NOAA teams up with private sector for deep sea exploration

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in recent months has inked agreements with three private companies, extending the agency’s own capabilities to explore and map the deepest parts of the ocean. For whys and hows, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with NOAA’s Deputy Administrator Tim Gallaudet. Read more information here and here.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Gallaudet, good to have you on.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Great to be here, Tom. Thank you.

Tom Temin: So what is NOAA trying to do here? One of them is Paul Allen’s company, the former Paul Allen’s company, and some people that have pretty heavy chops in doing ocean exploration. Something NOAA also has. Tell us the goal of these agreements.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Absolutely, Tom. Well, you’re right. These agreements we formed are with companies and organizations that do have pretty deep pockets and incredible ocean exploration capabilities. And the motivation behind this stems from a White House Summit in November last year, directed at developing ocean science and technology partnerships. And at this summit, We talked with the White House Science Advisor, Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, about ways we might be able to expand our capability to map and explore the ocean using creative and innovative partnerships. And what we have with these four agreements, including Paul Allen’s Vulcan company, our access to their ships, their technologies, that’s going to allow our scientists do a lot more than what we would with our assets only. And so the intent was to meet the directive of a presidential memorandum signed just after this summit to map and explore our exclusive economic zone by 2030.

Tom Temin: Got it. So I guess my question is, I didn’t realize that all of the, at least the economic zone of the United States, would not have been mapped at this point yet, but it’s not?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Exactly, less than 50% has been mapped to modern standards. And incredibly, if you just look at the ocean volume, only about 5 to 10% of the volume of the oceans in the world have been explored. So there’s a lot out there we don’t know about. And these organizations are going to allow us to cover more territory, cover more ocean and learn about our oceans influence on the planet, on climate, on the potential contributions our oceans can make towards critical minerals, pharmaceuticals and energy.

Tom Temin: And of course you are a retired Rear Admiral in the Navy. Could this work also benefit naval operations at some point?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Absolutely, the data we collect is vital to national security. It supports not only safe navigation, knowing what the sea floor is like allow our ships and submarines and our Navy to operate safely. There’s also information about the water columns that our Navy uses in training for anti-submarine warfare operations and national operations such as the recent exercise the Navy conducted up in the Arctic Ocean called ICEX.

Tom Temin: And one of the companies involved too, you mentioned Paul Allen’s company called Vulcan, there’s also Victor Vescovo’s company Caladan. And Victor Vescovo if I understand it is the gentleman who went to the deepest part of the ocean in some kind of an enclosure, using a former NOAA and former Navy ship as the base of operations. And that’s something I guess no one else has done.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: That’s correct. What’s unique about Victor is he was able to dive in the five deepest trenches of the world’s oceans. And for the deepest trench, the Challenger Deep into the Marianas Islands, he was able to set the depth record as well as the duration record for diving in that trench. It had been dove in twice before one in 1960 and then later a few years ago, and he was able to set the duration record using human operated vehicle they call it or a deep submersible, and find some very interesting things that had not been discovered like new species, new geologic features. And information, as I told you is important for NOAA and part of our mission to archive as well as disseminate to important users in the government and to the public.

Tom Temin: And how do these agreements work? Are they craters? Are they contracts? Are they grants? Give us a sense of what the arrangement looks like from a federal operation standpoint.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Absolutely. Well, for the companies you’ve mentioned, there are memorandums of understanding. And so they’re fairly broad. And they really allow us to partner formally together, provide our scientists to go on board their ships and exchange information about the areas we explore, math as well as information about the technologies we developed, whether independently or jointly.

Tom Temin: And what about them coming on to NOAA ships, is that also possible?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Absolutely. In fact, we’re seeking ways to have those kinds of exchanges,. Of course during the current situation is a little more challenging because the 16 NOAA ships we have our pier side, they’re not operating. They plan to get underway around June 1 depending upon local lifting restrictions due to COVID pandemic. However, the demonstration of the power of these partnerships is underway today, Victor Vescovo’s company Caladan Oceanic is mapping and surveying in the Pacific right at this moment, and they’re mapping some of NOAA’s requirements that were dictated in this presidential memorandum. So here we have a great demonstration of the value of these partnerships. He’s been able to operate within current CDC restrictions out of Guam, and so that’s so so really a win win for us because he’s collecting valuable information in our exclusive economic zone.

