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Research fleet stays partly afloat

The docks in the coastal town of Newport, Oregon, are usually bustling. Fishermen take their boats out to harvest from the bountiful Pacific Ocean, and research vessels zip back and forth beneath the arched Yaquina Bay Bridge. But these days, Newport’s harbour is pretty quiet, says Clare Reimers, an oceanographer at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

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NOAA research vessels in Newport, Oregon, in July.

Alexandra Witze

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose Pacific fleet is based at Newport, is now shut down, along with the rest of the US government. NOAA vessels, including the agency’s Atlantic fleet in Norfolk, Virginia, are mostly stuck at their home bases.

When the shutdown began on 1 October, some active ships were recalled to the closest port available — which was in Kodiak, Alaska, in the case of the Oscar Dyson, which lost its opportunity to pick up oceanographic research buoys in the Gulf of Alaska. NOAA’s best known research vessel, the 84-metre Ronald H. Brown, is trapped in Natal, Brazil, which it reached after completing a hydrography cruise from Iceland to Brazil.

Other research vessels are in better shape. The bulk of US academic oceanographic research is done aboard 19 ships coordinated by the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), which oversees ship scheduling among various federal agencies and university partners. UNOLS is funded through the end of December, says its executive secretary, Jon Alberts, and no scheduled cruises have been cancelled.

That includes a training cruise for early career scientists that Reimers is leading next week aboard the Endeavor, a vessel owned by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and operated by the University of Rhode Island in Providence. Similarly, the Atlantis and Knorr run by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts are working as planned, says ship scheduler Eric Benway. The Atlantis is off the coast of California conducting sea trials for the newly renovated Alvin manned submersible.

Still, even the UNOLS fleet has run into shutdown-related problems. The Marcus Langseth, run by the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory outside New York City, has a small leak in one of its shaft seals. Repairs, which must be approved by the NSF, have been delayed, so a Gulf of Mexico cruise scheduled for later this month is now on hold.

Beyond NOAA and UNOLS, the picture for the US research fleet remains mixed. The JOIDES Resolution, an NSF-funded drill ship that is facing unrelated budgetary problems of its own, happens to be between expeditions, which will not resume until 26 January 2014.  But the US Antarctic Program, which is in the process of mothballing research for the upcoming field season, faces challenges with its two icebreakers.

Eugene Domack, a cryosphere specialist at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, has planned for the past five years for a cruise aboard the icebreaker Laurence M. Gould. Last Thursday he was informed via e-mail that the cruise had been suspended. The Gould is involved in relocating staff at Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula; when the government reopens, programme managers will have to decide whether to use the ship to help staff the station back up send it out for previously scheduled science.

Domack does have a second cruise lined up, aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer in March — and that, fortunately, leaves from Hobart, Tasmania. Even so, the equipment he needs may be stuck in US logistical limbo.

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