustainable within institutional operating budgets.

Scientists and crew members knock ice off the deck of the R/V Knorr during a research expedition in the Laborador Sea in the late 1990s. Last year, the Knorr was retired from the UNOLS fleet. Credit: George Tupper, WHOI

In 1969, the President’s Commission on Marine Science Engineering and Resources recommended that a National Oceanographic Laboratories System (NOLS) be established to provide a full range of facilities to the marine science community. Universities agreed with the goals of NOLS but were concerned about excessive federal control. Thus, a group of academic and NSF representatives proposed University-NOLS, which would be coordinated by an association of university laboratories.

UNOLS launched in 1971 with members from both ship- and non-ship-operating institutions. Ship operations remained the responsibility of individual operators but were unified and reviewed under the UNOLS umbrella.

UNOLS has evolved over the years, adapting to the needs of the scientific community, the funding agencies, and the expanded types of research platforms available. But its role has remained largely the same: to coordinate and facilitate access to the facilities upon which the national oceanographic research and education enterprise depends.

A Fleet of Research Facilities

Current UNOLS facilities include 16 research vessels, the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF), the National Oceanographic Aircraft Facility, and the National Oceanographic Seismic Facility (Figure 1). The UNOLS Fleet Improvement Committee oversees long-range planning to supervise the design and acquisition of ships and to ensure the right mix and composition of the fleet. The process leading from initial design to ship acquisition can last more than a decade.

Fig. 1. University-National Oceanographic Laboratories System (UNOLS) facilities and their operators. Facility details and the current UNOLS membership list can be found on the UNOLS website.

R/V Sikuliaq is the newest vessel to join the fleet (Figure 1). This 80-meter-long, ice-capable vessel is owned by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and is operated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. R/V Sikuliaq can break ice up to three-quarters of a meter thick, enabling scientists to work in the seasonal ice of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Two other new ships, both owned by the U.S. Navy, will begin science operations in 2016:  R/V Neil Armstrong, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and R/V Sally Ride, operated by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. These general-purpose vessels (both 72.5 meters long) will support a wide suite of multidisciplinary research, including mapping, sampling, and deploying and retrieving over-the-side instruments and vehicles in both coastal and deepwater environments.

The 72-meter-long R/V Marcus G. Langseth, operated by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, serves as the National Oceanographic Seismic Facility. Its air guns and 6- and 8- kilometer-long streamers acquire the data that allow researchers to map Earth’s structure kilometers below the seafloor.

Other UNOLS facilities include NDSF, which manages and operates the submersible Alvin, the remotely operated vehicle Jason/Medea, and the autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry. The Center for Interdisciplinary Remotely-Piloted Aircraft Studies supports the ocean sciences with a Twin Otter aircraft and five unmanned aircraft systems.

Finally, UNOLS has established pools of frequently used scientific equipment, any item of which can be used by researchers on a cruise-by-cruise basis. These include the U.S. National Ocean Bottom Seismograph Instrument Pool, Potential Fields Pool Equipment, and the Van, Winch, and Wire pools.

Support for the UNOLS fleet and major facilities comes primarily from NSF, which provides around 65% of the fleet’s budget. Other major supporting agencies include the Office of Naval Research (~15%) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (~10%). Remaining support comes from states, institutions, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others.

Meeting Future Needs

To plan for the future fleet, the UNOLS Council recently surveyed the research community and received more than 350 survey responses.  The vast majority (90%) of respondents indicated that the need for the fleet will remain constant or increase in the future.

Survey respondents indicated that tight fiscal budgets were taking a toll.

But respondents also indicated that tight fiscal budgets were taking a toll. Specifically, 62% had at some point been reluctant to submit a ship proposal because of the perception of low award rates for these proposals. And 92% of respondents indicated that availability of funding limited the types of science questions they could address. Full results can be found on the UNOLS website.

Bringing in the Next Generation

The R/V Neil Armstrong, prior to launching in Anacortes, Wash. The vessel, funded through the Office of Naval Research, will be operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) for the research community. Science operations will begin in 2016. Credit: Gary McGrath, WHOI

UNOLS runs programs to engage and train the next generation of oceanographic scientists and to help them make full use of the research fleet. During a short course and cruise, researchers instruct early-career scientists on how to be chief scientists on projects that use UNOLS facilities. Since 2011, 99 participants have taken part in this program and have collectively submitted 31 requests to use a U.S. research vessel.

The new-users program run by the Deep Submergence Science Committee (DeSSC) consists of a workshop held prior to the DeSSC meeting at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting. Experienced scientists and NDSF operators provide instruction during the workshop. This program has had 123 participants since 2011, some of whom now serve as members of the DeSSC committee.

Get Involved

UNOLS makes recommendations for replacing, modifying, or improving the number and mix of facilities, and it is important for the science community to provide input into these recommendations. You can get involved in a number of ways.  One is to join the UNOLS listserv to receive announcements of activities and requests for input. Requests for nominations to serve on a committee are sent out through the UNOLS listserv, and nominations and self-nominations are welcome. You can also contact a member of a committee to comment on a specific issue.

UNOLS facilities are a vital part of the infrastructure necessary to do ocean science.

There are also several community meetings related to UNOLS during the year (e.g., the UNOLS Annual Meeting and the DeSSC and the Marcus Langseth Oversight Committee meetings).

UNOLS facilities are a vital part of the infrastructure necessary to do ocean science. The system relies on the research community to help set its course to ensure and enhance the excellence of oceanographic programs. With this help, UNOLS will continue to serve the ocean science community as a key resource for collecting oceanic data.

Author Information

Deborah K. Smith, Department of Geology and Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.; email:; Jon Alberts and Annette DeSilva, UNOLS Office, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett; and Christopher Measures, Department of Oceanography, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, Honolulu

Citation: Smith, D. K., J. Alberts, A. DeSilva, and C. Measures (2015), A university-government partnership for oceanographic research, Eos, 96, doi:10.1o29/2015EO032569. Published on 14 July 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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