Background

Biological, chemical, physical, and geological processes interact in the ocean, at the seafloor, and at the air-sea interface in complex ways, strongly influencing our quality of life. This complex ocean system modulates climate, produces major energy and raw-material resources, supports the largest biosphere on Earth, absorbs greenhouse gases, liberates considerable oxygen, significantly influences rainfall and temperature patterns on land, and fuels devastating coastal storms. Ship-based expeditionary research and satellite imagery contribute enormously to our knowledge of the ocean, but the spatial and temporal limitations imposed by these methods mean that many critical ocean phenomena remain unexplored.

Unlike observational scientists on land, ocean scientists do not have access to sustained high-resolution, multidisciplinary time series, and they cannot routinely run sophisticated analyzers in situ or command event-driven sampling responses. At present, most ocean scientists still cannot access their in situ data in near-real time because of power and telemetry constraints, requiring them to study events that, at best, occurred months previous. In some locations, such as high latitudes, scientists still lack the capability to deploy long-term moorings that collect data from the sea surface to the seafloor.

The Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), enabled by the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account, will meet these challenges by building a networked infrastructure for sensors that will collect ocean and seafloor data at high sampling rates over years to decades. These sensors will be linked to shore using the latest communications technologies, enabling scientists to reconfigure them from their laboratories and use the incoming data in near-real time in their models. Scientists and educators from around the country, from large and small institutions, and from fields other than ocean science, will be able to take advantage of OOI’s open data policy and emerging cyberinfrastructure capabilities in distributed processing, visualization, and integrative modeling.

The OOI will provide revolutionary ocean observing capabilities. Copper and fiber cable installed across a tectonic plate will supply continuous power and communications to commandable, multidisciplinary instrument suites. A combination of moorings and mobile platforms (ocean gliders and autonomous underwater vehicles) will collect high-resolution, time-series data at the complicated boundary between coastal and deep-ocean regimes on both the west coast and the east coast of the United States. Moored observatories stationed in the high northern and southern latitude oceans will record information critical to understanding ocean-atmosphere interactions, and ocean dynamics and biogeochemistry. The OOI cyberinfrastructure will make available the distributed observing assets to all users in near-real time, permitting such activities as event-response sampling.

The ability to provide sufficient power continuously to complex instrumentation, to retrieve data with minimal delay, to interact with instruments and to modify platform sampling strategies in near-real time will stimulate the development of more sensors, durable hardware, autonomous vehicles, accurate ocean models, and other observing capabilities. Increased ocean coverage, the growth of technical capability, development of new and more precise predictive models, and increasing public understanding of the ocean will all be tangible measures of the OOI’s contribution to transforming ocean science.

The OOI will create the technological and organizational infrastructures to create radically new opportunities in ocean observing, ocean prediction, and scientific collaboration. Through the application of the best technologies to the confluence of ocean science, ocean data systems, and ocean community collaboration, OOI will enable new science, make existing science more effective, prompt additional scientific interest in oceanographic issues, and change expectations about what can be and should be achieved.