Taiwanese scientists are set to return to Guam after 26 years, as the government vows to boost the nation’s maritime power and is set to reopen a representative office in the US territory.
The visit to Guam, scheduled for December, is to be led by National Taiwan University’s Institute of Oceanography on the nation’s newest research vessel, R/V New Ocean Researcher 1, which is to be launched on Tuesday next week.
The 2,155-tonne vessel would join the R/V New Ocean Researcher 2, R/V New Ocean Researcher 3 and R/V Legend in forming a national research fleet, the Executive Yuan said last month as it unveiled its “Deepening Marine Research — Paying Tribute to the Ocean” policy, highlighting the connection between ocean research capabilities and maritime power.
Photo courtesy of National Taiwan University’s Institute of Oceanography
A marine scientific research application has been submitted to the US via the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), said institute associate professor Yang Yiing-jang (楊穎堅), chief scientist on the planned mission.
The government is hoping to stage public events and to promote personnel exchanges in Guam, but the level of publicity hinges on Washington’s attitude, Yang said.
After the vessel returns from Guam to restock in Taiwan, it plans to visit Palau early next year, he said, adding that the plan is subject to change depending on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo courtesy of National Taiwan University’s Institute of Oceanography
The scientific mission to the US territory is expected to take on added significance after MOFA on July 3 announced that it plans to reopen the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Guam, citing the importance of Taiwan’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region and healthy Taiwan-US ties.
Closed in 2017, the reopening of the office would reinforce Taiwan-US exchanges in trade, ocean sciences, healthcare and disaster relief, MOFA said in a statement on Thursday last week.
It would also allow the nation to cement its ties with its diplomatic allies in the Pacific and to expand its relations with other Pacific nations, the statement said.
Institute director Jan Sen (詹森), principle investigator on the planned mission, said that the team would conduct physical, atmospheric and biogeochemical surveys during the visit, purely for scientific purposes.
The US Office of Naval Research is obtaining the documentation that would allow R/V New Ocean Researcher 1 to berth in Guam and it is also to serve as a facilitator for personnel exchanges, Jan said.
The office’s involvement shows that the US is attaching great importance to oceanic research in the northwestern Pacific, which can be viewed as a “desert” of global oceanography as long-term observations are lacking, he said.
Taiwan’s oceanic research has previously been mostly limited to its exclusive economic zone, and certain regions of the East China and South China seas, partly because the effluent and exhaust emissions of the old vessels did not meet the required standards at overseas ports, he added.
The team hopes that the maiden voyage of the new vessel would reinforce Taiwan-US cooperation in oceanic research that was consolidated in 2000 by the Asian Seas International Acoustics Experiment in the South China Sea, a multinational project led by the US, Jan said.
Bilateral cooperation before that project had been mostly sporadic, he said.
The institute plans to make regular visits to Guam and Palau in the coming years to build a long-term observation network spanning the South China Sea and the northwestern Pacific, Jan said.
The network would be supported by Taiwan’s research fleet, advanced data buoys collecting real-time ocean and weather data, autonomous underwater vehicles and seismometers, with the aim of better understanding about the area and mitigating climate-related disasters, he said.
The institute, which has played a key role in sustaining Taiwan-US cooperation in oceanic research, is no stranger to Guam. In 1976, its members first visited Guam aboard the R/V Chiu Lien to conduct a seismic refraction survey with the US R/V Thomas Washington.
At that time the US still maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, so the institute was able to hold official celebrations in Guam, Yang said.
In 1994, Taiwanese scientists aboard the R/V Ocean Researcher I visited Guam again, when they took part in the Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere program, commissioned by the World Meteorological Organization, he said.
The program — which also involved scientists from the US, Japan, France and South Korea — studied air-sea interactions in the ocean by deploying an array of 70 moored buoys across the Pacific, with seven deployed by the Taiwanese team, he added.
When the team set up the array’s final buoy on Dec. 17, 1994, Andrew Shepherd, who was chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, marked the milestone by hoisting the flags of the five nations on the buoy, Yang said.
Although the data buoys used were made in the US, the Taiwanese team acquired valuable experience which aided the development of the nation’s own data buoys, he said.
The scientists learned many lessons from their collaborations with the US, including how to precisely operate a ship to enable instrument deployment under different conditions, said institute data buoy specialist Her Wen-hwa (何文華), who was also on the 1994 mission to Guam.
The skills acquired were adapted to Taiwan’s smaller and less sophisticated ships, by trial and errors, and the team’s technical skills gradually won the trust of the US scientists, Her said.
While some ocean scientists prefer using statistical models to picture the marine environment, “without collecting data at sea by yourself you never know if your data is reliable,” he said.
Oceanographers should understand the surrounding environment, instead of just relying on data gathered by others, Yang said.
Oceanic research projects require substantial funding over long periods, so a nation’s capability in the area reflects its economic strength, scientists' intelligence, and maritime power, Jan said.
Despite the nation’s limited resources, the Ministry of Science and Technology last year launched its “Sailing to the Blue Sea” program to foster integrated surveys of longer durations, he said.
The importance of protecting the ocean has become indisputable, Jan said.
“However, we can’t protect what we don’t understand,” he said.
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