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Research Highlights

News & Insights

Engineer and Alvin Pilot Drew Bewley working in the Alvin Birdcage

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Drew Bewley

March 31, 2021

Alvin engineer and pilot Drew Bewley on what best prepared him to work on a one-of-a-kind submersible and the overhaul that will take Alvin to 6500 meters.

The Search for Life

February 17, 2021

This week, NASA’s Perseverance Rover lands on Mars to continue the search for life on the Red Planet. At the same time, WHOI scientists and engineers are applying their experience exploring the deepest parts of planet Earth to the quest…

WHOI builds bridges with Arctic Indigenous communities

February 10, 2021

NSF program fosters collaboration between indigenous communities and traditional scientists, allowing WHOI’s autonomous vehicles to shed light on a changing Arctic

Lane Abrams

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Lane Abrams

December 22, 2020

Lane Abrams talks about designing electronics for the bottom of the ocean and project management of Alvin’s electrical updates for the 6500 meter overhaul.

Smart cameras keep lookout for endangered whales

December 17, 2020

A ship-mounted thermal imaging system provides real-time detection of whales, which could reduce the number of endangered marine mammals killed by vessels each year.

Francis Elder testing new variable ballast pump for Alvin

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Francis Elder

December 16, 2020

An interview with Francis Elder, lead mechanical engineer for the Alvin Group. Find out how the team has designed a new pump to take Alvin to 6,500 meters.

Could listening to the deep sea help save it?

November 10, 2020

A recent New York Times article about sound in the deep ocean briefly mentions the work by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) acoustic scientist Ying-Tsong “YT” Lin and his work developing an “acoustic telescope.”

Wave Glider provides gateway to remote exploration

November 10, 2020

WHOI geochemist Chris German pairs an autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) called a Wave Glider with other vehicles to expand research here and on other Ocean Worlds

WHOI-assisted study finds ocean dumping of DDT waste was “sloppy”

October 29, 2020

An investigative report this week in the LA Times features the work of WHOI’s marine geochemistry lab in identifying the discarded barrels and analyzing samples from the discovery.

Can seismic data mules protect us from the next big one?

October 7, 2020

Ocean scientists leverage game-changing technologies to improve our understanding of the global ocean’s most dangerous earthquake faults and enable more advanced warnings for seismic risk.

News Releases

Underwater robot offers new insight into mid-ocean “twilight zone”

June 16, 2021

Woods Hole, MA (June 16, 2021) — An innovative underwater robot known as Mesobot is providing researchers with deeper insight into the vast mid-ocean region known as the “twilight zone.” Capable of tracking and recording high-resolution images of slow-moving and fragile zooplankton, gelatinous animals, and particles, Mesobot greatly expands scientists’ ability to observe creatures in their mesopelagic habitat with minimal disturbance. This advance in engineering will enable greater understanding of the role these creatures play in transporting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep sea, as well as how commercial exploitation of twilight zone fisheries might affect the marine ecosystem.

In a paper published June 16 in Science Robotics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) senior scientist Dana Yoerger presents Mesobot as a versatile vehicle for achieving a number of science objectives in the twilight zone.

Mesobot was conceived to complement and fill important gaps not served by existing technologies and platforms,” said Yoerger. “We expect that Mesobot will emerge as a vital tool for observing midwater organisms for extended periods, as well as rapidly identifying species observed from vessel biosonars. Because Mesobot can survey, track, and record compelling imagery, we hope to reveal previously unknown behaviors, species interactions, morphological structures, and the use of bioluminescence.”

Co-authored by research scientists and engineers from WHOI, MBARI (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute), and Stanford University, the paper outlines the robot’s success in autonomously tracking two gelatinous marine creatures during a 2019 research cruise in Monterey Bay. High-definition video revealed a “dinner plate” jellyfish “ramming” a siphonophore, which narrowly escaped the jelly’s venomous tentacles. Mesobot also recorded a 30-minute video of a giant larvacean, which appears to be nearly motionless but is actually riding internal waves that rise and fall 6 meters (20 feet). These observations represent the first time that a self-guided robot has tracked these small, clear creatures as they move through the water column like a “parcel of water,” said Yoerger.

Mesobot has the potential to change how we observe animals moving through space and time in a way that we’ve never been able to do before,” said Kakani Katija, MBARI principal engineer. “As we continue to develop and improve on the vehicle, we hope to observe many other mysterious and captivating animals in the midwaters of the ocean, including the construction and disposal of carbon-rich giant larvacean ‘snot palaces.'”

Packaged in an hydrodynamically efficient yellow case, the hybrid robot is outfitted with a suite of oceanographic and acoustic survey sensors. It may be piloted remotely through a fiberoptic cable attached to a ship or released from its tether to follow pre-programmed missions or autonomously track a target at depths up to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet). This autonomous capability will one day enable Mesobot to follow a target animal for over 24 hours without human intervention, which is enough time to observe its migration from the midwater twilight zone to the surface and back. Future studies with Mesobot could provide researchers with valuable insight into animal behavior during diel vertical migration, known as “the greatest migration on Earth” because of the vast number and diversity of creatures that undertake it each night.

“By leveraging the data we’ve collected using Mesobot, and other data that we’ve been curating for 30-plus years at MBARI, we hope to integrate smarter algorithms on the vehicle that use artificial intelligence to discover, continuously track, and observe enigmatic animals and other objects in the deep sea,” Kakani said.

Suzanne Pelisson

 

Raúl Nava

 

Key Takeaways

  • Mesobot is an underwater robot capable of capturing high-resolution images and oceanographic data in the mid-ocean known as the “twilight zone,” located approximately 200-1,000 meters (600-3,300 feet) below the surface.
  • Designed to minimize disturbance of fragile twilight zone creatures, Mesobot features red lights (which most mid-ocean creatures cannot see) and low-power thrusters that allow it to hover in place and track animals as they ride internal waves.
  • Mesobot is a hybrid vehicle, meaning it can be piloted remotely through a fiberoptic cable attached to a ship, or released from its tether to follow pre-programmed missions or autonomously track a target.
  • In tests, Mesobot successfully tracked two gelatinous animals without human intervention, recording valuable video of predation and filter-feeding behavior.
  • The data and imagery collected by Mesobot will allow scientists to study a relatively unknown part of the ocean and the creatures that live there, as well as how commercial exploitation of twilight zone fisheries might affect the marine ecosystem.
  • Mesobot will enable greater understanding of the “biological carbon pump,” in which animals transport carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep sea.

