The oceans cover 71% of our planet, produce 50% of the oxygen we breathe, and draw 25% of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Billions of people rely on seafood for nutrition. Oceans absorbed 93% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases since 1955, protecting us from extreme environmental shifts. All of our livelihoods depend on the oceans, yet we are just beginning to understand them.

Falkor cruises over the South China Sea off Vietnam during the Changing River: Measuring Nutrient Fluxes to the South China Sea expedition.

Only a few dozen research vessels around the world can support in-depth science in remote parts of the ocean. They are too few for adequate coverage, very expensive to operate, and can stay at sea no more than a couple of months at a time. In response to these issues, in 2009, Eric and Wendy Schmidt founded Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI) to accelerate the pace of understanding the world’s oceans by innovating in scientific marine operations, developing and applying breakthrough research technologies, and openly sharing the resulting scientific data and knowledge with everyone around the world. To fulfill this broad charter, SOI supports a diverse range of scientific projects, focusing on innovation in research technologies, operations, and analytical workflows.

2016 marked the first external review of SOI’s program and operations. An independent international review panel was impressed with the Institute’s rapid maturation, international recognition, excellent team, and the success of refitting R/V Falkor. The review endorsed the Institute’s vision of supporting distributed researchers and technologists over remote links to the ship and robotic networks. Beginning to implement this vision has enabled SOI to quickly establish a visible presence within the marine research and development domain. This recognition was further strengthened by an effectively coupled outreach program, and a concerted effort to share gathered data through public repositories. Among the development opportunities, the review suggested focus on capturing scientific metadata and data quality assurance and control procedures, steadfast commitment to a culture of health and safety in ship operations, and a better alignment of the Institute’s mission (for SOI to lead in technology development in ocean sciences) with its operational mode (of using Falkor as a platform to support its mission).

Throughout 2016, we interviewed nearly 60 of the world’s top oceanographers to learn about the highest priority issues in ocean sciences that could inform the development of new strategic initiatives at SOI. There was little overlap among the suggested priorities highlighting the diversity of research needs and opportunities in marine science. However, some common non-scientific issues were clear. Greater coverage, resolution, and diversity of observations are needed to characterize the ocean’s intricate dynamics. Interpreting the rapidly growing volumes of acquired instrument data require powerful analytical techniques to make useful inferences and forecasts. By supporting multidisciplinary and international research collaborations in hard to reach parts of the ocean, SOI targets the technological, operational, and analytical gaps between traditional oceanographic approaches and what is needed to succeed in understanding and protecting our oceans.

Schmidt Ocean Institute founders Eric and Wendy Schmidt.
Schmidt Ocean Institute founders Eric and Wendy Schmidt.

A host of breakthrough innovations was demonstrated on Falkor in 2016, from the application of innovative protein biomarkers to identify and track long-term changes in microbial communities in the world’s expanding oxygen minimum zones to innovative imaging technology that can better characterize benthic ecosystems. Dr. Oliver Wurl, from the University of Oldenburg lead an international research team from the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany to investigate the biological, chemical, microbial, and physical processes regulating heat and gas exchange through the air-sea boundary. For the first time, scientific sea surface surveys were performed with a ship-deployed long endurance vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) robotic aircraft. The successful aerial surveys earned the researchers a $3.7M grant from the Moore Foundation to support drone-based ice observation in the Arctic, which was acknowledged in a White House press release three weeks after the cruise.

This year, SOI completed the construction and delivery of the brand new 4,500 meter depth rated remotely operated vehicle (ROV) SuBastian. ROV SuBastian was tank tested at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s research and development facility in April and underwent sea acceptance trials on Falkor in the waters off Guam in July and August. In December, Dr. David Butterfield took ROV SuBastian to survey hydrothermal vents in the Mariana Back-arc that they discovered during a 2015 cruise on Falkor, while also proving vehicle functionality as a state of the art deep sea robotic research platform. ROV SuBastian completed 13 dives that were live broadcast on the Institute’s YouTube channel in high definition. Within three months of the cruise, NOAA placed the Marianas Monument on the national inventory for possible sanctuary designation.

SOI is thrilled to be a global oceanographic institution. Since 2012 we have hosted more than 465 scientists representing nearly 138 institutions from 27 countries. Our mission to accelerate the pace of understanding the oceans is fueled by our philosophy of open data and knowledge sharing. This year more than 65 ROV dives were broadcast live from Falkor for the world to see. All scientific data acquired on Falkor is made available online once processed. We reach out to new audiences through such programs as Artist-at-Sea. Six different artists have participated in research cruises on Falkor to help interpret and share the science through music, paintings, fiber arts, digital animations, cartoons, and photographs.

All of us at SOI remain committed to advancing ocean science and technology as research vessel Falkor enters her fifth full year of service. We are grateful to our partners and collaborators supporting our pursuit to Innovate. Explore. Share.