A new report identifies priority U.S. waters for ocean exploration and characterization

By Amanda N. Netburn, Assistant Director for Ocean Science and Technology, OSTP

Jane Lubchenco, Deputy Director for Climate and Environment, OSTP

Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, Senior Director for Water, CEQ

Our nation’s collective well-being is supported by the ocean. The ocean provides an astounding array of benefits, even far inland from the coast: food, recreation, protection from storm surge, shipping of goods, the weather, and millions of jobs. More than just tangible benefits, the ocean encompasses unique cultural values, meaning, and identity for coastal communities as well as many Indigenous Peoples across the nation and across the globe. Pushing the bounds of discovery and exploring the depth and breadth of the ocean has long captured the public imagination with findings that completely change our understanding of the world. Ocean exploration has revealed animals and environments that had not been previously discovered, like hydrothermal vents that shoot hot, smoke-like plumes into the water through tall chimney structures and harbor specialized marine life despite their extreme properties. We’ve learned that biodiverse coral reefs can unexpectedly thrive in the deep sea, providing critical habitat to a range of marine animals. We have even found organisms with properties that can assist in fighting cancer.

In recent decades, climate change and other human impacts have increasingly threatened these wonderous natural resources, imperiling the future of our shared environment. The ocean regulates the global climate by absorbing carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere, but this leads to warming, acidification, and loss of oxygen – all with significant impacts to the marine environment. With over 90% of unknown species likely to be found in the ocean, the ocean harbors immense biodiversity and is a source of both valuable natural capital and opportunities for stewardship – yet we are undergoing a period of substantial biodiversity loss and species extinctions. Tackling the climate, biodiversity, and equity crises requires deeper understanding of ocean processes and places as well as improved management to support ocean-based solutions. To address the increasing risks to the ocean, the U.S. Ocean Policy Committee, led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is today releasing the report Strategic Priorities for Ocean Exploration and Characterization of the United States Exclusive Economic Zone, outlining Federal priorities for ocean exploration and characterization to secure a healthy, safe, and prosperous future.

The Strategic Priorities report identifies high-priority focal areas for the federal government and non-government partners to help understand and characterize the ocean. Despite the urgent need for information on the ocean, less than half of U.S. waters are currently mapped to modern standards, and far less information is available on the geology, biology, chemistry, and cultural heritage of both the seafloor and the water column above. With emphasis on the unknown and remote parts of our ocean, discoveries made through ocean exploration and characterization can have outsized impacts, unlocking solutions to tackling the climate crisis, stemming biodiversity loss, and advancing environmental justice. That’s why today we’re identifying priorities to advance ocean exploration and characterization that will benefit our understanding and management of ocean ecosystems and bolster the American economy, resilience, and equity. Priority areas include:

  • Informing potential protections and management of poorly studied marine environments through the study of sensitive seafloor ecosystems, like deep-sea corals, important fish habitats, and chemosynthetic environments, like hydrothermal vents and methane seeps;
  • Elevating the rich history of ocean use, including by Indigenous Peoples, through the study of ocean cultural heritage, including previously-occupied lands that are now submerged underwater;
  • Informing decisions on the sustainable use of our natural resources by exploring and characterizing marine resources, such as fish habitat, aquaculture, renewable energy, critical minerals, deep sand and gravel, and natural products;
  • Improving forecasting and community awareness by filling knowledge gaps on seafloor hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and underwater volcanic eruptions; and
  • Better understanding the ocean’s role in transporting heat, sequestering carbon, and supporting a wide range of biodiversity through studying the vast and underexplored water column.

The priorities were identified by the Ocean Policy Committee’s National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council, across fifteen Federal agencies, and with input from Tribes and the public.

The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to developing policies to better foster equitable outcomes. The Strategic Priorities report highlights how ocean exploration can and should provide opportunities for all Americans to participate in and benefit from ocean knowledge. This summer, we celebrated Dr. Dawn Wright, who became the first Black woman to dive to the deepest depths of the ocean – an inspirational moment for all Americans who seek to explore unknown parts of the ocean. It is our hope that full implementation of the Strategic Priorities report released today will jump-start opportunities for the next Dr. Wright and countless more explorers to come.

The report will serve as a springboard to address key knowledge gaps, harnessing new technologies like emerging techniques from genetics that provide insight into biodiversity, improved imaging that provides insight into the seafloor and its inhabitants, and human-occupied, remotely-operated, and autonomous vehicles that can accessing previously inaccessible ocean waters. By focusing on the most poorly understood places and processes in our ocean, ocean mapping, exploration, and characterization will transform our understanding of these high-priority areas and lead to exciting new discoveries that will give us the ability to respond to the many pressing environmental and equity challenges of our time.

Those interested in staying informed and engaged as this work is implemented can contact nomec.execsec@noaa.gov.


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