Since the days of sail, sea captains have served as scientific field observers for shorebound researchers, turning in reports of wind and waves, water temperatures and currents.
Since World War II, an armada of specially equipped scientific vessels sponsored by governments, universities and foundations has increasingly augmented the amateur observers. These ships do everything from drilling beneath the seafloor to study the Earth’s crust to counting fish to studying climate change.
But in the past few years, vast swaths of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean — some 1 million square miles — have been all but emptied of fishing boats, cargo craft and scientific vessels, driven out by the threat of Somali pirates.
Since 2008, when a surge of pirate attacks drew an international naval response and maritime insurers demanded special policies for any vessel sailing much closer than 1,000 miles from Somalia’s shore, at least a half dozen expeditions have been cancelled, others have been moved to other oceans.
Although some attacks have been thwarted by warships and armed guards assigned to ships, the pirates are prowling over a greater expanse of ocean, making more than 200 attacks last year and nearly 100 in just the first three months this year, according to an international clearinghouse that tracks piracy.
One contract research vessel from the Seychelles was hijacked in 2009, and while its crew was eventually ransomed, pirates destroyed the ship. Sea bandits have also shot up a number of research buoys.
Among the scientific casualties are surface wind observations used to predict summer monsoons in India and delayed deployment of a network of buoys that are needed to understand weather patterns that begin in the Indian Ocean and can eventually cause flooding along the North American West Coast.
Perhaps the worst effect is a gap in oceanic measurements that have been faithfully done for well over 100 years.
“Piracy is affecting our long-term records,’’ Shawn Smith, a Florida State University research meteorologist told interviewers earlier this month.
Although most experts agree that a long-term solution to Somali piracy lies with a stable government and economy ashore, the scientific disruptions are a reminder that more than commerce and fishing grounds are at stake when freedom of the seas is stolen by banditry.
Lee Bowman has covered health and science from Washington for Scripps Howard News Service since 1992.