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.
Featured observatory efforts
How Does an Observatory Work?
When magma rises through Earth's crust to a mid-ocean ridge, ocean observatory sensors detect the ground motion, the spilling lava, and the chemicals spewing from hydrothermal vents. Observations are relayed back to shore-based researchers, who can command their instruments and a robotic vehicle to make specialized measurements, and then muster an expedition to inspect the eruption firsthand.