Papers Explore Massive Plankton Blooms with Very Different Ecosystem Impacts

June 7, 2021

“The big mystery about plankton is what controls its distribution and abundance, and what conditions lead to big plankton blooms,” said Dennis McGillicuddy, Senior Scientist and Department Chair in Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

Two new papers explore this question and provide examples of conditions that lead to massive plankton blooms with vastly different potential impacts on the ecosystem, according to McGillicuddy, co-author of both papers. Both papers also point to importance of using advanced technology—including Video Plankton Recorders, autonomous underwater vehicles, and the Ocean Observatories Initiative’s Coastal Pioneer Array—to find and monitor these blooms.

In one paper, Diatom Hotspots Driven by Western Boundary Current Instability, published in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), scientists found unexpectedly productive subsurface hotspot blooms of diatom phytoplankton.

In the GRL paper, researchers investigated the dynamics controlling primary productivity in a region of the Mid-Atlantic Bight (MAB), one of the world’s most productive marine ecosystems. In 2019, they observed unexpected diatom hotspots in the slope region of the bight’s euphotic zone, the ocean layer that receives enough light for photosynthesis to occur. Phytoplankton are photosynthetic microorganisms that are the foundation of the aquatic food web.

It was surprising to the researchers that the hotspots occurred in high-salinity water intruding from the Gulf Stream. “While these intrusions of low‐nutrient Gulf Stream water have been thought to potentially diminish biological productivity, we present evidence of an unexpectedly productive subsurface diatom bloom resulting from the direct intrusion of a Gulf Stream meander towards the continental shelf,” the authors note. They hypothesize that the hotspots were not fueled by Gulf Stream surface water, which is typically low in nutrients and chlorophyll, but rather that the hotspots were fueled by nutrients upwelled into the sunlight zone from deeper Gulf Stream water.

With changing stability of the Gulf Stream, intrusions from the Gulf Stream had become more frequent in recent decades, according to the researchers. “These results suggest that changing large‐scale circulation has consequences for regional productivity that are not detectable by satellites by virtue of their occurrence well below the surface,” the authors note.

“In this particular case, changing climate has led to an increase in productivity in this particular region, by virtue of a subtle and somewhat unexpected interaction between the physics and biology of the ocean. That same dynamic may not necessarily hold elsewhere in the ocean, and it’s quite likely that other areas of the ocean will become less productive over time. That’s of great concern,” said McGillicuddy. “There are going to be regional differences in the way the ocean responds to climate change. And society needs to be able to intelligently manage from a regional perspective, not just on a global perspective.”

The research finding demonstrated “a cool, counterintuitive biological impact of this changing large scale circulation,” said the GRL paper’s lead author, Hilde Oliver, a postdoctoral scholar in Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering at WHOI. She recalled watching the instrument data come in. With typical summertime values of about 1-1.5 micrograms of chlorophyll per liter of seawater, researchers recorded “unheard of concentrations for chlorophyll in this region in summer,” as high as 12 or 13 micrograms per liter, Oliver said.

Oliver, whose Ph.D. focused on modeling, said the cruise helped her to look at phytoplankton blooms from more than a theoretical sense. “To go out into the ocean and see how the physics of the ocean can manifest these blooms in the real world was eye opening to me,” she said.

Another paper, A Regional, Early Spring Bloom of Phaeocystis pouchetii on the New England Continental Shelf, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans(JGR: Oceans), also was eye opening. Researchers investigating the biological dynamics of the New England continental shelf in 2018 discovered a huge bloom of the haptophyte phytoplankton Phaeocystis pouchetii.

However, unlike the diatom hotspots described in the GRL paper, Phaeocystis is “unpalatable to a lot of different organisms and disrupts the entire food web,” said Walker Smith, retired professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science William and Mary, who is the lead author on the JGR: Oceans paper. The phytoplankton form gelatinous colonies that are millimeters in diameter.

When Phaeocystis blooms, it utilizes nutrients just like any other form of phytoplankton would. However, unlike the diatoms noted in the GRL paper, Phaeocystis converts biomass into something that doesn’t tend to get passed up the rest of the food chain, said McGillicuddy.

“Understanding the physical-biological interactions in the coastal system provides a basis for predicting these blooms of potentially harmful algae and may lead to a better prediction of their impacts on coastal systems,” the authors stated.

Massive blooms of the colonial stage of this and similar species have been reported in many systems in different parts of the world, which Smith has studied. These types of blooms probably occur about every three years in the New England continental shelf and probably have a fairly strong impact on New England waters, food webs, and fisheries, said Smith. Coastal managers need to know about these blooms because they can have economic impacts on aquaculture in coastal areas, he said.

“Despite the fact that the Mid-Atlantic Bight has been well-studied and extensively sampled, there are things that are going on that we still don’t really appreciate,” said Smith. “One example are these Phaeocystis blooms that are deep in the water and that you are never going to see unless you are there because satellites can’t show them. So, the more we look, the more we find out.”

Both of these studies were carried out as part of the National Science Foundation-funded Shelfbreak Productivity Interdisciplinary Research Operation at the Pioneer Array involving partners at WHOI, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Wellesley College, and Old Dominion University. Additional support has been provided by the Dalio Explorer Fund.

For more information, see the video “Life at the Edge: Plankton Growth at the Shelf Break Front,” produced by ScienceMedia.nl for WHOI.

About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu

A Regional, Early Spring Bloom of Phaeocystis pouchetii on the New England Continental Shelf

Authors: Walker O. Smith Jr.1,2*, Weifeng G. Zhang3, Andrew Hirzel3, Rachel M. Stanley4, Meredith G. Meyer1, Heidi Sosik3, Philip Alatalo3, Hilde Oliver3, Zoe Sandwith3, E. Taylor Crockford3 , Emily E. Peacock3, Arshia Mehta4 , and Dennis J. McGillicuddy Jr.3

 

Affiliations:

1 Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William & Mary, Gloucester Pt., VA, USA

2 School of Oceanography, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, China

3 Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

4 Department of Chemistry, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, USA

*Corresponding author

 Diatom Hotspots Driven by Western Boundary Current Instability

Authors: Hilde Oliver1*, Weifeng G. Zhang1, Walker O. Smith, Jr.,2,3, Philip Alatalo1, P. Dreux Chappell4, Andrew Hirzel1, Corday R. Selden4, Heidi M. Sosik1, Rachel H. R. Stanley5, Yifan Zhu4, and Dennis J. McGillicuddy, Jr.1

 

Affiliations:

1Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

2Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William & Mary, Gloucester Point, VA, USA

3School of Oceanography, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, People’s Republic of China

4Department of Ocean and Earth Sciences, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA USA

5Department of Chemistry, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, USA

*Corresponding author

 

 

Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers Honors WHOI Scientist

December 29, 2020

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers  (IEEE) elected Dana Yoerger as a 2021 fellow for the development of autonomous underwater vehicles for deep-ocean exploration and science. Yoerger is a senior scientist in the Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering Department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and a pioneering researcher in robotics and underwater vehicles.

