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The Coastal Ocean Processes (CoOP) Effort.

One definition for "coastal ocean" is the region extending from the beaches out across the continental shelf, slope, and rise. Using this definition, the offshore edge would often be near that of the purely politically defined Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ (see Oceanus, Winter 1992/93, page 7). There is, however, a true scientific cohesiveness to the essentially geological definition above. For example, current patterns over the continental shelf and slope tend to be distinctly different from those of the open ocean, and the consequent shelf physical processes make this region the most biologically productive area of the world's ocean. One economic consequence of this productivity is that 75 percent of the world's fish catch comes from coastal waters--but the importance of the coastal ocean does not end here. The coastal ocean absorbs most of the impact that land-based activities have on the ocean, including river outflow and wind transport of particles and chemicals into the sea. These effects make the coastal ocean important scientifically and economically.

From a scientist's standpoint, studying coastal problems requires an interdisciplinary approach. A practical example illustrates this point. The Minerals Management Service is responsible for estimating risks associated with drilling for petroleum in US coastal waters. Making such an assessment requires:

* Engineering information--would a spill be likely to occur, given that certain procedures were used?

* Meteorology and physical oceanography--where would the oil go, once spilled?

* Chemical oceanography--how would the oil change with time as it was exposed to the atmosphere and ocean?

* Biological oceanography--what would an oil spill do to living things? and

* Geological oceanography--what would happen to the pollutant once components of it settled to the bottom?

Likewise, many problems of a more strictly scientific character, such as understanding the biological productivity of Georges Bank, require similar combinations of oceanographic disciplines. The coastal ocean exhibits considerable spatial and temporal variability, making most processes dependent in some way on currents. Scientists are finding more and more that they cannot carry out research in the coastal ocean without involving several, if not all, of the ocean disciplines.

A truly interdisciplinary approach involves organizational complexities, and these have sometimes tended to encourage oceanographers to tackle issues using a one-discipline approach. While this is often sensible, in the end we need to face and resolve the interdisciplinary issues. Two things need to be achieved. First comes coordination, both among scientists and among funding agencies. Coordination among scientists is needed to define and prioritize the problems at hand, as well as to perform the actual multi-investigator research. Coordination among funding and other agencies is required to make optimal use of resources while allowing agencies that have particular goals to accomplish them. Second comes money. Interdisciplinary research, because it involves many investigators and considerable facilities (such as ships), is more expensive than traditional single-investigator science. Getting the money needed for the job requires making a strong case to the funding agencies as well as to the broader scientific community that must be convinced of the value of the proposed research.

Coastal Ocean Processes (CoOP) was organized in early 1990 to address the organizational complexities tied to the well-recognized need for interdisciplinary research in the coastal ocean. After some deliberation, the CoOP leaders defined the general goal to be

... To obtain a new level of quantitative understanding of the processes that dominate the transports, transformations, and fates of biologically, geologically, and chemically important matter on the continental margins.

This is a rather sweeping goal. To give it better definition, the steering committee broke it down into a set of more specific objectives, including understanding of:

* coastal air-sea fluxes and couplings, such as how carbon dioxide finds its way from the ocean to the atmosphere or vice versa,

* fluxes of matter through the seabed, such as sediment deposition or the release of chemicals from the bottom,

* land-derived effects, such as the fate of river-borne nutrients, and

* chemical and biological transformations within the water column, such as how plants grow in response to a chemical change.

Cutting across these ideas are a number of other themes, but the overarching one is materials exchange across the continental margin. This is important because most things of interest vary strongly in the onshore-to-offshore direction (because of landward or open-ocean sources), so that flow in that direction has considerable influence on how these gradients change. It is pressing, too, because physical oceanographers have done quite well explaining alongshore flows, but to date have yet to explain the cross-margin component.

The CoOP organization comprises research scientists at academic and government laboratories, representing the disciplines of marine meteorology and biological, chemical, geological, and physical oceanography. CoOP addresses problems only in basic sciences, although it acknowledges the need to expedite the communication of its results to applied scientists and policy makers who need the new information. Initial funding for CoOP came from the National Science Foundation, but CoOP now deals with several different federal agencies in its efforts to obtain support.

For a new organization, CoOP has proceeded from the planning stage to real research relatively quickly. In 1992, after only about two years of discussion and planning, the first CoOP science project received funding. This group will be studying coupled physical, biological, and geological processes associated with the transport in the water column of larvae from bottom-dwelling animals on the inner shelf (where it is shallower than about 20 meters) off Duck, North Carolina. The inner shelf is one of the most difficult parts of the ocean to study for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the sea is too rough for a small boat and too shallow for most ships. The first CoOP cruise will use both R/V Cape Hatteras (operated by Duke University/University of North Carolina; see inside the back cover) and R/V Oceanus (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution). This will be an arduous and exciting effort, involving new technologies and new approaches to studying the ocean. While other CoOP studies are now beginning to be defined for what is expected to be a four-year program, the inner shelf study is an ambitious first step.

Kenneth H. Brink is an Associate Scientist in the Department of Physical Oceanography at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He was educated at Cornell and Yale universities. He was a founder of CoOP and is the chair of its steering committee. His research interests include currents over the continental shelf, physical-biological couplings, and the mechanics of steam locomotives. He is perhaps best known for his eclectic taste in neckwear.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Brink, Kenneth H.
Publication:Oceanus
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1085
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