Marine scientists are bracing for the loss of the world-class research vessel Marcus G. Langseth. The National Science Foundation plans to sell the 235-foot ship in 2020, according to a "Dear Colleague" letter published on the agency's website last month. Without a vessel to replace the Langseth, ocean seismologists fear their field will suffer.
“We’re not trying to save the Langseth at all costs,” said James Austin, a geoscientist at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re trying to save deep-ocean crustal imaging.”
Deep-ocean crustal imaging is where the Langseth excels. It is no ordinary ship. Its sophisticated array of pneumatic guns generates a blast that bounces off the Earth's crust and penetrates dozens of miles into the planet. Unspooled behind the ship, miles of cables strung with microphones capture the blast's reflection. This sonic bounce creates maps of mid-ocean-ridge magma chambers and tectonic plate edges, features that are otherwise difficult, if not impossible, to survey.
“There really aren't any comparable vessels that are available to academic scientists,” said geophysicist Douglas Wiens, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and chair of the Iris Consortium, a network of 100-plus universities that collect seismological data.
This ship has propelled “huge scientific advances” in marine seismology, he said. Marine imaging, for instance, helps scientists identify where underwater earthquakes could occur. Recent research conducted on the Langseth found a fault near the Alaskan coast similar to the fault responsible for the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan and other areas across the Pacific.
In 2004, the NSF purchased the ship from a contractor for the drilling industry, which uses ships like the Langseth to locate oil and other natural resources. Over the next three years, dockworkers in Nova Scotia modified the vessel into a research platform, able to support a host of sensors and gadgetry.
The academic community had grand ambitions for the ship, said Sean Higgins, director of marine operations at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, which runs the Langseth on behalf of the NSF. The ship, which accommodates 55 or so people, can make observations as varied as the salt content in seawater and the detection of nearby marine mammals. Researchers do not fire the ship's air guns when whales or dolphins are close, Austin said, to avoid harming the animals.
The ship generates 3-D views into the Earth's crust, peering deeper than the Langseth's retired predecessor, the Maurice Ewing. The Langseth has buoyed the careers of scientists who never set foot aboard it. The marine science community shares seafloor data collected by the Langseth, similar to the way astronomers over the world can access images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
But financial problems plagued the Langseth from the start. Its planned $4.4 million refit in Canada ran over budget by $600,000. An agreement between the NSF and the international Integrated Ocean Drilling Program to support the ship fell through during the 2008 recession, Higgins said, leaving the NSF holding the check. Rising fuel prices drove up the cost of research excursions.
The ship remains docked more often than not. The Langseth sails only about 150 days a year. And an operational day at sea costs $70,000, give or take, Austin said.
Despite the high price tag, the Langseth has traveled from the Arctic to the Pacific to the Atlantic over the past decade. It recently weathered 30-foot swells south of New Zealand.
But a 200-page document may have sealed its fate. In 2015, the National Research Council published an influential report called “Sea Change: 2015-2025,” a map of the next decade of marine science. This report was a “game changer,” Higgins said. The council recommended the “immediate lay-up of the R/V Langseth” to shift resources elsewhere.
The NSF concluded that it could pay about $10 million of the Langseth's $13 million annual operational costs. In the three years since the report, the NSF has held workshops and invited scientists to propose solutions for the $3 million divide.
From these workshops, “the conclusion was that the Langseth was still the best option” for academic seismology, Higgins said. One suggestion was to lease the ship to offshore companies. But because the Langseth's cruises often take it to areas rich in scientific interest and poor in natural resources, it would not be a good fit for industry demands.
William E. Easterling, the NSF's geosciences assistant director, announced to the scientific community in an April 10 letter that the Langseth is no longer sustainable. The science agency will divest itself of the ship in mid-2020 and will no longer accept research proposals that involve the Langseth.
“NSF has committed to several Langseth projects between now and 2020,” Richard Murray, the NSF's division director of ocean sciences, said in an email to The Washington Post. “Cruises are complex and require several years to plan, which is why there will be a full two-year transition period.”
The April 10 letter took many marine scientists by surprise. “We can understand that the ship might be too expensive,” Wiens said. But, he said, the NSF had previously assured scientists that the agency would provide alternative sources for marine seismologic tests. “It looks like they just completely abandoned that effort.” The NSF's letter recommends that scientists secure time on industry ships or find international partners.
Marine seismologists “feel that the NSF has betrayed us a bit here,” Austin said. He said he knew of at least two proposals to fix the Langseth's finances or provide comparable access to seismic imaging, submitted as part of a 2017 formal solicitation by the NSF. The agency rejected both. “It's hard not to see that they are making a statement about the science,” he said.
The agency “will continue to support seismic research through a variety of mechanisms,” Murray said. “The 2017 solicitation as well as other NSF communications clearly state our commitment to seismic research and education. This decision is about finding the best means to fulfill this commitment.”
In recent weeks, Columbia University and the Iris Consortium issued strongly worded letters to express their concerns. In its letter, the Iris Consortium said the loss of the Langseth will have a disproportionate impact on the careers of young scientists, who may not have the clout or contacts to gather seismic data beyond this ship.
“The board doesn’t have a personal stake in this ship,” said Wiens, a signatory of the letter. “We see it as being a foundational capability for seismology and tectonics and studying the structure of the oceans.” It is also a step backward for the U.S., he said, which has been at the forefront of marine seismology since the field's inception in the 1950s.
Austin said he could not fathom why the NSF was unwilling to pay more than $10 million for seismic imaging but has pledged, to the International Ocean Discovery Program, six times as much money for deep-sea scientific drilling. “Without imaging, it's really irresponsible to drill holes in the ocean,” he said, likening the scenario to turning on a Tesla's autopilot while shutting off the car's radar and GPS.
Normally, in cases like these, scientists would seek the support of the White House's science adviser. Except the Trump administration has not yet filled this role. So expect more letters, Austin said. “We're going to battle.”