COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ROBERT MONROE

Pardon our dust while we update Scripps pier

The mid-20th century is looked upon fondly around Scripps Institution of Oceanography as its golden era of exploration. Scripps took advantage of the close ties it established with the U.S. Navy during World War II to launch some of the most ambitious interrogations of the ocean ever taken in the 1950s and 1960s. We designed missions with the Navy and conducted many of our research cruises in repurposed ships given to us by the Navy.

Those ships that sailed away from the Scripps marine facility in Point Loma during LBJ’s presidency are long gone. What’s still there is the dock from which they were once tethered. Built in 1968, the wharf has lived beyond its 40-year design service life and is now running on borrowed time.

We've taken good care of it, fixing the little things that break, and doing careful routine maintenance. We’ve gotten our money’s worth but now we need to get ready for a new era.

This summer, Scripps will temporarily move its vessels to berths in the Port of San Diego, and demolish its wharf and pier to begin a $25 million revitalization program. When complete, the wharf and pier will look essentially identical — but will be restored structurally and improved technologically to support our oceanographic fleet for the next 50-plus years.

The price tag for a waterfront projects like this is daunting, but forward-thinking people working together were able to find a solution, involving commitments by Scripps, UC San Diego, the University of California system, and the state of California with strong support from local legislators. State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg spearheaded the effort that included advocacy by former Vice President Al Gore, among others.

And once again, with important cooperation from the Navy, and successful coordination between the wharf/pier construction schedule and the Navy’s planned relocation of an adjacent marine mammal facility, millions of dollars were saved.

Scripps is also committed to minimizing construction-related disruptions to our neighbors in Point Loma as much as possible. For example, before the first demolition begins later this summer, a temporary acoustic barrier will be erected to reduce construction sounds at nearby residences.

The construction team plans to proactively address construction-related effects through close coordination and communication with neighbors and by making every effort to minimize the effects of transforming the wharf and pier to a state-of-the-art marine facility.

When completed in December 2015, the new facility will be restored as a world-class home port for the Scripps research fleet, which will by then include Scripps’ newest research vessel Sally Ride, which is under construction now.

The pier and wharf structures will be restored to the load-carrying capacity needed so that scientists can mobilize vessels for oceanographic voyages. Technicians and mariners will once again be able to use the cranes, forklifts and trucks needed to swap out instruments on deck and maintain the sensors on their hulls — all to meet the needs of researchers who come to Scripps from around the country and around the world to sail on these remarkable vessels.

In the past decade, the need for ship-based scientific research has expanded dramatically, even as the use of robotic instruments proliferates. Hundreds of new marine species have been found and identified. We’ve just begun to acknowledge the vast spread of mostly plastic garbage in the ocean, especially in places where currents go to die.

We now know that there’s a change in the chemical makeup of the oceans going on, making seawater more acidic to the detriment of a wide range of sea creatures. We’ve found that several potentially important medical compounds are produced by marine organisms.

We’ve overcome our assumption that the very deep ocean is impervious to the intrusions of society. We’ve revisited the deepest point on Earth since explorers visited the Mariana Trench in 1960. Only once, mind you. Ship-based research played a role in all of these discoveries.

In short, there is so much we don’t know about the system that makes the planet habitable. A second golden era of exploration is not just a nice ambition, but a necessity. It will soon be able to start at a dock suited to the 21st century. With it, San Diego can carry on as one of the leading world locations to conduct science in the areas of greatest need.


Monroe is editor of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography explorations now online magazine.

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