Dr. Kate Moran is President & CEO of Ocean Networks Canada and a Professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Victoria. Her previous appointment was Professor at the University of Rhode Island with a joint appointment in the Graduate School of Oceanography and the Department of Ocean Engineering. She also served as the Associate Dean of Research and Administration.
From 2009 to 2011, Moran was seconded to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she served as an Assistant Director and focused on Arctic, polar, ocean, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and climate policy issues. Dr. Moran received degrees in engineering and ocean science. She co-led the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program’s Arctic Coring Expedition, which was the first deepwater drilling operation that successfully recovered the first paleoclimate record from the central Arctic Ocean.
Planet Experts: You are President and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada. Please describe the organization’s primary function and some of its current initiatives.
Dr. Kate Moran: For Ocean Networks Canada – not-for-profits in British Columbia are referred to as ‘societies’ – we’re a not-for-profit society that was established at the University of Victoria in 2007. Basically, it was established to manage the world’s leading ocean observatories. The cabled ocean observatories, Neptune and Venus, host hundreds of sensors on these networks over a wide range of ocean environments – probably the widest range possible across any particular ocean footprint. And we provide that data freely to anyone in the world. We have a free open data policy.
So it’s basically providing research infrastructure to an international audience of scientists. That said, our initiatives recently have been to take these technologies and use them for other purposes. We initiated a program called Smart Oceans where we’re taking the technology and developing data products that serve a wider range of stakeholders, like shipping industries for improved marine safety, environmental monitoring to get baselines so that people can make decisions to mitigate industrial development that impacts coastal ocean. And also public safety – like California, we’re working on an earthquake early warning system and tsunami warning system.
PE: You have held many posts, including Assistant Director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where you advised President Obama on, among other topics, the ocean, the Arctic and global warming. In what ways did the President seek to improve or revise impacts to these vital areas?
KM: One of the first things he did when he came into office, which I think actually crosses all sciences, was to establish an open data policy for the government. That’s really a cross-cutting issue that he started right away.
In terms of oceans, when I got there he had already instructed the federal government through OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) to develop in a short amount of time the framework for a new ocean policy. That was done I think in 90 days. Then, based on the deliverable to the President, he instructed the federal government to develop an ocean policy that was released in 2012.
PE: And how did that differ from the previous ocean policy?
KM: Well there hadn’t really been a policy. There had been two efforts that went on in the late ’90s, early 2000s. One was led by Pew (Pew Ocean Commission) and Leon Panetta; the other was led by the federal government and Jim Watkins. And then they coalesced to form a joint ocean commission and they were asking the federal government to actually make this more formal. So in reality it was the first real ocean policy released.
That said, the implementation of it has been challenged by funding and other stakeholders who don’t want to play nice. But it’s there, it’s established, and it was a good move.
In terms of the Arctic, I got into the office and I was really interested in seeing Arctic research become more robust. I went to several of the meetings of the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee, but they had no real interagency mechanisms. There are a wide range of agencies working in the Arctic. So what I did was work with my colleagues in the OSTP to move that group under the National Science and Technology Council. So it moved into the White House, basically, which actually gave it some improved policy ‘teeth.’ I did that through a presidential memorandum that President Obama signed.
Since then, it’s been working much better. Even though the resources haven’t – Congress has another continuing resolution in progress. But the agencies together have been leveraging their investments to actually do more in the Arctic.
So those two policy changes – although they have their warts because of funding – from my perspective they were pretty significant.
PE: Did you have a specific goal that you wanted to accomplish as part of the Office of Science and Technology?
KM: I really wanted to combine what was coming out of the new ocean policy with these efforts in the Arctic and actually get the agencies to really embrace coastal marine spatial planning. And that hasn’t happened. That’s a pretty big lift, but that would be the ideal situation because then these issues, e.g. those associated with lease blocks in the Arctic Ocean, would not be decided based on discussions and decisions about what types of ocean uses make sense for the Arctic. Right now there’s no marine spatial planning, there’s no discussion of whether or not that makes sense from a shared ocean use and all those things. If I’d stayed I would have worked harder at that.
Some of it’s just socializing that concept. For example…sorry, I’m so glad I don’t have to remember acronyms [laughs] – as a matter of fact I banned them from this organization. But the replacement, the Bureau of Ocean Energy or whatever. That group, they said they embraced marine spatial planning but they don’t integrate that into their five-year-plan. So, that would be the next step, but I left.
PE: Did you find that there was too much to contend with in the office?
