New research vessel would be point of pride for San Diego

One of the lesser-known superlatives about San Diego is that it is home to the largest oceanographic research fleet in the United States. Hard times have pared back so many university-based fleets around the country that Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego has what may be the last great fleet in America.

Because of its size, the fleet is able to maintain a critical mass of dedicated career mariners and marine technicians who work behind the scenes to enable the at-sea success of Scripps scientists. Economy of scale allows Scripps to support the technical expertise required to deploy advanced sensors and systems — for instance portable high-resolution seismic reflection systems that enable geologists to explore marine stratigraphy, or precisely calibrated, reference-quality CTD systems that measure conductivity and temperature as a function of depth and allow physical oceanographers to measure long-term physical changes in the oceans with confidence. At Scripps, where unimpeachable data quality is the holy grail, these sorts of technical capabilities are paramount.

And now the fleet has an opportunity to grow bigger. Last year, Scripps won a tough national competition to operate a new U.S. Navy-built ocean-class research vessel, being designed now for operations beginning in 2015. Now Scripps has a shot at a new regional-class vessel, but first must win another fierce national contest against other oceanographic institutions, this time competing for a ship to be funded by the National Science Foundation. San Diegans should join the chorus making the case for Scripps.

First and foremost, a new vessel would provide high-quality jobs to the area. Beyond the ship’s crew itself, a research vessel supports dozens of jobs and provides other boosts to the local economy, ranging from dry dock maintenance services used when Scripps vessels are in their home port to food supply services to high-technology instrumentation, and even to the supply of nautical charts. These are all services that are contracted locally, enabling Scripps to benefit from San Diego’s robust marine services industry.

The already large size of the Scripps fleet actually makes it the most practical choice to grow even larger, providing the critical mass needed to support full-time shipboard tech positions that could not be supported by smaller fleets. This cadre of talent is the go-to pool not just for Scripps but also for research institutions around the world, and in the last year, Scripps technicians have carried the flag to Antarctica, Bermuda and the Arctic.

A West Coast port would seem the most logical recipient of a new vessel given the growing focus of the U.S. research fleet toward exploration in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Relative to other West Coast locations (really to anywhere in the country) the fleet’s San Diego base offers perks of weather and geographic good fortune that are simply unmatchable. There’s a reason the U.S. Navy bases its Pacific fleet here. Weather bad enough to scuttle at-sea operations is virtually nonexistent in San Diego. San Diego tides are mild. Oceanographers who need to test new instruments can reach deep water an hour from the pier. No location on the East Coast, with its extensive continental shelf, can offer oceanographers access to deep water this easily and quickly. Ports farther north on the West Coast may be able to, but their weather window may close for several months out of the year.

A new research vessel would not only burnish Scripps’ Nimitz Marine Facility and its corner of Point Loma, but also it would be another point of international pride for San Diego and a fiber strengthening the region’s economy when job and commerce engines are sorely needed.

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

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