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Blog: Discovery is the middle name for NOAA's ocean workhorse

by Craig McLean
June 15, 2017

NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown

Three years and nine months is a long time to be away from home.

When the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown steamed into Charleston, S.C., on March 25, the 274-foot ocean research vessel had completed a voyage of nearly 130,000 miles – a distance roughly five times the Earth’s circumference.  

During their 797 days at sea, the ship’s crew of NOAA Corps officers, professional civilian mariners and scientists surveyed the ocean floor in the remote Pacific and took revealing scientific measurements from pole to pole to help us better understand Earth’s largest feature – the oceans. Twice the Ron Brown participated in research projects designed to help improve predictions of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation – a global ocean-driven weathermaker and critical source of California’s water supply – at a time when the Golden State was reeling under a crippling drought.

Ships as sophisticated as these don’t sail themselves. The impressive legacy of the Ron Brown and other vessels in the NOAA fleet would have been impossible without civilian mariners and the men and women of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, which recently marked 100 years of scientific service to the nation and stewardship of America’s natural resources.

Heading out to sea on NOAA ships is thrilling – an adventure whose goal is to help scientists explore and explain our planet.

If the day of departure is Monday and returning to port is the weekend, then a research cruise becomes a long string of Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays consumed by repetitive but essential tasks of research, navigation, ship maintenance and care and feeding of its crew and scientists. One of the perks of being the commanding officer of a NOAA ship is that you work with a top-notch crew and world-class scientists whose training, preparedness and professionalism are second to none.

All these factors enabled Ron Brown, to contribute to NOAA’s mission during its extended deployment in some amazing ways:

Scientists on board collected more than 1,600 water measurements in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – from Iceland and Alaska to Antarctica – to better understand long-term changes in ocean acidification, oxygen levels, salinity, plankton and temperature.

An ocean buoy seen through a hawsehole aboard the NOAA Ship Ron Brown.
An ocean buoy seen through a hawsehole aboard the NOAA Ship Ron Brown. (NOAA/Sergio Pezoa)

They conducted ecological assessments of bays on the north slope of Alaska and fisheries and oceanographic studies off the Arctic coast of Alaska to study the dramatic changes underway  – including the rapid advance of ocean acidification, loss of ice and other scientific findings in our annual Arctic report card.

At the other end of the Earth, scientists studied the great and undersampled Southern Ocean, an infrequently visited and poorly measured part of world.

In between the poles, the Ron Brown surveyed 353,975 square miles of seafloor – an area larger than two Californias – including a project near Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific to map an area that could expand the territory included in the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf.

High-tech deepwater research ships can be dispatched to specific areas to investigate phenomena that have dramatic impacts on our nation. In early 2015, scientists on the Ron Brown released weather balloons and airborne instruments to gather data on intense moisture-bearing  Pacific winter storms, known as “atmospheric rivers,” which deliver roughly 30-50 percent of California’s wet-season precipitation.  

One year later, the Ron Brown reprised its role as a floating weather research platform when it was assigned to support an unprecedented multi-agency rapid-response mission to observe one of the strongest El Ninos on record.

During its extended deployment, the ship also serviced 80 tropical atmosphere, ocean (TAO), buoys that monitor ocean and weather conditions in the tropical ocean. From all of this measurement and monitoring across the world’s oceans comes your daily weather forecast and seasonal forecasts for El Nino and La Nina.

This was just one of many research deployments on the Ron Brown’s resume. But if you wanted to see the ship or congratulate the crew, you missed the boat. NOAA’s largest research vessel is once again sailing in the Southern Hemisphere, her decks primed for discovery.

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Craig McLean is the Assistant Administrator for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research.