A Brief History

Since at least 1988, the ocean sciences community has been developing and refining OOI science, engineering, and outreach concepts. The OOI design developed from two main technical directions: seafloor observatories linked with submarine cables to land that provide power and Internet connectivity; and buoy observatories that provide locally generated power to seafloor and platform instruments and use a satellite link to land and the Internet. A third technical element— integration of mobile assets such as autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)—emerged during program planning. The community developed these ideas simultaneously, and NSF nurtured them by supporting numerous related projects and workshops. These activities led to the vision of three observing scales—coastal, regional, and global— within one distributed, integrated network.

Milestones in the development of the Ocean Observatories Initiative.
Milestones in the development of the Ocean Observatories Initiative. (Illustration by Jennifer Matthews, Scripps Institution of Oceanography) [Enlarge Image]

Two National Research Council reports and 14 nationally circulated science and technical reports reflect broad community involvement in this initiative. In 2000, the National Science Board approved the OOI as an MREFC account project. Two high-visibility documents, the Pew Ocean Commission’s 2003 report, America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change, and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s 2004 report, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century, also highlight the importance of science-driven ocean observing. The National Science and Technology Council’s Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology issued the report Charting the Course for Ocean Science for the United States for the Next Decade: An Ocean Research Priorities Plan and Implementation Strategy, which identifies the OOI’s key role in addressing near-term national priorities.

In 2004, through a cooperative agreement with the NSF Division of Ocean Sciences, Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI)* established a project office to coordinate further OOI planning. In 2005, JOI issued a broadly focused request for conceptual proposals that resulted in 48 full experimental design submissions, representing the efforts of 550 investigators and spanning 130 research and education institutions. JOI instituted a large advisory structure of six committees comprising approximately 80 community stakeholders to assist in guiding development of a Conceptual Network Design (CND) informed by these submissions and other program activities. In March 2006, the potential user community reviewed the draft CND at a Design and Implementation Workshop. In August 2006, NSF convened a formal Conceptual Design Review to assess OOI scientific goals and merit, the proposed facility’s technical feasibility and budget, the project’s management plan, including schedules and milestones, and education and outreach plans. In its report, the 20-member panel affirmed that the OOI as proposed would transform oceanographic research in the coming decades, and that the CND provided a good starting point for developing the OOI network.

The OOI project office, in consultation with its advisory committees, further refined the CND in light of fiscal guidance from NSF. In March 2007, JOI posted a revised CND for community comment, retaining the most transformative ideas that could be addressed within the available budget using parametric cost estimates. The design discussed here has been adjusted from the revised CND in light of more detailed engineering cost estimates, risk assessment, and contingency planning as required by the MREFC account process. NSF’s current, authorized capital investment for the OOI is $331M, with an anticipated $50M per year in 2013 dollars available as a continuing budget for steady-state operations and maintenance of the network. These budget realities place restrictions on the scope of the facility that will be realized when compared with the more comprehensive, initial concepts.

As historical program documents indicate, the OOI infrastructure was always intended to be a platform  individual investigators could use to deploy independently funded instruments or experiments for sustained and configurable ocean observing. Prior to 2004, OOI planning focused mainly on infrastructure, rather than scientific instrumentation, in accordance with interpretation of MREFC program policy at that time. The realization that many multidisciplinary scientific goals could be achieved immediately upon completion of OOI infrastructure construction with the addition of a nominal amount of scientific instrumentation led program stakeholders to discuss the concept of “core” sensors, and the guiding principle of striking a balance between initially enabled science and future capability. The OOI design remains focused on making it easy for investigators to plug in their own instruments, opening up research avenues that cannot be imagined today. To fulfill its potential, the program relies on an engaged community using the OOI’s capabilities for novel experimentation.

*In 2007, JOI merged with the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education to form the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL). COL now manages the Ocean Observatories Initiative.