Tom Temin: Interesting. And is there a money exchange? And my other question is, what about the intellectual property that is produced? Will it be in the public domain? Or do you have to buy it, or do they have to buy it, or how does that all work?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Well, the information we’re collecting, for example, the symmetry, will be available to the public. Of course, many of the technologies that Victor is using, and these other companies, some are proprietary, so we we do not share those — but the point of the partnership primarily is to capture data, whether it be the nature of the sea floor, new marine species and other aspects of the oceans that these organizations are exploring in partnership with us.

Tom Temin: And will there be also sensor data, say data on conditions such as temperature or currents over time where the data sets might be made available to scientists that could use them for whatever inquiries they might have going?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Absolutely, that’s it. So we mentioned Vulcan, and Caladan. We also have OceanX, Ray Dalio’s company, and he’s got a very nice ship. The point of much of his research and outreach is to communicate that science to the public and get our public more interested in the ocean. And of course, that’s something we seek to do every day with our education and outreach efforts. So that’s another win win element of these partnerships.

Tom Temin: And it looks like you’re also looking at waters inland dealing with Viking cruises and the lakes going vessel. Tell us about that one.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Right. Well, that’s a really exciting partnership. as well. And then I think very innovative. The primary partner there with Viking cruise lines is the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab that NOAA operates and that a company will be putting a ship into the Great Lakes in 2022 and making elements of the ship available for our scientists to conduct research, as well as provide assets like small boats to conduct surveys and sampling and perform long term monitoring, which also is very important. So the ship will be traveling on a really regular route around the Great Lakes and capturing data in a very systematic fashion over time will allow us to learn much about the ecosystems, their changes, as well as the physical environment of the lake.

Tom Temin: Does that mean that the scientists will be doing their work alongside paying passengers who might be there for just a great lakes cruise?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: That’s right. And what’s neat about that is, you know, the clientele of Viking I think are fairly well educated and I think Viking sees an opportunity in bringing science to their customers and get seeking their support. I mean, this is like I said, a very important part of what we do is securing interest in the public for what how our oceans benefit them and and the Great Lakes as well. And there’s really a number of really fascinating aspects. One area of the ship will travel to is the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which is like an underwater National Park. And this is in Thunder Bay off Alpena, Michigan, and is it preserves a large collection of shipwrecks. And so there’s a maritime heritage and human history component that will seek to preserve, promote and share with the public. I’ve been scuba diving there myself, there’s a great team that manages the sanctuary. And so there’s just another aspect of how these partnerships will benefit people in the region and nationally,

Tom Temin: No plans to raise the Edmund Fitzgerald?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: No, our goal is to preserve the wreck for future generations to study and learn from.

Tom Temin: Okay. And let’s switch gears here a minute. And I’m just wondering how NOAA, which as you point out has a lot of outdoor activities, but also lots of scientists gathered at consoles within the offices — how are you faring during the pandemic? And how is the agency operating?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Well, that’s a great question, Tom. And we’re actually doing quite well, like everybody we’ve had to adapt. And so we have, you know, of our about 20,000 member workforce that includes around 7000 plus contractors, we must have the team has moved to telework, while those that are unable that must do certain mission essential functions like operating our environmental satellites, like putting out weather forecasts and warnings from National Weather Service. They are required largely to go work from their offices, some are teleworking and they’re performing superbly. We had our weather service issue a number of warnings, about 160 tornado warnings over the spring outbreak this last few weeks, and saved a lot of lives. And so they haven’t missed a beat. And then for satellite service, for example, we had one employee who was able to detect an oil spill in Louisiana. I stopped offshore with our satellite data and it’s a mission that this office of satellite analysis branch performs every day to detect wildfires and other hazards. And he was able to do this from his home and alert the Coast Guard to perform a cleanup, which might have taken weeks to notice since there’s so little shipping traffic going on in the region. So yeah there are successes everywhere. We’re supporting the CDC with our weather and climate information. We’re also providing important warnings and forecasts to medical personnel who, for example, had tents outside as a screening facilities prior to going into hospitals. And then I think a really awesome success story was the fact that both USNS Comfort in USNS Mercy when they deploy to New York and Los Angeles, they used both our weather information and new updated nautical charting information for where they went pier sides to create a safe navigation zone to protect those assets during their mission.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so lots going on. And I was going to say with respect to the weather, you’ve got Lewis Uccellini and he is to weather I guess what Anthony Fauci is to germs.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: That is a great analogy, Tom. And you’re right. Dr. Uccellini is the director of the National Weather Service, and he has just been superb keeping his team on step on mission. And again, not letting this get in the way of our important life saving service to the public.

