Monday Morning: Ocean Observatories that Watch More, for Longer

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Japanese-style wave mural in convention center
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Don't forget you're in Hawaii: a mural fills the entire end wall of one of the convention center hallways. (Hugh Powell, WHOI)

Waikiki hotels
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Oahu appears to consist mainly of hotels, held together with some volcanic rock and coral. (Hugh Powell, WHOI)

Don't Feed the Penguins
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Whatever you do while you're in Hawaii, do not feed the penguins. (No wild penguins live in the Northern Hemisphere; these were on display in the Hilton Hawaiian Village.) "Mahalo" means "thank you" and everyone says it here (even the penguins). (Hugh Powell, WHOI)

Palm trees inside the convention center.
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The Hawaii Convention Center contains a five-story waterfall and palm trees nearly that big. Jungle scenes adorn the elevator walls, and soothing bird calls are piped in instead of Muzak. (Hugh Powell, WHOI)

New Steps in Observing the Ocean

The ocean is a mysterious place: bigger, harder to travel, less hospitable and more temperamental than even the bleakest tundra or sun-seared desert. And that’s just the sea surface. The ocean is also deep enough to lose Mt. Everest in, especially considering that the water is pitch black as soon as you get deeper than about 200 meters (660 feet).

It’s a wonder we know as much about the ocean as we do. But just this year, we've added enough new knowledge to cram 3,500 presentations into the Ocean Sciences scientific program alone.

And yet in many ways we know the solar system better than we do the ocean interior. Astronomers constantly analyze light and radio waves arriving from space, but no such information springs spontaneously from the ocean depths. To learn, we have to go underwater - or send special sensors down - into the cold, dark and pressure of the deep sea.

A team of scientists who hope to speed up our learning rate arrived early for the meeting in Honolulu. They worked through the weekend to plan the course of an international collaboration called OceanSITES. The program, headed by Uwe Send of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Robert Weller of WHOI, promotes advanced observations of the deep ocean made at precise locations and repeated over many years.

OceanSITES is one example of a recent push to expand ocean observation beyond the collection of a standard set of physical variables (such as temperature and salinity). Newly developed instruments that can measure complex aspects of the ocean (such as nutrient levels, dissolved gases, and plankton) can give scientists the information they need to understand how the ocean works and to predict how it will act.

The program responds to needs recognized in large research initiatives like ORION (which after many years of planning was recently included in President Bush’s 2007 budget) and the United Nations Global Ocean Observing System.

After the weekend meeting adjourned, there was time for a short dip at Waikiki Beach before heading to the Hawaii Convention Center for the Ocean Sciences kick-off reception.

At the beach I rented a decrepit surfboard and paddled out past the breakers. Sitting in warm water a few hundred meters offshore, I found, was a perfect location to contemplate the ocean’s mysteries. Today, I’m listening in on research talks that are starting to answer them.


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Last updated February 20, 2006
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