KM: No, the policy work I did was very satisfying, but the most satisfying work I did was on the [2010 BP] oil spill. I was redirected for a lot of my time there on the Gulf of Mexico, which wasn’t really an oil spill – it was an accident, the blowout. I worked a lot on that. That was my focus.
PE: How do you feel now that the federal court has ruled BP ‘grossly negligent’ for the spill?
KM: How do I feel? That’s a complicated question. Deep water drilling has its risks and one of the things that I think needs to happen is a change in the approach to regulation. It hasn’t happened significantly. Really, moving from a checkbox kind of regulatory environment to a performance-based regulatory environment would be a smart thing to do, and that hasn’t happened.
PE: What was your main role during the BP spill?
KM: I was assigned to work with Secretary of Energy Chu’s science team. One of the things about U.S. policy in terms of oil spills after the Valdeez oil spill was the 1990 legislation. And that established what’s called the incident command system so that Admiral Allen, the head of the coastguard, when a major incident happened he became the incident commander for the federal government.
And what the President did – because this was not a normal oil spill, this was a really huge technology challenge – and these are my words: I understood from discussions with John Holdren, the president’s science advisor, basically instructed the incident commander, Admiral Allen, that all of his decisions should be based on the direct advice and guidance of Secretary Chu. And anytime you’re in the room with Secretary Chu, he’s the smartest guy in the room, no matter what the topic is – so it was a smart move on the President’s part.
So we were working directly to provide advice and guidance through Secretary Chu to the incident commander on whether or not or what BP should do to stop the flow of oil.
It was an incredible experience because there were a lot of unknowns. And we worked very closely with BP and they were very forthcoming in terms of what they were pulling together for, though we were completely independent. We were nervous about capping the well because there was concern there would be a secondary blowout because of the pressures. It was an incredible response, actually, by BP and the government.
It was a very positive experience – except for the oil leaking into the Gulf.
PE: About half of the Earth’s carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean and, in recent years, higher emissions have acidified ocean waters. How has ocean acidification affected your work?
KM: That’s a big research topic right now. Where we’re located, there’s a natural upwelling of these corrosive waters that happens already, but we do know that it’s been exacerbated by the uptick of CO2 in the surface waters. We’re trying to understand that now and we had a big effort last summer, in addition to our persistent measurements in the ocean. Right now we measure oxygen that easily covaries with the low pH waters.
It’s the upwelled water that comes into the shallow water environments of Puget Sound and other areas like that. We don’t specifically know its impacts, we’re still trying to get a handle on it. But the big issue is technological. There’s no stable pH sensors for deep water. We also have a commercialization branch as part of Ocean Networks Canada called the Innovation Center and we’ve been working for the past year with one sensor developer and those tests are going well.
It’s a big technological challenge but we need those sensors, because we can’t understand and manage what we don’t measure.
PE: Your research focuses on marine geotechnics and its application to the study of paleo-oceanography, tectonics and seafloor stability. How does the historical seafloor inform our knowledge of the seafloor of today?
KM: The paleo-oceanography really informs past climate.
A specific example of work that I’m most proud of is working with others to drill and recover the first long paleoclimate record from the central Arctic Ocean. What we do there is look at the fossil record and chemistry to reconstruct past climate. In that particular record we found that the Arctic Ocean was very, very warm – much warmer than models would predict. There had been an extreme warming event – one of the biggest, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum – and so that helped inform models. It’s helping to look at how the Earth responded in the past to extreme events and helps us refine models for future prediction and where we’re going to go to in the next several hundred years.
PE: There have been several breaking stories this past year about the state of melting ice at the poles. Six glaciers in Antarctica are in a state of ‘irreversible melt,’ new laser altimeter satellites have revealed that ice in the Arctic is thinning… Do you see there being a lot of hope for the Arctic in the next 100 years? It seems like it’s getting pretty dire.
KM: Well I don’t like to use that terminology. I mean the planet’s going to be fine [laughs]. It’s going to be warm and there’s going to be a lot less ice – and eventually no ice. I mean, that’s where we’re heading. The question is, really, how do we as humans adapt to that?
During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum there were mass extinction events, and so now, we’re here on the planet and we are seeing it. And I joke with people when I say, we as a species are not stupid, currently we’re just acting stupid. But we’ll get it. We’ll figure this out.
But we can’t change the trajectory we’re on. The rate at which we’re putting CO2 in the atmosphere is faster than during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. We’re on a path of big change.