Hollywood director James Cameron told a Senate panel on Tuesday that federal partnerships in oceanic research are vital to understanding the oceans’ role in climate change, trade and education.
Cameron’s Hollywood appeal – he directed “Titanic,” “The Terminator,” “The Abyss” and “Aliens,” among others – drew a large crowd to the hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard, but his work in deep sea exploration and research is what brought him before Congress.
In 2012, Cameron voyaged to the deepest part of the Marianas Trench aboard the Deepsea Challenger for the sake of research – not as a stunt. The solo dive to 35,787 feet made him one of just three men to reach the bottom of the trench, which is in the Pacific Ocean.
“This is a critical time in oceanographic research,” Cameron said. “The ocean is an energy that drives weather, including the higher precipitation in extreme weather events like superstorm Sandy, the severe droughts and so on associated with climate change. To understand weather and climate, we must understand the oceans.”
Cameron said this cannot be done simply by satellite, and he said scientists need instruments and vehicles that can observe and measure variables in the water.
Jan Newton, senior principle oceanographer at the University of Washington, is on the front lines of oceanic research. In her work on the coast of the Pacific Northwest, Newton said that data, ranging from water temperatures to acid levels, were critical to the local fishing industry and to Coast Guard units.
The economics of the ocean is a topic that witnesses said is left largely unstudied.
“What we need to do is look at the major economic drivers,” Cameron said. “I’ll give you an example: Food prices rising because crop yields are down because ocean precipitation isn’t there. We need to look at the ocean as a driver to our economy.”
As oceanic research funding is stretched thin, so, too, are the human resources involved in researching the vital ecosystems, Cameron said. American students finished 25th in math and 17th in science in recent studies comparing 31 countries, according to the National Math and Science Initiative.
Witnesses agreed that fostering the next generation of biologists is key to further developing oceanographic research.
“A number of us are concerned about the proposals to eliminate some of the STEM programs’ funding,” said Susan Avery, president of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. “In general, a lot of us in the research end of science are taking a long look at this as a long-term issue.”
The opportunity for expansion and exploration in the ocean are immense, but the witnesses agreed that without funding they would go largely untapped.
“If there is more funding directed toward our oceans, there will be more activity around that,” Newton said. “From my experience in academia, I can tell you there’s a perceived lack of opportunity in oceanic jobs. With more people looking at the oceans, more people will be inspired to explore them.”