Yoerger is a long-time, key contributor to the remotely-operated vehicle Jason, the autonomous underwater vehicles ABE and Sentry, and the hybrid remotely operated vehicle Nereus, which reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench in 2009. His current research focuses on designing and developing robots to explore the midwater regions of the world’s ocean. He leads a team that designed the new underwater robot called Mesobot,  which non-invasively tracks midwater animals that play an important role in the movement of carbon through the world’s oceans.

Yoerger has gone to sea on over 80 oceanographic expeditions exploring the Mid-Ocean Ridge, mapping underwater seamounts and volcanoes, surveying ancient and modern shipwrecks, and studying the environmental effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He also supervises the research and academic programs of graduate students studying oceanographic engineering in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program.

“It’s truly an honor to be chosen as an IEEE fellow,” says Yoerger. “I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with very capable engineers and researchers at WHOI and from around the world who enabled me to make a difference.”

A distinction as an IEEE Fellow is reserved for select members whose extraordinary accomplishments in any of the related fields of interest are deemed fitting of this prestigious grade elevation. The total number of members honored in any one year as a fellow can’t exceed one-tenth of one- percent of the total voting membership. IEEE Fellow is the highest grade of membership and is recognized by the technical community as a prestigious honor and an important career achievement.

The IEEE is the world’s leading professional association for advancing technology for humanity. Through its 400,000 plus members in 160 countries, the association is a leading authority on a wide variety of areas ranging from aerospace systems, computers and telecommunications to biomedical engineering, electric power and consumer electronics.

Dedicated to the advancement of technology, the IEEE publishes 30 percent of the world’s literature in the electrical and electronics engineering and computer science fields, and has developed more than 1300 active industry standards.  The association also sponsors or co-sponsors nearly 1700 international technical conferences each year. To learn more about IEEE or the IEEE Fellow Program, please visit www.ieee.org.

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WHOI reveals upgrades to iconic submersible Alvin

December 10, 2020

One of the world’s most prolific research submersibles will put 99% of the ocean floor within reach of science community when it relaunches in 2021

Increased depth range and the ability to explore 99% of the ocean floor, including the abyssal region—one of the least understood areas of the deep sea—are just some of the upgrades underway for the iconic human-occupied Vehicle (HOV) Alvin that were unveiled today at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Fall Meeting 2020. Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Portland State University, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shared details on the upgrades, the importance of human exploration of the deep ocean, and what new science questions they hope to answer when Alvin dives again in September 2021.

Participating in today’s event were Bruce Strickrott, WHOI Group Manager and Chief Pilot of the Deep Submergence Vehicle Alvin; Adam Soule, Chief Scientist of the National Deep Submergence Facility (NDSF) at WHOI; Dr. Anna-Louise Reysenbach, Professor of Microbiology in the Biology Department at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon and current chair of the Deep Submergence Science Committee (DeSSC); and Chad King, a research specialist at NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) in California.

Alvin is one of the most recognized deep submergence vessels in the world and the only one in the U.S. capable of carrying humans into extreme ocean depths. The sub has completed 5,065 successful dives, more than all other submersible programs worldwide combined. When Alvin relaunches next fall, the iconic sub will have the ability to dive to 6500 meters (21,325 feet)—almost 4 miles deep and 2,000 meters deeper than Alvin’s current maximum depth of 4500 meters (14,800 feet). The upgrade will also give the sub access to 99% of the ocean floor.

Alvin was commissioned in 1964 and is named after WHOI physicist and oceanographer Allyn Vine, who was an early proponent of U.S investment deep-sea submersibles. The original Alvin was only rated for depths up to 1,829 meters (6,000 feet), but advancements in syntactic foam, a specialized material that can provide buoyancy at great depth, provided access to greater depths. As this and other technologies have improved, the scope of Alvin’s capabilities have also expanded. When this latest overhaul is completed, Alvin will enable in-person study of the lower Abyssal Zone and the upper Hadal Zone—one of the least-understood parts of the deep sea and home to high-temperature hydrothermal vents, submarine volcanoes, subduction trenches, mineral resources, and more. This will also give the science community an unprecedented opportunity to visit a critically under-studied part of the planet that plays a role in carbon and nutrient cycling and that will offer a view into how life might be evolved to conditions in oceans beyond Earth.

Alvin is the only publicly funded, human-occupied vehicle available to the U.S. scientific community for exploring the abyssal region in-person. To date, 3,076 researchers have shared a firsthand experience unlike any other in science, allowing in-situ data and sample collection and direct observation of the seafloor and water column on dives lasting up to 10 hours.

Chad King is a research specialist at NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) in California who made his first dive in Alvin in March 2019 to a part of the sanctuary now known as the Octopus Garden.  It was the first visit to this area after its discovery in 2018, and data collected by King in Alvin that confirmed that warm water was seeping from the seafloor, something the mother octopuses appeared to be using to incubate their eggs. The dive also documented the first hatching of baby octopus at this site, proving that it was a viable nursery.

“It was a remarkable experience to be able to see, for the first time, these animals mere feet away, in three dimensions, and to give context to the surrounding environment,” said King. “It’s an experience I will never forget.”

According to Adam Soule, the sub is also an important tool for fostering new generations of scientists. “Sometimes the sub is viewed as inaccessible to early-career scientists or those who haven’t used it yet,” he said. “That is not true. If someone has a good idea and they want to use Alvin, they will get to use Alvin. The increased range and scope will be incredibly helpful in an environment where we know very little and have to use our observation skills to decide where to go and what samples to collect.”

Additional upgrades to Alvin include:

  • New titanium ballast spheres and syntactic foam modules rated to 6,500 meters.
  • Improved high-quality still and 4K video imaging systems.
  • More energy-efficient, fully redundant hydraulic system with increased pressure and flow rate and new hydraulic valve manifolds.
  • Higher-horsepower thrusters designed and built inhouse and based on a proven WHOI design.
  • New motor controllers.
  • New pressure housings to complete upgrade to 6,500-meter operations.
  • Updated command-and-control system to integrate the new hydraulic and motor controller systems into Alvin’s advanced digital piloting and control/ monitoring interface.
  • Enhanced sampling capabilities with an additional manipulator arm.

Based at WHOI, the Alvin Group is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Navy, and NOAA. The group supports all aspects of the sub’s operations, including maintaining and piloting the sub while at sea, integrating new scientific sensors and instruments for specific missions to keep the sub at the forefront of ocean exploration and discovery, and designing and building new parts during each overhaul. Along with Alvin, NDSF operates remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason, and autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry for the ocean science community.

Verification testing dives on Alvin are scheduled to begin in the Puerto Rico trench in September 2021.

###

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu

OSU Assumes Cyberinfrastructure Responsibility for OOI

October 5, 2020

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Oregon State University (OSU) jointly announced that OSU will assume responsibilities for the systems management of the cyberinfrastructure that makes data transmission for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) possible through September of 2023.  OSU was awarded this role after a systematic and thorough selection process. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, has provided OOI’s Cyberinfrastructure systems management since 2014, and will leave the OOI Program in 2021 following a transition period with OSU.

