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Connecting the ocean to the Web

Jun 2007
Michael J. Lander

To gain the deepest possible understanding of the ocean, scientists must be able to gather and analyze data around the clock from multiple locations simultaneously in near real time. Although research ships cannot accomplish this, instruments linked to land via cables and satellite could.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers have received funding from the Joint Oceanographic Institutions in Washington, D.C., to create the regional component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative. Under another contract, a team led by scientists from the University of California, San Diego, will create a cyberinfrastructure to connect all of the observatories set up under the plan.

The goal of the initiative, put forth by the National Science Foundation of Arlington, Va., is to design and construct regional, coastal and global underwater ocean observatories that will enable constant monitoring of the oceans. Funding is expected to total approximately $331 million, and planners hope to have all sites fully operational within six years.

The regional component will consist of an array of seafloor-mounted instruments and profiling moorings, which will be connected to land by an electro-optomechanical cable encircling part of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off the Washington coast. The armored cable will provide power to optical, chemical, acoustic and other sensors, to robotic systems and, potentially, to high-definition television and other cameras. Its optical fiber core will provide an Internet connection to shore that will allow control of the devices as well as data collection. A cabled test-bed system developed by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and its partners is in place off the California coast and should be in operation soon.

The coastal-scale moorings with sensors will be installed at sites off the New England coast and near Oregon and Washington, where autonomous vehicles, gliders and other mobile platforms also equipped with sensors may play a major role. Global observatories will assume the form of moored buoys, placed at isolated locations of environmental significance. Powered by solar panels and batteries, they will incorporate sensing devices that measure fluorescence of plant pigments, oxygen and other data and will transmit that data to researchers via satellite. The implementing organization for the coastal and global components will be funded under one award, for which the Joint Oceanographic Institutions is currently requesting proposals.

The cyberinfrastructure will unite the observatories using optical fiber and other communications technologies. Transmitting data at up to 1 Gb/s, the planned infrastructure will transmit, integrate and ensure the quality of collected data. The network also will allow researchers to communicate with and control the instruments.

A challenge the researchers currently face is to find smaller, more efficient sensors of various types for use in all of the projects. Once completed, the observatories are expected to continue operation for 20 years or more. The initiative should help scientists answer important questions related to air-sea gas exchange and should enable the observation of regular and aperiodic events that ship-based research expeditions fail to capture.

Pertaining to optics and the phenomena of light.
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