International Indian ocean expedition

International Indian Ocean Expedition-2: A Basin-Wide Research Initiative

By: Sivaramakrishnan Rajan, The author is Former Director, NCAOR, Goa and former Coordinator, Joint Project Office of IIOE-2, INCOIS, Hyderabad.
The Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE, 2015-2020) built on the legacy of the first IIOE-1 (1959-65) seeks to advance our understanding of the dynamics of the Indian Ocean and allied scientific issues.
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A flashback to the last three working days of August 1957—fifteen members of a newly organised Special Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR, the forerunner to the present-day Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research) met at Woods Hole on Cape Cod, USA. Led by Roger Revelle, then-director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, California and enthused by the success stories of the ongoing International Geophysical Year (1957-58), the Committee decided that it should likewise ‘encourage and co-ordinate’ a four-year long international cooperative programme of oceanographic studies including standardisation of data collection techniques and data exchange protocol. The culmination of the programme ‘would be a combined assault on the largest unknown area on earth, the deep waters and seabed of the Indian Ocean’ by multi-national teams of scientists carrying out standardised measurements, observations and sampling (Behrman, 1981).

International Indian Ocean Expedition 1959-65

What followed the SCOR meeting of 1957 was a historic succession of events (Snider, 1962; Behrman, 1981). Four working groups were established under SCOR to work on methodological issues to prepare for the IIOE, which were then combined into one Working Group on Indian Ocean. The scientific objectives of the Expedition were defined, the procedures and standards for data acquisition were adopted and a minimum work plan was developed. An Indian Ocean Standard Net was accepted for plankton hauls and a set of 15 SCOR/UNESCO Reference Stations were established throughout the Indian Ocean basin. Robert G Snider was hired as the Coordinator for the IIOE in 1959 and he continued at this post until the end of 1962, when the management of the expedition was transferred to the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC). IIOE kickstarted in 1960 with a ‘somewhat blurred outline’ (Behrman, 1981) and officially continued through 1965 making enviable progress over its six-year span bringing together the facilities of over 45 research vessels under 14 different flags.

The studies carried out during the Expedition signalled the transformation of the Indian Ocean from ‘an unknown body of water’ to being a significant cogwheel in the global coupled ocean-atmosphere climatic phenomena. On a more tangible plane, it resulted in 656 peer reviewed publications, several atlases and various books (SCOR, 2011). The legacy of IIOE also included two scientific institutions established in India to cater to the needs of IIOE, the International Meteorological Centre at the Colaba Observatory to receive and process the meteorological data from the expedition vessels, and the Indian Ocean Biological Centre at Cochin to sort and process the samples received (Fig. 1). The Biological Centre was soon to transform itself to the Goa-based National Institute of Oceanography, India’s flagship oceanographic institution.

Post-IIOE years and the growing challenges in Indian Ocean studies

The success of the IIOE spawned several scientific initiatives, either as integral components of global programmes (e.g. Netherlands Indian Ocean Programme [NIOP], 1992-1993, which formed part of the international Joint Global Ocean Flux Study [JGOFS]; the JGOFS Arabian Sea Expedition, The Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere Programme [TOGA], 1985-94; the ongoing International Climate and Ocean: Variability, Predictability and Change [CLIVAR] etc.) or as stand-alone studies focused on the Indian Ocean basin (e.g. the Indian Ocean Experiment [INDEX], 1979; the deep ocean drilling initiatives by Deep Sea Drilling Project [DSDP]/ Ocean Drilling Programme [ODP]/ Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme [IODP] at specific locations in the Indian Ocean etc). In addition, there have been several expeditions mounted by individual countries focused largely on physical processes (e.g. the two Monsoon Experiments in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, [BOBMEX and ARMEX], the Continental Tropical Convergence Zone Project [CTCZ] and the Indian Ocean Observing System [IndOOS]) besides two large marine ecosystem programmes in the Indian Ocean funded by the United Nations Development Programme.

The post-IIOE years also coincided with a phenomenal growth in remote sensing techniques which helped to improve the characterisation of the physical and biological variability of the ocean both in time and space. In addition, technological innovations greatly facilitated time-series observations of ocean and atmospheric parameters in the Indian Ocean, with the deployment of argo floats, GO-SHIP programmes, the Research Moored Array for African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction (RAMA) and the tsunami detection network.

