To Explore or to Research: Trends in modern age ocean studies


The recommendations of President's Panel Report on Ocean Exploration gave rise to NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration in 2001, and helped establish NOAA as the lead agency for a federal ocean exploration program. The panel defined exploration as discovery through disciplined, diverse observations and recordings of findings including rigorous, systematic observations and documentation of biological, chemical, physical, geological, and archaeological aspects of the ocean in the three dimensions of space and in time. Here we ask the question about the fine line that separates ‘Exploration’ and ‘Research’. We contend that successful exploration aims to establish new lines of knowledge or give rise to new hypothesis as compared to research where primary goal is to prove or disprove an existing hypothesis. However, there can be considerable time lag before a hypothesis can be established after an initial observation. This creates interesting challenges for ocean exploration because instant ‘return on investment’ can not be readily shown. Strong media and public interest is garnered by far and apart exciting discoveries about new biological species or processes. However, most of the ocean exploration work goes to systematically extract basic information about a previously unknown area. We refer to this activity as baseline characterization in providing information about an area which can support hypothesis generation and further research to prove or disprove this hypothesis. Examples of such successful characterization include OER endeavors in the Gulf of Mexico that spanned over 10 years and it provided baseline characterization in terms of biological diversity and distribution on basin-wide scale. This baseline characterization was also conveniently used by scientists to conduct research on benthic communities to study effects of deep water horizon incident. More recently similar characterization has been attempted by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer from 2011 - 2013 field season in NE Atlantic canyon. This has been one of the first ever campaigns to systematically map the NE canyons from US-Canada border to Cape Hatteras. After the 3D mapping of the canyons that included multibeam sonar derived bathymetry and backscatter, OER provided the first ever comprehensive maps of the seafloor and water column which have become the basis for further exploration and research in this region. NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer currently remains the only federal vessel dedicated solely to Ocean Exploration. Examples of some of the recent discoveries of the ship will be provided to explain as how Exploration and Research are merging together in modern era of ocean sciences.


Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping

Publication Date


Journal or Conference Title

Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union (AGU)

Conference Date

9-13 December, 2013

Publisher Place

San Francisco, CA, USA


American Geophysical Union Publications

Document Type