The OOI consists of five instrumented observatories in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans outfitted with more than 800 instruments that continually collect and deliver data to shore via a cyberinfrastructure, which makes the data available to anyone with an Internet connection. The demands on the cyberinfrastructure are great, as it stores 73 billion rows of data, and has provided 36 terabytes of data in response to 189 million user requests since 2014.  With the data requests and delivery demands increasing each year, the OOI has the capability to provide data that allows inquiries into episodic ecosystem events in real-time, as well as investigations using long-term time series data. The OOI is made possible through a funded five-year cooperative agreement to WHOI from the National Science Foundation. The OSU award is for $6 million over a three-year period.

“We are delighted that OSU has the capabilities and expertise to take on this hugely important task,” says John Trowbridge, Principal Investigator of the Program Management Office of the OOI at WHOI. “The OOI has become a dependable source of real-time ocean data, helping scientists answer pressing questions about the changing ocean.  Educators use real-time ocean data to teach students about the fundamentals of oceanography, the global carbon cycle, climate variability, and other important topics.  The team at OSU will help advance this work and ensure that OOI data are served reliably to an ever-growing audience.

“We are also extremely grateful to the Rutgers team for the excellent foundation they established over the past six years that will allow a seamless transition to the OSU cyberinfrastructure team. Rutgers was an important partner that helped establish OOI as a reliable data provider,” adds Trowbridge.

“OSU brings the perfect mix of hardware, software, and ocean data experts to ensure that we are able to store and serve up this gargantuan amount of important ocean data,” adds Anthony Koppers, Principal Investigator for the OSU Cyberinfrastructure Systems Team. “We have the key personnel and systems in place that will allow us to seamlessly take on the challenge of storing and serving OOI data, strategically planning for future data demands and implementing cybersecurity. We also will be working hand-in-hand with the OOI’s Data Management Team to ensure the data meets the highest quality standards.”

OSU’s cyberinfrastructure will handle telemetered, recovered, and streaming data.  Telemetered data are delivered to the cyberinfrastructure from moorings and gliders using remote access such as satellites.  Recovered data are complete datasets that are retrieved and uploaded to the cyberinfrastructure once an ocean observing platform is recovered from the field.  Streaming data are delivered in real time directly from instruments in the field.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu

WHOI Announces D’Works Marine Technology Initiative for Massachusetts Startups and Entrepreneurs

August 26, 2020

Massachusetts has long been known as a center of invention and technical innovation and, more recently, has gained attention for its vibrant marine robotics startup community. Now startup companies, entrepreneurs, and others in the Commonwealth who work in the marine robotics and related technologies sector, including artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, will have a new partner to help them develop products and technologies and bring their ideas to market.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech) are teaming up to make WHOI’s unique mix of resources available through the D’Works Marine Technology Initiative to accelerate the pace of marine technology innovation.

“Our goal is to help move ideas from the concept stage to at-sea operations as efficiently as possible,” said James Bellingham, Director of WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics (CMR). “To do this, we’re making WHOI’s specialized facilities and expertise available to the entrepreneurial community.”

The Innovation Institute at MassTech  has seeded the D’Works Innovation Fund via CMR for qualified companies to access WHOI facilities, as well as technical and engineering support, building on a previous $5 million grant to support the construction of DunkWorks Advanced Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping Center and several other new test facilities at WHOI. Applications will be accepted beginning August 26 on a rolling basis through the fall, with the first awards expected to be announced by September 30.

“WHOI’s work at the leading edge of oceanographic research is based on a combination of deep understanding of the ocean and how it works,” said WHOI Deputy Director and Vice President for Research Rick Murray. “WHOI is pleased to work with the MassTech to support the growth of marine robotics, AI, and related technologies that will benefit from WHOI’s state-of-the-art testing facilities. In turn, we expect that marine research will also advance through the innovative ideas tested by entrepreneurs.”

“The funding for the D’Works initiative will expand access to WHOI’s world-class facilities, helping grow new startups and further strengthening our state’s position as the number one region in the world for marine and blue tech innovation,” added Carolyn Kirk, Executive Director of MassTech. “What sets Massachusetts apart is not only our top R&D facilities, but also the talented researchers and innovators that can help entrepreneurs grow their business.”

 D’Works funding is intended to support the use of critical fabrication and testing equipment and facilities by startups, entrepreneurs and innovators to develop marketable robotic devices, vehicles, AI, or sensors for use in the marine environment. Available WHOI facilities include the DunkWorks Advanced Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping Center, WHOI’s advanced pressure test and calibration facilities, the Iselin Marine Facility and test well, and WHOI’s skilled carpentry, electrical, and mechanical staff.

Accepted D’Works Innovators are not limited to shore-based testing. Through the program, startups may also make use of WHOI’s coastal research vessel Tioga and small boat fleet, scientific dive program, and offshore infrastructure at the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory. Applicants may also implement and test technologies at other WHOI facilities, or apply for membership in the CMR DunkWorks Program.

“Our ideal applicant has a prototype for what they believe to be a working technology in the pre-scaling stage,” said Leslie Ann McGee, CMR assistant director. “This fund is for those innovators or technologists who need access to facilities like we have at WHOI but don’t have the funding for a larger, traditional project at WHOI.”

To apply, Massachusetts-based applicants must submit a proposal outlining specific project milestones and demonstrate how modest funding will advance those goals from a technological and marketing standpoint. Minority and women-owned companies are encouraged to apply. More information is available at https://www2.whoi.edu/site/marinerobotics/home/innovation-fund/

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.

Key Takeaways

  • Massachusetts startups and entrepreneurs may apply for funding to test and develop new marine products and technologies through the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s D’Works Marine Technology Initiative.
  • Funding from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s Innovation Institute will provide vouchers that can be used to access WHOI facilities, boats, engineering expertise, and technical support.
  • Applications from qualified companies will be initially accepted beginning August 26 on a rolling basis through the fall, and the first awards announced by September 30.
  • More information is available at https://www2.whoi.edu/site/marinerobotics/home/innovation-fund/

WHOI Scientists Make Woods Hole Film Festival Appearance

July 17, 2020

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists appear in two shorts and a feature film at this year’s Woods Hole Film Festival (WHFF). In addition, scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions connected to three of the festival’s feature-length, ocean-themed entries.

The short films, “Divergent Warmth” and “Beyond the Gulf Stream” are part of a program titled “The Blue Between Us,” offered on-demand from July 25 to August 1 as part of the festival’s virtual program.

