Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

2 new NOAA research ships, constructed in Houma, will collect climate data when completed

Kezia Setyawan
At the Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors Shipyard, welders work on the middle part of the Oceanographer, one of two vessels commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The construction of two new oceanographic research ships, the Oceanographer and the Discoverer, are underway in Houma as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration project. The goal of these vessels is to conduct studies on issues related to coastal resilience, collecting climate data.

These ships are being built by local company Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors based in Houma and Lockport. Both the Discoverer and Oceanographer aim to update NOAA’s fleet and research capacities.

NOAA officials said the agency has goals for habitat restoration, collecting climate data and building coastal and climate resilience. NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, PhD said that it’s important for these vessels to collect environmental information so that stakeholders and decision makers can make the right decision for the nation.

Spinrad said that scientists and NOAA officers will be able to navigate almost anywhere with this vessel and will be built nimble enough so when major events like hurricanes or fisheries disaster these ships can come in, make observations and get accurate information needed during a state of emergency.

The Oceanographer won’t be finished until 2025 and the Discoverer in 2026, but the agency plans to use them both to map seafloors, gather observations of the sea to improve weather forecasting, study marine life and see how climate change has impacted the ocean.

“When commissioned, these American built ships will greatly increase our ability to provide scientific insight (and) scientific data that is essential for protecting lives and lifestyles,” Spinrad said.

The Discoverer will be manned by a crew of 20 NOAA Corps officers and civilian mariners and can accommodate up to 28 scientists at once.

Kezia Setyawan
Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors welder Randy Hendon works to put the ship sponsor Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff's initials into a plaque as a part of the Discoverer's hull.

NOAA held a keel-laying ceremony in late October — an old maritime tradition to bring a ship good luck. Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, the Discoverer’s sponsor — had his initials etched on the metal plate that will be melded to the hull.

Other stakeholders spoke at the ceremony, including Thoma-Sea Marine Constructors managing director Walter Thomassie, who said both ships cost a total of $178 million to build.

“This is an exciting project for us here — especially in the South Louisiana coastal community. The ocean — which affects so many of our lives from food sources, our climate, transportation routes — shows that we are all intertwined,” Thomassie said.

The Oceanographer is expected to be complete in 2025, and the Discoverer and is expected to join NOAA’s fleet in 2026.

Thomassie also said the construction of the Discoverer will directly create more than 600 jobs at the shipyard, and indirectly bring in more than 1,000 jobs to the area.

“And this program is just another piece of the puzzle for us as a community, raising stability to our area, creating valuable jobs and stability for our citizens,” Thomassie said.

The ship is also being built to have a sharp bottom, compared to the usual curve, helping better collect sonar data and keep bubbles from being caught under the hull.

In a press statement, the vessels will be constructed with the goal of reducing NOAA’s carbon footprint by including methods to reduce the vessel’s carbon exhaust and high-efficiency diesel engines. Spinrad said he aims to have the agency’s carbon footprint reduced and carbon neutral by 2050.

These methods have the potential to reduce the use of 15,000 gallons of diesel per year for each vessel, resulting in an estimated reduction of approximately 5,700 tons of carbon dioxide. That amount of carbon dioxide is equivalent to 1,006 homes' electricity use for one year.

“Our goal at NOAA is to do the job of collecting scientific information so we can be what we call a ‘Climate-Ready Nation’ by 2030,” Spinrad said. “And that is to say, be able to prepare the fishing community, the agricultural community, the shipping community, the energy providers with the information they need to be more cost-effective and safer.”

When completed, the Discoverer’s home port will be Newport, Rhode Island, while the Oceanographer will be based in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.