Scientists warn against losing a crucial research ship: The National Science Foundation ‘has betrayed us’

Washington Post | Ben Guarino | May 8, 2018

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.

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