In “Divergent Warmth,” producer-director Megan Lubetkin gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the synchronized ballet aboard a research vessel during a recent expedition to the East Pacific Rise. Experimental music provides rhythm to imagery of deck operations, launch and recovery of the human-occupied submersible Alvin, and other-worldly views of seafloor hydrothermal vents and lava flows. Interwoven throughout is an evocative reading of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Dan Fornari, a WHOI emeritus research scholar, acted as associate producer of the 10-minute film. As one of the scientists on the December 2019 expedition, he invited Lubetkin, herself a scientist and the creative exhibits coordinator with the Ocean Exploration Trust, to assist with subsea camera operations and video data management on board. Lubetkin spent her free time shooting additional video, which she edited together while still on the ship to produce a first draft of “Divergent Warmth.”

“I was blown away. It was just fabulous,” Fornari said of his first viewing. “It captures the spirit of going out to sea and being involved in this exploratory effort in the alien realm, where very few people get to go.”

The complex winter currents that collide off the coast of Cape Hatteras are the focus of “Beyond the Gulf Stream,” a short documentary by the Georgia-based production company MADLAWMEDIA. Filmed aboard the WHOI-operated research vessel Neil Armstrong, the 10-minute film features WHOI physical oceanographers Magdalena Andres, Glen Gawarkiewicz, and graduate student Jacob Forsyth as they share their perspectives on the challenges and rewards of doing scientific research at sea, often in difficult conditions.

“I think we have a responsibility to communicate science and the process of doing of science to the public,” said Andres about the film, which was produced in collaboration with WHOI and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography at the University of Georgia. “It does a really nice job of capturing life at sea in the wintertime.”

As a scientist who uses video to capture data from the ocean depths, Fornari is highly attuned to the impact that visual media can have in capturing the public’s imagination about the ocean.

“These kinds of artistic expressions help open doors to people’s minds.” he said. “That’s crucial for getting the public to understand how critically important the oceans are. Then maybe more students will say, ‘I want to be an ocean scientist when I grow up.’”

In addition to the shorts program itself, WHOI scientists, staff, and students will also participate in “Filmmaker Chats” open to the public and broadcast via Zoom, as well as the WHFF Facebook and YouTube channels. Maddux-Lawrence will take questions about “Beyond the Gulf Stream” on Sunday, July 19, beginning at 9:00 a.m. On Friday, July 31 at 9:00 a.m., Lubetkin will appear with Fornari, as well as Alvin pilot Drew Bewley, MIT-WHOI Joint Program graduate student Lauren Dykman, and Texas A&M graduate student Charlie Holmes II to discuss the making of and science behind “Divergent Warmth.” Recordings of both sessions will also be available for viewing afterward on the festival website.

In addition to the short films, WHOI whale biologist Michael Moore appears in the feature-length documentary “Entangled,” which looks at the intertwined plights of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and coastal fishing communities in New England and eastern Canada. After being hunted for centuries, the whales face new challenges in the form of climate change and increased fishing and shipping activity, and Moore has been an outspoken proponent of the need for increased protections to stave off their slide to extinction within the next 20 years.

WHOI scientists will also add their perspective to Q&A sessions following several ocean-themed, feature-length films selected for the festival:

  • Thursday, July 30, at 10:00 p.m.: Research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell will answer questions related to aquaculture and seafood in relation to the film “Fish & Men.
  • Saturday, August 1, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m.: Marine chemist Chris Reddy will answer questions about microplastics in relation to the film “Microplastics Madness.”
  • Saturday, August 1, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.: Marine biologist Simon Thorrold will answer questions about marine protected areas and fishing in connection with the film “Current Sea.”

Key Takeaways

  • Films featuring WHOI scientists will be screened as part of “The Blue Between Us” shorts program at the virtual Woods Hole Film Festival, which may be viewed online by festival passholders and individual ticketholders during the festival, which runs from Saturday, July 25, to Saturday, August 1. Tickets and more information is available here.
  • Whale biologist Michael Moore will appear in the feature-length film “Entangled” about the plight of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • WHOI scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions associated with several ocean-themed, feature-length festival films.
  • More information is available on the festival website.

WHOI researcher dives to Challenger Deep

June 26, 2020

Ying-Tsong Lin is the 12th person in history and the first person of Asian descent to visit ocean’s deepest seafloor

A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researcher became one of just a handful of people to visit the deepest part of the ocean following a successful dive in the deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor on Monday.

Ying-Tsong “Y.T.” Lin, a scientist with WHOI’s Ocean Acoustics & Signals Lab, traveled to the central pool of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, a depth of 10.9 kilometers (6.8 miles), with Victor Vescovo, the pilot and founder of Caladan Oceanic. As a Taiwanese-American, Dr. Lin’s dive marked the first time a person of Asian descent had traveled to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This record-setting dive was among a series of history-making expeditions that Vescovo piloted this month, including dives by the first woman, former astronaut Kathy Sullivan, and by Kelly Walsh, the son of Don Walsh, who, with Jacques Piccard, made the first-ever dive to the Mariana Trench in 1960.

“The sub Limiting Factor is a space-time capsule bringing us to another world, which has not been touched for millions years,” Dr. Lin wrote in an email from the ship following his 10-hour dive. “Looking at the sand waves on the bottom of the world, thinking how long it took for the weak currents at that depth to build them up, space and time just collapsed; I was watching a million years of evolution in just an instant. What I saw down there makes me feel how insignificant I am. I would like to share this opportunity to understand life better with all my friends and colleagues who helped make it possible.”

As part of Caladan Oceanic’s multidisciplinary Ring of Fire expedition, Dr. Lin is conducting an acoustic experiment aboard the submersible’s support ship, Pressure Drop, to determine how sound waves propagate in the deepest parts of the ocean. Because of the pressure at extreme depths, the increased density of water causes changes in the speed of sound, which need to be carefully accounted for to ensure the accuracy of deep-water acoustic instruments.

With a specialized hydrophone recorder provided by the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory deployed in Challenger Deep, Dr. Lin successfully recorded ambient sound as well as acoustic signals transmitted from an underwater speaker deployed near the ocean surface from the ship. In addition to improving scientists’ understanding of how sound refracts in the deep ocean, Dr. Lin’s shipboard experiments will provide greater clarity on how acoustic communication and geo-location could be improved at extreme depths.

“We are so pleased to have partnered with Y.-T. and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on this dive and showing the access we can provide to any individual who wants to regularly and reliably visit any point on the ocean floor,” said Vescovo after the dive.

Dr. Lin is the first WHOI scientist to visit Challenger Deep in-person, but the institution has a history of conducting research at the ocean’s greatest depths. In 2009, WHOI scientists and engineers sent the hybrid remotely operated vehicle Nereus to Challenger Deep, making it just the third vehicle in history to reach a depth of over 10,900 meters. In addition, following James Cameron’s solo dive to Challenger Deep in 2012, the Canadian explorer and director donated his submersible DeepSea Challenger to WHOI so that engineers could document and redeploy some of the technology he and his team developed. These technologies have been incorporated into the autonomous underwater vehicle Orpheus, currently awaiting deep-sea trials.