However, despite all these advances, the Indian Ocean remains less studied compared to the other major oceans of the world. Important unaddressed questions also emerged from the post-IIOE multi-national programmes (Hood et al., 2015). With a burgeoning population in the Indian Ocean region that contributes directly and indirectly to multiple stressors on the ocean space including overfishing, coastal erosion, loss of mangroves and degradation of coral reefs, the Indian Ocean is facing a real threat of loss of its biodiversity. The impacts of climate change on ocean circulation, extreme events and monsoon variability; rising sea levels, fisheries and food security and their impact on the coastal population are also matters of concern (Hood et al., 2015). These research questions prompted the Indian Ocean Global Ocean Observing System (IOGOOS) Regional Alliance, SCOR and the IOC/UNESCO to come together in May 2013 to explore the possibilities to achieve a truly collaborative and societally relevant International Indian Ocean Expedition-2 (IIOE-2) to commemorate the 50 years of completion of the first IIOE. The first meeting of this group brought together a formative community that set the ball rolling for a new phase of coordinated international research focussed on the Indian Ocean for a five-year period beginning late 2015 and continuing through 2020 and perhaps beyond.

IIOE-2 was formally launched on December 4, 2015 at the final session of an international symposium ‘Dynamics of the Indian Ocean; Perspective and Retrospective’ organised to commemorate the 50 years of completion of the first IIOE as well as to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of establishment of the National Institute of Oceanography (CSIR-NIO)—the legacy institution of IIOE. Befittingly, NIO was the venue of the symposium as well.

IIOE-2: A Basin Wide Research Programme

The overarching goal of IIOE-2 is ‘to advance our understanding of the interactions between geologic, oceanic, and atmospheric processes that give rise to the complex physical dynamics of the Indian Ocean region and determine how those dynamics affect climate, extreme events, marine biogeochemical cycles, ecosystems and human populations. Other goals of IIOE-2 include helping to build research capacity and improving availability and accessibility of oceanographic data from the region’ (Hood et al., 2015).

The science framework for IIOE-2 is contained in a comprehensive Science Plan (Hood et al. 2015). The plan builds upon concepts and strategies formulated and discussed at four IOC-sponsored planning meetings held in India, China, Mauritius and Thailand, a SCOR-sponsored workshop in Bremen, Germany, and also national planning efforts in India, Australia, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom (Hood et al., 2015).

The IIOE-2 Science Plan is structured around six scientific themes (Table 1) which is also broad and highly interdisciplinary. The Plan also anticipates that national science and implementation plans under IIOE-2 will focus on specific aspects of this ‘international’ Science Plan.

IIOE-2 Implementation Strategy

An implementation strategy for IIOE-2 finalised and adopted in 2015 (Shenoi et al, 2015) underpins the IIOE-2 framework. Rather than providing a detailed operational procedure for the Expedition, the document focuses on motivations and related objectives with associated recommended actions in sync with the major elements of the IIOE-2 Science Plan. The implementation strategy places a strong emphasis on ensuring that the IIOE-2 is efficiently administered and resourced. To this end, the IIOE-2 has an established Steering Committee and a secretariat facility in the form of two Joint Project Offices, one at the UNESCO IOC Perth Programme Office and another at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), Hyderabad.

The Steering Committee structure is multi-layered comprising the representatives of the three sponsors (SCOR, IOC/UNESCO and IOGOOS) as Co-Chairs, an Executive-level Core Group and a broader more operationally orientated ‘stakeholder group’ (Table 2). The Core Group consists of the chair/co-chair of each of the six science themes and seven operationally-oriented working groups, in addition to the representatives of each major IOC regional body/committee (e.g. IOC AFRICA, IOCINDIO, IOC WESTPAC). Each of the science themes and working groups has its own participatory membership structures, formed under the guidance of the executive. The leaders of the IIOE-2 national committees constitute the regional coordination level of the stakeholders group.

