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New NOAA ship to explore, study the oceans

State-of-the-art Discoverer will be based in Rhode Island

NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer during a mission in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: NOAA)

Newport, Rhode Island, has been chosen as the future homeport for a new National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research vessel being built for the agency. Discoverer will be a state-of-the-art ship that operates off the coasts of the U.S. and its territories around the nation to study and explore the oceans.

“We have an extremely unique mission space,” Alan Leonardi, director of NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research (OER), told FreightWaves. “Our focus is on going to parts and places in the ocean and finding out what’s there for the very first time. Documenting the plant and animal life flora fauna, understanding the environmental conditions and, of course, looking for new discoveries in the process.”

It’s like the NASA of the ocean.

The primary goals will be to fully map and explore the deep-water portions of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) at 200-plus meters down. However, Leonardi said the ship will be designed to operate globally, with the exception of ice-covered areas like the Arctic and Antarctic. These areas would include the U.S. West Coast, Hawaii, the Marianas Islands, Guam and possibly American Samoa, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. The Discoverer crew will provide systematic observations and documentation of biological, chemical, physical, geological and archaeological (shipwrecks) aspects of the ocean.

Remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Deep Discoverer recovered after a dive in 2019 during the Southeastern U.S. Deep-sea Exploration. (Photo: NOAA)

“The Biden administration has put out a goal of having 30% of the land of the United States and 30% of the maritime space of the United States designated as protected areas by 2030,” Leonardi said.

When commissioned, likely in 2024, Discoverer will replace the 32-year-old Newport-based NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer as the only federal vessel dedicated to ocean exploration. The new ship will join NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow, a fisheries survey vessel also based in Newport, at a NOAA marine support facility soon to be built at Naval Station Newport.

Discoverer will also support the many strong partnerships that NOAA has in Rhode Island and across the country that promote ocean exploration, research and the development of new technologies. Those partners include the U.S. Geological Survey as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOE), which is responsible for selecting and leasing offshore energy sites.

“There’s a desire with the Biden administration to pursue, more strongly, offshore wind,” Leonardi added. “So we need to make sure we’re documenting places to make sure that if wind turbines or offshore oil and gas … are being put into these places that they’re not doing any harm in the process.”

Discoverer will be able to deploy remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore the ocean. The explorations would be broadcast live and available to the public. Leonardi hopes that using these autonomous systems will help stimulate the U.S. and international economies.

“Not only will it allow us to more capably and likely more economically explore the ocean, it represents a significant opportunity for the U.S. to become a leader in the export of these technologies,” Leonardi said.

Crews will also catalog and document the quantity and quality of rare earth metals and minerals, which could be used as a strategic reserve should the U.S. need those resources.

The timeline for Discoverer’s arrival will depend on construction progress on the new ship. The retirement date of Okeanos Explorer will be based on its aging condition when Discoverer comes online.

Leonardi wants the public to understand how much mankind benefits from the ocean and how important it is to our existence and commerce. This is why he strongly believes in the work of the NOAA ships.

“Every other breath that you take is derived from the ocean. They help moderate the climate system absorbing CO2,” Leonardi explained. “And 90% of the goods that come into the U.S. come in by ship.”

The other new ship being built for NOAA, Oceanographer, will be homeported in Honolulu. The plan is have it up and running in 2023. The U.S. Navy awarded a contract Dec. 31 to Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors LLC of Houma, Louisiana, for the detailed design and construction of this new class of NOAA vessels. The new ships will operate with a crew of 20 and will accommodate up to 28 scientists.

The NOAA ship fleet is operated, managed and maintained by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. NOAA ships are operated by NOAA Corps officers and civilian professional mariners.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.