At WHOI, Dr. Lin is best known for his work on three-dimensional ocean acoustic technologies that help scientists explore the ocean through sound. He lives in Falmouth, Mass., with his wife and sons.

Key Takeaways

  • Ying-Tsong Lin is the 12th person in history, as well as the first Taiwanese-American and the first person of Asian descent to travel to the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep.
  • Lin and pilot Victor Vescovo visited the central pool of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 10.9 kilometers (6.8 miles) aboard the deep-submergence vehicle Limiting Factor.
  • Lin is an acoustic scientist who is studying how sound propagates in the ocean.
  • The research conducted during the dive, and in Dr. Lin’s shipboard experiments, will lead to increased understanding of sound refraction in the ocean and how acoustic communication and geo-location may be improved at extreme ocean depths.

Ocean explorer and filmmaker James Cameron to host virtual event on Extreme Ocean Machines

May 18, 2020

Discussion with experts on ocean technology, exploration, and storytelling

On May 20, ocean explorer and world-renowned filmmaker James Cameron will host a special edition of Ocean Encounters, a popular virtual event series from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Viewers of this special event, titled Extreme Ocean Machines: Exploring Impossible Places, will have opportunities to submit questions to Cameron and a panel of leading experts in submersible technologies, ocean exploration, and storytelling.

Cameron was the first person to reach the bottom of the Mariana Trench—the deepest known point on Earth at 11 km (6.8 miles) below the ocean surface—as a solo pilot in a one-man submersible, on 25 March 2012. Aptly named after the deepest part of the trench called Challenger Deep, the innovative, vertical DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible and science platform is a “cross between a torpedo and a hot rod painted Kawasaki racing green,” as Cameron has described it. He donated the submersible to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2013.

Cameron will lead a conversation on the revolutionary technologies that are empowering new generations of explorers, scientists, and storytellers on the high seas. The discussion will focus on how extraordinary machines—from ships and subs to autonomous robots and always-on sensors—are taking humans to never-before-seen places and teaching us about the amazing world beneath the waves.

Guests include:

  • Mark Dalio, Founder and Creative Director, OceanX
  • Orla Doherty, Producer of the BBC’s groundbreaking Blue Planet II television series
  • Andrew Bowen, Principal Engineer and Director of the National Deep Submergence Facility at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • Vincent Pieribone, Vice Chairman of OceanX and Director of the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University

Date: Wednesday, May 20, 2020 7:30 – 8:30pm EDT

Title: Extreme Ocean MachinesExploring Impossible Places

Free registration is required and space is limited.

Register now at go.whoi.edu/extreme

<a href="https://www.whoi.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/OE-ExtremeMachinesV3.pdf">» Download flyer</a> » Download flyer

What did scientists learn from Deepwater Horizon?

April 20, 2020

Paper reviews major findings, technological advances that could help in next deep-sea spill. 

Ten years ago, a powerful explosion destroyed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and injuring 17 others. Over a span of 87 days, the Deepwater Horizon well released an estimated 168 million gallons of oil and 45 million gallons of natural gas into the ocean, making it the largest accidental marine oil spill in history.

Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) quickly mobilized to study the unprecedented oil spill, investigating its effects on the seafloor and deep-sea corals and tracking dispersants used to clean up the spill.

In a review paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment, WHOI marine geochemists Elizabeth Kujawinski and Christopher Reddy review what they— and their science colleagues from around the world—have learned from studying the spill over the past decade.

“So many lessons were learned during the Deepwater Horizon disaster that it seemed appropriate and timely to consider those lessons in the context of a review,” says Kujawinski. “We found that much good work had been done on oil weathering and oil degradation by microbes, with significant implications for future research and response activities.”

“At the end of the day, this oil spill was a huge experiment,” adds Reddy. “It shed great light on how nature responds to an uninvited guest. One of the big takeaways is that the oil doesn’t just float and hang around. A huge amount of oil that didn’t evaporate was pummeled by sunlight, changing its chemistry. That’s something that wasn’t seen before, so now we have insight into this process.”

Released for the first time in a deep ocean oil spill, chemical dispersants remain one of the most controversial debates in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon. Studies offer conflicting conclusions about whether dispersants released in the deep sea reduced the amount of oil that reached the ocean surface, and the results are ambiguous about whether dispersants helped microbes break down the oil at all.

“I think the biggest unknowns still center on the impact of dispersants on oil distribution in seawater and their role in promoting—or inhibiting—microbial degradation of the spilled oil,” says Kujawinski, whose lab was the first to identify the chemical signature of the dispersants, making it possible to track in the marine environment.

Though the authors caution that the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon release may not be applicable to all spills, the review highlights advances in oil chemistry, microbiology, and technology that may be useful at other deep-sea drilling sites and shipping lanes in the Arctic. The authors call on the research community to work collaboratively to understand the complex environmental responses at play in cold climates, where the characteristics of oil are significantly different from the Gulf of Mexico.

“Now we have a better sense of what we need to know,” Kujawinski says. “Understanding what these environments look like in their natural state is really critical to understanding the impact of oil spill conditions.”

Additional authors of the review are chemist Ryan P. Rodgers (Florida State University), and microbiologists J. Cameron Thrash (University of Southern California, Los Angeles), David L. Valentine (University of California Santa Barbara), and Helen K. White (Haverford College).

 

Funding for this review was provided by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program, and the National Science Foundation.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.

Key Takeaways

  • Some coastal ecosystems around the Gulf of Mexico recovered, but in areas such as deep-sea coral communities, the oil, gas and dispersants combined with other stressors to create long-lasting impacts.
  • Gene analysis tools, used on a wide scale for the first time, provided unprecedented insights into which microbes consumed oil, gas and dispersants in marine ecosystems.
  • Advanced chemical analysis showed for the first time that weathering on the ocean surface, particularly by sunlight and oxygen (photo-oxidation), changed the composition of oil but reduced the effectiveness of dispersants applied to the surface.
  • The spill science community can be most effective by working collaboratively across academia, industry and government in the event of future oil releases in the deep sea and high latitudes.

Oceanus Magazine

New glider design aims to expand access to ocean science

June 17, 2021

New glider design aims to expand access to ocean science

By Daniel Hentz | June 16, 2021

In 2018, close to midnight on Martha’s Vineyard, engineer John Reine couldn’t sleep. His hands, plunged into a watering trough on his family’s farm, were dunking a homemade version of a common, data-collecting submersible known as a glider-praying it would work. If it did, Reine would have proven to himself that one of ocean science’s most versatile tools would be simple enough for most engineers to build from scratch. At 1 a.m., the glider, powered by hydraulics from a CamelBak water pouch squeezed by Reine, began to rise and fall at his command.

