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Phoning Home from the Ocean Floor – by Computer

October 8, 2004

Oceanographers will soon be able to sit in their labs ashore and communicate with instruments in the water at ocean observatories around the world, enabling researchers to direct instruments to respond to recent events like hurricanes and earthquakes in that area. Underwater sensors of all types, from biological and chemical samplers to current meters and cameras, will be linked to shore via fiber optic networks and other types controlled by innovative cyber infrastructure, revolutionizing the way marine science is conducted in the coming decades and making much more information accessible in real time to both scientists and the public via the internet.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently announced a number of major awards from the agency’s Information Technology Research (ITR) program, including a $3.9 million award over four years to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and other partner institutions to build the Laboratory for the Ocean Observatory Knowledge Integration Grid (LOOKING). Lead institutions for the LOOKING project, the largest of nearly 120 awards from the ITR program this year, include the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego.

Senior Scientist Alan Chave of the Institution’s Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department is the principal WHOI scientist in the LOOKING project. “The ability to have instruments on the seafloor, the ocean observatory infrastructure, communicate with users on shore automatically and seamlessly is critical to the success of ocean observatories,” Chave said of the project.   “LOOKING will help us implement the ocean observatory networks we will need in other remote and hostile environments in the ocean. Scientists around the world will be able to access data from specific instruments on different observatories linked by this growing global network, making much more information available to scientists, teachers and students, and the public.  Internet access to the sea, or at least much more of it than we now have, will become routine.”

Participating institutions will collaborate on experimental wireless, optical networks and grid technology, including development of web services, networking protocols, devices and sensors. The prototype grid will eventually link communities of oceanographers via high-speed wireless and optical networks to observatories off the coasts of Mexico, the United States and Canada.

WHOI scientists and engineers have been designing, building and operating ocean observatories in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for more than ten years. Among them are the Long-Term Ecosystem Observatory (LEO) off New Jersey, a joint project with Rutgers University, the Hawaii-2 Observatory (H2O) in deep water in the Pacific between Hawaii and California, and the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory (MVCO). Institution researchers are also involved in other planned observatories around the world, including the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS), the Monterey Accelerated Research Systems (MARS) in California, and North East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments (NEPTUNE), a joint US-Canadian regional cabled observatory off Washington and Oregon.

NSF recently established the Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks (ORION) program to operate and manage existing and future ocean observing sites. The ORION program will also coordinate the science driving the construction of this research observing network as well as operation and maintenance of the infrastructure; development of instrumentation and mobile platforms and their incorporation into the observatory network; and planning, coordination, and implementation of educational and public outreach activities.

“The ORION program will introduce a revolutionary new level of oceanic understanding by developing a new form of virtually permanent, but flexible, access to the ocean,” said Kenneth Brink, a senior scientist at WHOI and project director for ORION. “In order to do this, it will require absolutely state-of-the art cyber capabilities, including data management, communications, and automatic system control. The LOOKING effort will be a major contribution towards meeting these needs.”

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, independent marine research and engineering and higher education organization located in Falmouth, MA. Its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, the Institution operates the US National Deep Submergence Facility that includes the deep-diving submersible Alvin, a fleet of global ranging ships and smaller coastal vessels, and a variety of other tethered and autonomous underwater vehicles. WHOI is organized into five departments, interdisciplinary institutes and a marine policy center, and conducts a joint graduate education program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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