The Whys and Hows of Ocean Exploration


Date Thursday August 17th 2006
Time 4:00-5:00pm
Venue George E. Pake Auditorium

PARC Forum

There is no question but that Earth’s oceans are critical to the habitability of this planet. All known life forms require liquid water for survival. Earth teems with life because it is The Ocean Planet. Despite the importance of the ocean, ninety-five percent remains unknown and unexplored. The ocean is truly our last frontier, with all of the excitement and glamour of space exploration, but with the added near-term imperative of needing to protect and sustain its life-giving resources before it is too late. In order to understand how difficult it is to explore the ocean, it is instructive to compare ocean exploration to space exploration, an area in which the nation has already invested heavily and reaped substantial rewards in new knowledge on the fundamental structure and history of our universe. Humans cannot live in space or in the oceans without substantial life support systems. For that reason, manned exploration of both environs is costly and dangerous, prompting a trend towards unmanned exploration. But in many respects, exploring the oceans is even more challenging that space on account of the unforgiving pressures, incessant biofouling, lack of electromagnetic wave transmission, and absence of solar energy for power. Over the last decade, these challenges are gradually being met, allowing humans, often through their robotic proxies, to see new ocean worlds, from the macroscopic to the microscopic, for the first time. As is often the case with exploration, the discoveries from the ocean depths have been surprising, unexpected, and ultimately important.


Marcia McNutt is the President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California. MBARI is a nonprofit research laboratory funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to develop and apply new technology for the exploration of the oceans.

McNutt is a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she graduated class valedictorian from Northrop Collegiate School in 1970. In 1973, she received a BA degree in Physics, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Colorado College in Colorado Springs. As a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, she studied geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, where she earned a PhD in Earth Sciences in 1978.

After a brief appointment at the University of Minnesota, she spent the next three years at the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, working on the problem of earthquake prediction. In 1982, she joined the faculty at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At MIT, she was appointed the Griswold Professor of Geophysics and served as Director of the Joint Program in Oceanography and Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, a cooperative graduate educational program between MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

McNutt's research ranges from studies of ocean island volcanism in French Polynesia to continental break-up in the Western U.S. to uplift of the Tibet Plateau. She has participated in 15 major oceanographic expeditions, and served as chief scientist on more than half of those voyages. She has published 90 peer-reviewed scientific articles.

McNutt's honors and awards include membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She also holds honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota and from Colorado College. In 1988, McNutt won the Macelwane Award from the American Geophysical Union, presented for outstanding research by a young scientist. She has been honored as the Scientist of the Year from the ARCS Foundation (2003) and as the Outstanding Alumnus from the University of California at San Diego (2004). She is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the International Association of Geodesy.

McNutt served as President of the American Geophysical Union from 2000-2002. She also chaired the President's Panel on Ocean Exploration, convened by President Clinton to examine the possibility of initiating a major U.S. program in exploring the oceans. She currently serves on numerous evaluation and advisory boards for institutions such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Stanford University, Harvard University, Science Magazine, and Schlumberger.

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