What is an Observatory?

Print version E-mail to a friend
Text Size: Change text to small (default) Change text to medium Change text to large
null
Enlarge Image
In 2003, the Hawaii-2 Observatory got its first renovation. The manipulator arm on the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason plugs in an instrument to the observatory's junction box. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the BBC Natural History Unit, courtesy of the WHOI Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory and Johnson-Sea-Link submersible, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution)


null
Enlarge Image
The University of Victoria (Canada) is leading an effort to develop a shallow-water undersea observatory. The Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea is being built in the Strait of Georgia between Victoria and Vancouver. (Courtesy of the NEPTUNE Project)


null
Enlarge Image
The NEPTUNE project aims to establish an earth/ocean observatory across the Juan de Fuca Plate off the US West Coast. Researchers propose to lay 1,865 miles of fiber-optic submarine cables linking 30 seafloor nodes that support assorted instruments and robotic vehicles. (Courtesy of the NEPTUNE Project and the University of Washington Center for Environmental Visualization.)


What is an Observatory?

Ocean observatories are platforms for studying the ocean and its fundamental processes in real time, while returning continuous streams of data and imagery back to shore-based researchers. They include suites of instruments and sensors, power supplies, computer command and storage capability, and Internet connections or other advanced communications systems.  Learn more »

A few ocean observatories and observing systems are already in operation or under construction, while several larger ones are now being planned by universities and research institutions in conjunction with NSF's Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), the NOAA-led Integrated and sustained Ocean Observation System (IOOS), and other international programs. Learn more »

To truly comprehend the ocean’s dynamic behavior and to monitor how it affects us back on shore, scientists must do more than observe small regions for short periods. They need to establish a presence in the ocean—platforms from which to view how the ocean and seafloor change with seasons, years, and decades. They need outposts from which to spy the first tremors of an earthquake, the first roll of a tsunami wave, the first bloom of toxic algae. Learn more »

Ocean observatories generally fall into three categories:
    1) Regional, Cabled Observatories
    2) Coastal Observatories and Observing Systems
    3) Global Observatories
WHOI, Scripps, and Oregon State University and their partners will be charged with building and maintaining the infrastructure for coastal and global systems for their American scientific colleagues.


What Do Observatories Do?

Citizens, sailors, and scientists have observed the seas for centuries. First from the shore, then from ships and submersibles, and recently from satellites. Along the way, scientists and engineers learned that they could sometimes leave instruments in the ocean, secured by wires, buoys, weights, and floats—also known as the moored observatory. Each approach has advanced our understanding of the oceans and their interaction with the Earth and the atmosphere.

The next big leap will be ocean observatories—suites of instruments and sensors with long-term power supplies and permanent communications links that can feed data to scientific laboratories and the Internet.

Spurred by advances in computing, telecommunications, and marine architecture, researchers no longer want to just observe the ocean for short periods in small places. They are thinking big—tectonic plate big, ocean basin big, global system big—and long-term--with decades of studies. They will do this by building an infrastructure that provides a continuous flow of information and electrical power while allowing researchers to adapt and adjust their experiments remotely as conditions warrant.

Ocean observatories are designed to ask fundamental questions about how the planet works. They will use novel technologies and techniques such as satellite communications, acoustic modems, and fiber-optic cables stretching hundreds of miles across the seafloor to ask questions of the planet that cannot be posed by short-term expeditions.

Ocean scientists would like to sustain their observations over months and years to see how the Earth, ocean, and atmosphere evolve. They want to ask questions that cross scientific boundaries, such as how does ocean chemistry affect biology or how does the geology on the seafloor affect the physics of flowing water. Observatories will allow scientists to not only collect data passively, but to adjust their experiments and talk to their instruments from hundreds of miles away in shore-based laboratories. They will allow researchers to share what they learn in real-time with scientific colleagues, policymakers, educators, students, and the interested public.



Why Do We Need Observatories?

Many of Earth’s most fundamental, planet-shaping processes occur in the ocean, out of human sight. The crust is built and consumed. Mineral-rich fluids spew from subterranean pipes. The majority of the planet’s earthquakes and volcanoes erupt beneath this watery blanket. Circulating currents move climate-driving heat and moisture around the globe. Strange creatures grow at depths beyond the influence of sunlight, providing a glimpse of perhaps the earliest life forms on the planet.

You can observe many of these processes from a research ship, lowering instruments, cameras, robots, and submersibles. But such expeditions last a few days or a few weeks and can only provide snapshots. They don’t allow you to observe changes over months or years, nor can you capture sudden, unpredictable events unless you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

Instruments on satellites offer useful broad and long-term observations of the ocean. But the view is only skin deep, as cameras and lasers can only penetrate the top few meters of water.

Moorings, drifters, and buoys have revealed much of what we know about the patterns and changes in the sea. But until recently, such tools were limited by the availability of ships to deploy them, the size of computer memory, and the strength and longevity of batteries.

To truly comprehend Earth’s dynamic behavior and to monitor how it affects us back on shore, ocean and earth scientists must do more than observe small regions for short periods. They need to establish a presence in the ocean—platforms from which to view how the ocean and seafloor change with seasons, years, and decades. They need outposts from which to spy the first tremors of an earthquake, the first roll of a tsunami wave, the first bloom of toxic algae.

Advances in communications, robotics, computers, and sensor technology now make it possible to get wider views of the seas and to add the dimension of time to our big environmental questions. With arrays of permanent, Internet-linked moorings and underwater cabled observatories, researchers can observe the evolution of the ocean on scales from a single, prodigious hydrothermal vent to an entire tectonic plate of Earth’s crust.

The power lines, fiber-optic data cables, solar panels, acoustic modems, and satellite transmitters on the next generation of ocean observing platforms will help turn hypotheses into understanding and help fit local and regional phenomena into the global picture

 

WHOI logo

rss headlines

Last updated August 9, 2007
© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. All rights reserved