by Jenny Tate
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has selected the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium, cooperatively led by The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), to operate the third new oceanographic research ship to carry out regional scale research in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
Owned by NSF and valued at over $100 million, this Regional Class Research Vessel (RCRV) is scheduled to begin construction in late 2019 with delivery to the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium in 2023 after a year of rigorous sea trials. The ship will have dual home ports in Mississippi and Louisiana to support scientific research and vessel maintenance, respectively. The primary home port, and base for embarkation of research expeditions, will be the Port of Gulfport in Gulfport, Miss. USM’s Marine Research Center at the Port of Gulfport, will provide marine technical services and scientific support for the ship. LUMCON’s future facility in Houma, La. will serve as the maintenance, crew, and secondary embarkation port.
“We are pleased to select the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium, jointly led by The University of Southern Mississippi and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium to operate the third of NSF’s new Regional Class Research Vessels,” said Bill Easterling, NSF’s assistant director for geosciences. “This partnership will improve scientists’ access to the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean using our state-of-the-art ship. Research in the Gulf of Mexico directly impacts the livelihoods of people who live and work in the Gulf, but also across the United States. The Gulf is an important economic region for fisheries, energy production, and tourism, and understanding this environment has broad relevance to U.S. scientific and economic advancement. Scientists will use this new ship to study societally relevant topics including environmental change, the global hydrologic cycle, biodiversity in the ocean, marine mineral resources, and more.”
The Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium is led by USM and LUMCON, with 15 associate members located across the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, southeastern U.S. and Mexico. This announcement brings the first new regional class research ship in the U.S. Academic Research Fleet to the Gulf of Mexico in nearly four decades.
“The University of Southern Mississippi is proud to continue leading the way in scientific exploration of the Gulf of Mexico,” said University President Rodney D. Bennett. “We are honored to be part of this consortium, and I am so pleased to have the opportunity to expand our existing relationship with LUMCON as our scientists conduct ongoing research that impacts our state, our region, and beyond. The addition of this new vessel will certainly extend our reach and magnify our capabilities in understanding this critical body of water.”
The foundation for the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium is based on an existing collaboration that USM and LUMCON established in 2015 with the acquisition of USM’s 135-foot R/V Point Sur, which is home ported at the Port of Gulfport and operated by LUMCON.
The R/V Point Sur is currently Mississippi’s primary platform for marine research and has supported academic and industry research, along with the science missions of the NSF; the U.S. Navy; the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.
“The Gulf of Mexico has a rich history of exploration with critical scientific breakthroughs radically changing our understanding of how the oceans work, including discoveries of abundant and thriving deep-sea life, fundamental earth processes, the integral role of the oceans in our global climate, and anthropogenic influences on marine systems. The origins of these ideas and the first steps of data collection leading to these breakthroughs occurred on the decks and in the labs of research vessels. Through the dedicated efforts of a Gulf-wide consortium we are able to bring this essential, enabling resource to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Craig McClain, LUMCON’s Executive Director and Co-Chair of the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium.
The new ship will transform regional, national and international research important to the U.S. and the world. For instance, it will enable valuable research on environmental change, the global hydrologic cycle, biodiversity in the ocean, and marine mineral resources. The consortium will also create opportunities for students and the public to connect with marine scientists and their work, and it will work collaboratively to build and grow an inclusive, diverse and science-informed community.
“There is a wealth of research questions in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, with deep societal and economic importance to the nation. The possibilities for discovery when institutions collaborate are limitless. This is why we formed the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium with a vision to operate this ship,” said Dr. Leila Hamdan, Associate Director for USM’s School of Ocean Science and Engineering.
In 2017, NSF awarded the design and construction of all three ships to Oregon State University, who will also operate the first ship, R/V Taani. Operation of the second ship, R/V Resolution, was awarded to the East Coast Oceanographic Consortium, led by the University of Rhode Island, in 2018. The Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium’s ship will be the third and final RCRV to join this fleet, bringing the most advanced technology to ocean science to date.
This new fleet of RCRVs will conduct operations in the coastal ocean ranging from near-shore to the outer continental rise, and the open ocean. The ship’s endurance, draft and science equipment are tailored for science throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
“This new vessel provides limitless opportunities for the science community as it relates to research, education and enterprise. The benefits of a healthy Gulf of Mexico are vast – spanning productive fisheries, habitat for marine species, understanding of geological hazards, assessing risks and benefits from energy exploration and much more,” said Dr. Gordon Cannon, USM Vice President for Research.
“This ship will support the broad advancement of ocean science research, and it will enable scientists to address current and future research questions important to NSF’s priorities,” he added.
The new ship will be 199 feet long and 41 feet wide and will feature science labs, deck space for scientific deployments, state-of-the-art technologies, including tools for seafloor mapping and advanced telepresence capabilities to incorporate land-based scientists and members of the public in science. It will feature a dynamic positioning system, which will enable precision operations requiring the ship to remain stationary for long periods of time. With the ability to conduct research missions for up to 21 days, the ship will carry a crew of 13 and up to 16 scientists and have a cruising range of 5,400 nautical miles.
“I believe the Regional Class Research Vessels being built for NSF by Oregon State University and Gulf Island Fabrication in Houma, Louisiana are the most sophisticated, high-tech vessels of its size class that can be built today. I look forward to the day a new Regional Class Research Vessel is sailing in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Joseph Malbrough, LUMCON’s Marine Superintendent.
NSF, NOAA, the Office of Naval Research and other agencies are anticipated to fund approximately $7.0 million in annual operating costs for the new vessel. Scheduling will be coordinated through the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System.
“The consortium and this new vessel will facilitate greater scientific activity, understanding and collaborations, which will shape the future of knowledge about our world’s oceans,” said Dr. Monty Graham, USM Associate Vice President for Research, Coastal Operations and Co-Chair of the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium.
“We are thrilled that 15 high-power oceanographic institutions across the U.S. southern tier and Caribbean have joined this important partnership,” he added.
The consortium’s associate members will conduct at-sea research and participate in the development of the long-term vision for the consortium for research, education and outreach. Consortium associate members are: Texas A&M University (College Station, Galveston and Corpus Christi), University of Texas Marine Science Institute, Lamar University, Louisiana State University, Tulane University, Dauphin Island Sea Lab, University of Miami, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution of Florida Atlantic University, University of Puerto Rico, University of the Virgin Islands, Florida State University, University of South Florida, University of Georgia, and the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada.
Members of the Gulf – Caribbean Oceanographic Consortium have produced research and technologies that have enhanced the science of the Gulf of Mexico for decades. The University of Southern Mississippi is Mississippi’s flagship university for marine science and is leading Mississippi’s Ocean Taskforce on the emerging Blue Economy. LUMCON has a history of producing scientific discoveries associated with the challenges facing coastal and open water ecosystems and facilitates the science for researchers across the globe. Combining both institutions in leadership of the new NSF RCRV creates a path towards a future of inclusive, interdisciplinary science to meet the important scientific research needs of the nation.