“It was enough for me to say, ‘Okay, these aren’t that hard to build from scratch,'” says Reine, a lead electronics engineer for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) at WHOI.

Invented in the 1960s, ocean gliders have become a linchpin for oceanographic data collection. As their name and torpedo-shape suggest, they glide up and down through different layers of the ocean, using a payload of sensors to measure water temperature, salinity, and marine chemistry. These days, they’ve been crucial for filling important data gaps at ocean depths where stationary observation moorings can’t reach.

But Reine says there’s a problem: Right now, there’s only a few places where you can purchase and service gliders or their parts-for WHOI, a conglomerate known as Teledyne Technologies. That’s created a bottleneck for scientists trying to get the instruments out to sea quickly.

A glider is deployed in the water during tests aboard R/V Walton from the University of Miami. (David Fratantoni, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“It turns out our problems putting gliders in the water were not all technical things, like leaks,” says Reine. “Some of them were logistical.”

There was a time when the building blocks of the WHOI glider were built solely in-house. Today, those parts are custom-made from outside vendors, making it difficult for Reine and his colleagues to make routine tweaks. Even minor changes to a vehicle’s sensors or hydraulic fittings could result in the OOI staff waiting at the back of a long queue, while Teledyne works hard to process their order and the service requests of other institutions.

After sending their own vehicle in for repairs last month, an OOI team headed by engineer Peter Brickley was notified that the vehicle would not make it back to them in time for their research cruises to Alaska this summer.

“We couldn’t get repairs done in time, but you can’t lay [that problem] all at the feet of the vendors,” says Brickley.

Now down a vehicle, he anticipates a small, but notable gap in the data OOI uses to track changes in the marine environment as the planet continues to warm.

“If a [large] institution like WHOI has trouble deploying and keeping these gliders in the water, then how is a smaller institution going to also achieve this goal?” says Reine.

Today, the common glider models retail at around $200,000, which Reine notes may be cost-prohibitive for many universities and marine institutions (at least to buy and service more than one). With fewer gliders in the water, he says the oceanographic community could be missing out on an opportunity to make ocean observations a more global effort.

To overcome these hurdles he, and a team that includes fellow OOI engineers Brickley and Matthew Palanza, came up with an idea to make a glider that was completely open-source-everything from the vehicle’s blueprints to its software, made available to the public on techy, online forums like GitHub. Since 2019, the idea has raised a combined $175,000 of internal funding at WHOI.

John Reine tests the responsiveness of an open-source buoyancy engine, designed by a former WHOI-engineer Jeremy Paulus, in his shed. (Daniel Hentz, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) John Reine tests the responsiveness of an open-source buoyancy engine, designed by a former WHOI-engineer Jeremy Paulus, in his shed. (Daniel Hentz, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

 Reine and his cohort now meet weekly to shop through a virtual smorgasbord of other open-source and off-the-shelf parts that could be integrated into the design. The current open-source prototype, though not as nimble as other WHOI models, promises to be robust, customizable, and easy to repair, at nearly a tenth the cost of the more common brand of gliders.

To test how user-friendly the prototype really is, Reine has been presenting some of the open-source components to students at Falmouth High School and teaching them how to program the vehicle. Using the glider’s two open-source circuit boards from companies Arduino and Raspberry Pi, students are learning how to make the vehicle’s motors turn on and off.

“I want to prepare kids for ‘the real world’ here,” says Falmouth High School’s computer science teacher Mike Campbell. “I love having the connection with WHOI, because it lets me know what [technology] is going to be the most purposeful for my students.”

In the future, the open-source glider team plans to get the design into the hands of schools and universities with more diverse demographics, in the hope of increasing accessibility to ocean science. From there, Reine and his colleagues say they will encourage other engineers to critique and improve the design, sharing their insights with the community online as they go.

“A diverse user group will continue to improve the device incrementally over time,” says Reine’s partner, Palanza. “Taking advantage of open source concepts…will empower scientists [and students] to not only build their own equipment locally, but also keep it running.”

Gliders Ocean Observatories Initiative Ocean Data

RoCS Photo

Science RoCS Initiative responds to need for increased ocean monitoring

June 10, 2021

Science RoCS Initiative to increase ocean monitoring

By Randy Showstack | June 10, 2021

RoCS Photo A boxed Argo float ready for deployment aboard the merchant vessel Tijuca. (Photo courtesy of Capt. Erwin A. Augusto, Master of M/V Tijuca)

Related Stories

A commercial ship’s mid-May deployment of two tube-shaped Argo robotic instruments to measure the temperature, salinity, and other properties of the North Atlantic opens a new chapter in ocean monitoring. The deployment of the free-drifting instruments by a merchant vessel is the first collaboration under a new effort-the Science Research on Commercial Ships (Science RoCS) initiative-between research institutions and industry to monitor the vast and open ocean. The initiative could help to meet a long-standing need for more scientific observations and monitoring of the ocean.

Science RoCS aims to pair scientists and industry to use commercial vessels to regularly monitor the oceans, and particularly some hard-to-reach areas that may be far from normal shipping routes, according to Kerry Strom, marine operations coordinator for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which is spearheading the effort.

Additionally, the initiative includes an innovative “RoCS box” that connects multiple scientific sensors to make installation more practical for ship owners and to make their data streams more accessible to scientists and other stakeholders onshore.

With more than 80% of the ocean unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Science RoCs aims to fill in some gaps in ocean monitoring.

“The ocean is vastly under-sampled. If we want to solve problems that matter to people on shore-like identifying and mitigating harmful algal blooms, or predicting how air/sea interactions will cause hurricanes to intensify, or tracking nutrient inputs that can lead to deoxygenation in regions important for fisheries-we need in situ observations of the ocean,” said Magdalena Andres, the principle investigator on some Science RoCS proposals.

Andres, an associate scientist in WHOI’s Department of Physical Oceanography, said that numerical modeling of the oceans can accomplish a lot, but unless you have actual observations from the ocean you don’t know if the models are telling the truth. Science RoCS “can keep us honest about how the ocean is really working,” she said.

She added that the observations should also complement information from satellites, whose measurements are “skin deep,” and from Argo floats, which cannot sample the continental shelves and slopes, and which typically under-sample strong currents like the Gulf Stream.

“This is exactly where Science RoCS can help,” she said. “By complementing existing observing programs, Science RoCS will fill in those holes so scientists and stakeholder can address societally relevant problems using integrated observing platforms hosted on commercial vessels.”

The initiative “envisions a future where scientific data collection on commercial ships is the new industry standard,” according to a document by WHOI and others. That data would come from regular and repeated measurements across the world’s oceans, including in remote areas that are difficult for the scientific community to access.