IIOE-2 Research initiatives

As on date, 30 scientific projects and one socio-economic appraisal project submitted by researchers from 23 countries have been formally endorsed under the IIOE-2 by the steering committee (Fig. 2 and 3). Most of these are multinational initiatives and all of them are invariably aligned with one or more of the six IIOE-2 science themes. The endorsed projects also include two of the upwelling-focusesd flagship initiatives of IIOE-2—the Eastern and the Western Indian Ocean Upwelling Research Initiatives. There are also some emerging collaborative relationships between IIOE-2 and other major initiatives such as the EAF-NANSEN Programme, involving Indian Ocean research cruises of the RV Dr Fridtjof Nansen during 2018 and beyond.

IIOE-2 in prospective

Is IIOE-2 a sequel to the first one organised 50 odd years back? Yes and No. Yes, because of the co-operative multinational spirit and the overarching goals of both expeditions to help understand the Indian Ocean better. IIOE-1 has left a lasting legacy in terms of capacity building in many of the Indian Ocean rim countries, and provided much of the scientific foundation for our understanding. IIOE-2 seeks to build up on this rich legacy ‘by establishing the basis for improved scientific knowledge transfer to wider segments of society and regional governments and to enable educational and capacity development opportunities in support of regional and early career scientist’(Shenoi
et al, 2015).

The similarities between the two expeditions, however, end there. Whereas the IIOE-1 started out as a loosely planned exercise with a minimum work plan and national commitments for ships and scientific manpower and evolved as it progressed, IIOE-2 is much more structured in its goals and approach. It has a comprehensive multi-layered science plan with societal relevance at its core. In addition to organising the ongoing national, regional and multi-national collaborative programmes focused on the Indian Ocean under the ‘spirit and flag’ of IIOE-2, and developing its own flagship programmes, the Steering Committee also endorses scientific projects and activities which are in alignment with the mission and objectives of IIOE-2. IIOE-2 comprises process studies, modelling and forecasting initiatives, remote sensing studies, capacity development activities and projects which over time can contribute to the setting of government policies related to sustainable development of the ocean’s resources (Louise et al., 2017). Equally significant is the stress on motivating efforts to make the data from the expedition more widely accessible to the scientific fraternity through a dedicated, well-curated and quality-assured data and information management protocol.

The governance structure of IIOE-2 is a reflection of its overarching goals and global outlook. The six science themes and seven operational working groups are led by 19 chairs/co-chairs from 12 different countries with the membership strength of 56 from 16 countries. If the initial enthusiasm by participant nations and the preliminary results are any indication, IIOE-2 is certainly on the right track to success (INCOIS, 2015). IIOE-2 is now in full swing, with strong support, good governance and a solid constituency. During the past three years, over 30 national/international symposia, conferences, workshops and seminars have had IIOE-2 as their central theme or have had special sessions/keynote addresses on IIOE-2. The Regional Centre of Excellence for Ocean Sciences and Food Security being established as a part of the Western Indian Ocean Upwelling Research Initiative (WIOURI) at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Cape Town can become one of legacy institutions of IIOE-2.

If the 30-odd endorsed projects achieve their research objectives, the results are sure to advance our understanding of the complex and dynamic nature of the Indian Ocean system.


Behrman D., 1981. Assault on the largest unknown: the International Indian Ocean Expedition. Paris, The UNESCO Press.

Hood, R. R., H. W. Bange, L. Beal, and others., 2015. Science Plan of the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE-2): Abasin-wide research program. Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, INCOIS, Available at:

Scientific Commitee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), 2011. Reprints from the International Indian Ocean Expedition, Available at:

INCOIS, 2015. Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE-2), Available at:

Louise W., N.D. Adamo, R Hood, R. Sivaramakrishnan and C. Almeida, 2017. The Second International Indian Ocean Expedition – A Key Link to Unlocking the Role of the Indian Ocean in the Earth’s Life-Support System, Blue Planet Symposium, Maryland: USA, May 31-June 2.

Shenoi S., P. Burkill, R. Fine, B. Gaye, R. Heywood, A. Johnson, H. Zhang, 2015. Implementation Strategy for the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition. edited by N D’Adamo. UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Paris, France, Available at:

Snider, R. G., 1962. Development of the International Indian Ocean Expedition. ICSU Review 4: 134-144.

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