Tom Temin: And meanwhile, NOAA is preparing for I guess, this fall is the 50th anniversary of the agency. And what do you have in mind and what can we look forward to?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Well, yes, this is a great time for our agency and we’re highlighting five decades and being recognized officially as one common group, we have origins that date back to 1807, with the coast survey, but now as one unified team dedicated to science, stewardship and service, it’s a nice time to reflect on all that we’ve done. So we have events planned around the country, of course some of them were put on hold due to the pandemic. However, as we get back and reconstitute, we will continue plans to host various events and a highlight of our history as well as where we’re going moving forward, which also is a wonderful story.

Tom Temin: And what about NOAA’s relationship with the things that live in the ocean and swim around in there?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: One thing about the ocean exploration work we’re doing with these organizations that benefit significantly is our fisheries. So we manage fisheries around the country, on every coastline, and they’re very important economically as well as from a food security and human health aspect. And even during this pandemic, we’ve been able to be creative and agile in managing fisheries and ensuring fishermen can stay on the water do what they do. And a great recent event was the signing of a presidential executive order to advance American fisheries in the seafood industry and includes also aquaculture that was just signed last week. And so you know, we’re not slowing down. We’re continuing our work, we’re getting good things done. And having that kind of support from the administration is really good for our country as we get back in business.

Tom Temin: And what about NOAA’s use of emerging technologies, artificial intelligence, we mentioned the data gathering going on, and also drones and unmanned vehicles in the water.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Right. Well, this is a big focus area of ours. We’ve noticed over just the last decade an incredible advancement in various emerging science and technology areas. And so the development of strategies for several areas including artificial intelligence, or use of unmanned systems or drones, a thing called, we calll OMICS, which is a suite of microbiological big data capabilities like environmental DNA genomics and others, which are helping us to survey and understand ecosystems and fisheries in ways that are orders of magnitude less expensive and more capable than using a big ship. And then we also are advancing citizen science. We’re developing a data strategy and a cloud computing strategy, all of which are allowing us to really transform the way we do every mission area to make it be more accurate and more efficient.

Tom Temin: Because NOAA does have some considerable supercomputing capacity — and can that play well with commercial clouds?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Exactly. We have a robust high performance computing capability. However, the rapid exponential growth in data to the assets I mentioned, our ship satellites and other partnerships, drones is really outpacing our ability to use what we have. And so by partnering with the private sector, we’ve signed three agreements with commercial cloud providers to help us with this, and they love it because they really believe in our mission. And then thinking about data as a strategic asset, they’ll benefit by having access to our data and being able to share that further with the public. So it’s a win win meeting both of our interests.

Tom Temin: And as a former Navy officer, do you ever get out on the NOAA ships yourself just to take a look at things and maybe get some salty air in your face?

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: Oh, I can’t resist Tom. I do it every time I travel. I’ve been underway on at least one NOAA ship I’ve visited at least 10 of the 16. And wherever we go, I at least try to get on a boat or go scuba diving, which I’ve done several times with NOAA, NOAA divers, scientific divers mind you who are also doing really important work to prevent or clean up marine debris, preserve coral reefs and understand ecosystems and conserve them.

Tom Temin: Retired Navy Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet is Deputy Administrator of NOAA. Hey, thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Tim Gallaudet: It was great to be here, Tom. Thank you.

Read more information here and here.