It began with one of those slap-your-forehead moments during the serendipitous meeting of two like-minded men traveling on the same airplane 19 years ago.
Jack Williams, then-president of Royal Caribbean International, and Dr. Otis Brown, former dean of the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (UM-RSMAS), began chatting about ocean-borne research labs’ usefulness in collecting atmospheric data. It was being done on some maritime vessels, but never on cruise ships.
“RSMAS was looking for data points that were from consistent itineraries where they could map ocean surface temperatures,” says Janet Diaz, RCL communications manager, corporate responsibility. “That was one of their goals.”
Cargo ships and other maritime vessels don’t travel consistent routes. Cruise ships do.
Today, thanks to a program that eventually came to be known as OceanScope, NASA and the European Space Agency collect reliable data from RCL ships that they use to calibrate and verify satellite positions measuring global sea surface temperatures. It’s an important part of tracking climate change.
More than 200 scientific publications and presentations have been based on OceanScope’s data, in large part because the program is open sourced, a requirement from its start. Any scientist looking for information on ocean currents, sea temperatures, or any other data points collected by the program has access to it.
When it began, RCL was finishing a newbuild, Explorer of the Seas, to sail a consistent itinerary from New York to Bermuda. It was a perfect time to install the data collection equipment – a comprehensive suite of oceanographic and meteorological instruments – including samplers in an alcove below water level in the hull. This first installation included a “guest facing component” allowing passengers to interact with a “scientist-in-residence” and learn about this new onboard lab work. (As OceanScope expanded to other ships, now three in the Caribbean and a fourth yet to be announced, the interaction with guests was eliminated.) In time, the technology improved and the data can be collected remotely, with an occasional visit to the ship to ensure all equipment is in proper working condition.
“The OceanScope program is in conjunction with NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], which has its facility basically across the street from RSMAS,” Diaz explains. “It’s been almost 18 years of successfully running this program amongst these three entities, providing an opportunity for countless scientists to research and have data on a part of the world that’s critical to what’s going on right now – climate change, sea level rise, etc.”
Online descriptions of the program by UM-RSMAS state, “the growing recognition of the data obtainable from commercial vessels in regular transit is invaluable, and has generated an international response.”
With Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas as the first-ever cruise ship to do such work, it says, OceanScope “is envisioned as a fleet of commercial vessels with automated instrumentation spanning the global ocean and serving as ‘satellites of the sea.’
“OceanScope is very much the ‘legacy’ of the UM-RCCL collaboration, and with its implementation, the UM-RCCL collaboration is expected to continue to serve as technology test-beds over the coming years.”