Science RoCS, which also includes many other collaborators, builds on some other efforts and earlier plans  by scientists to engage commercial “ships of opportunity” to collect ocean data. The initiative also aims to accomplish this in a more structured way than has been done previously, which would result in increased opportunities for ocean observations. In doing so, the initiative helps to cut through some red tape to more readily connect scientists with the commercial shipping industry.

“Our dream is to have commercial ships built with a suite of scientific sensors appropriate for their trade routes,” said Strom.

She noted that upcoming Science RoCS projects planned for this summer include deploying from commercial vessels more Argo floats, installing a plankton recorder on a vessel that has a round-the-world voyage route, and also installing on a ship an instrument that measures the partial pressure of carbon dioxide (pCO2).

With ocean-going research vessels worldwide estimated at less than 100 and with more than 50,000 commercial ships on the ocean at any given time, “it will be a game changer” to have sensors on more vessels, Strom said. “Imagine what we could accomplish in terms of science advancement with even just a one percent increase in ocean monitoring.”

RoCS Photo 2 A crew member deploys an Argo float from the side of the ship. Once it enters the water, the biodegradable cardboard box quickly decomposes. (Photo courtesy of Capt. Erwin A. Augusto, Master of m/v Tijuca)

“Helping to turn commercial vessels into integrated observing platforms is a lot of work, but the payback in terms of science advancement is huge,” said Andres. “Interactions with commercial vessels are one way in which we can drive science forward.”

Strom, whose background includes working in commercial shipping, said that the collaboration between scientists and industry has to be beneficial to both parties to succeed.

“It can’t be a one-way street. Whatever Science RoCS does with industry has to benefit company sustainability directives as well,” she said. “With more sensors out there on the oceans, we can more accurately model weather and currents, which can help with ship safety and save on fuel, carbon emissions, time, and money.”

That perspective was one of the reasons why the shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen was eager to collaborate on Science RoCS’ initial effort by deploying two Argo floats, on May 20 and 21, from the company’s merchant vessel Tijuca. Strom said that the initiative wanted to start with something simple to get its feet wet, before getting involved with ship retrofits or other complex efforts. The Argo floats, which just need to be deployed into the ocean within a general area, fit the bill, she said.

“It makes sense for us to facilitate research into ocean currents, because that enables us to make our operations safer and more efficient,” said Roger Strevens, vice president of sustainability for the company, which operates 125 vessels in 15 trade routes to six continents, and is the leader in the shipping industry’s vehicle carrier segment.

Strevens said that WHOI’s understanding of industry needs also was helpful. WHOI “understands what it’s like to operate vessels,” he said, adding that it made the collaboration work on a practical basis.

The initiative, Strom said, is part of the solution to observing and monitoring more of the world’s oceans.

Strom anticipates that Science RoCS collaborations “will be the new norm” and that other companies will jump on board. “Why wouldn’t they get involved?” she said. “They’re already at sea. If we’re paying for the instrumentation and we’re not interrupting their trade, why not? They’ll look like a rock star, or in this case, a ‘RoCS star’.”

Argo Floats Marine Facilities & Operations Instruments
Jason Graphic

Going the Distance

June 4, 2021

Going the Distance

Ocean science at the extremes

By David Levin | June 7, 2021

Through the lens of remotely operated vehicle Jason, anemones and shrimp cluster around a hydrothermal vent along a site called the Piccard Field, 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) deep on the Caribbean seafloor during a 2012 expedition. (Photo courtesy of Chris German, NASA/ROV Jason Team, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Going the Distance

Ocean science at the extremes

By David Levin | June 7, 2021

Jason Graphic Through the lens of remotely operated vehicle Jason, anemones and shrimp cluster around a hydrothermal vent along a site called the Piccard Field, 5,000 meters (16,404 feet) deep on the Caribbean seafloor during a 2012 expedition. (Photo courtesy of Chris German, NASA/ROV Jason Team, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Aboard the research ship Atlantis, the human-occupied vehicle Alvin perches neatly inside a small two-story hangar, where it’s draped with ventilation tubes and electrical cables. The streamlined white hull of the sub, which has lately been going through a major overhaul to extend its reach to greater depths, reflects the lights of the deck beyond. Its two robotic arms fold neatly at its sides, framing portholes carved into a gleaming new titanium crew sphere. It looks like science fiction come to life: a small but formidable spacecraft poised to travel to another world.

IN REALITY, THAT’S NOT FAR FROM THE TRUTH. SEAWATER COVER MORE THAN 71% OF EARTH’S SURFACE, leaving much of the globe unknown and mysterious to humans. Exploring its secrets is a bit like studying the workings of a distant planet.

“The ocean is so enormous, so vast, that it’s nearly impossible to have a thorough understanding of any one part of it unless you’re actually there,” says Adam Soule, a submarine vulcanologist and former chief scientist for deep submergence at WHOI. “There’s an aspect of exploration and discovery that is inherent in marine research.”

In their constant search for understanding, oceanographers from WHOI and elsewhere must go to extremes. Some of those scientists board Alvin multiple times every year, diving to some of the deepest and most mysterious areas of the seafloor. Some peer through the eyes of complex robotic vehicles that can travel where humans can’t go. Others travel to the distant edges of the ocean’s reach, trekking across frozen polar landscapes to collect ice cores that reveal what the sea looked like thousands of years ago.

No matter what aspect of the oceans these scientists study, their work can be a massive undertaking. From the deepest marine trench to the tallest landlocked mountain, the sea’s influence touches nearly every corner of the globe: It provides food for billions of humans, supplies life-giving oxygen to the atmosphere, and directly affects climate from the deserts of Arizona to the icy coasts and frozen interior of Antarctica. Unraveling the mysteries of a realm this large means entering some of the most remote and dangerous places on the planet. But by going to these great lengths, oceanographers are gaining insights that may answer fundamental questions about life on Earth-and possibly even life beyond.

“The ocean is so enormous, so vast, that it’s nearly impossible to have a thorough understanding of any one part of it unless you’re actually there.”

Submersible Alvin is prepped in the high bay on R/V Atlantis before dive operations along a segment of a deep-sea mountain range known as the East Pacific Rise, off the coast of Costa Rica. (Photo by Ken Kostel, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Alvin Submersible Alvin is prepped in the high bay on R/V Atlantis before dive operations along a segment of a deep-sea mountain range known as the East Pacific Rise, off the coast of Costa Rica. (Photo by Ken Kostel, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The poles

The first thing that hits you when you sail into Antarctica’s Palmer Station is the smell. After five days at sea in some of the roughest waters on Earth, new arrivals are greeted by a whiff of guano-excrement from the massive penguin colonies that inhabit the peninsula. But the view makes up for it, says WHOI marine geochemist Dan Lowenstein.

“You sail between these sheer walls of rock and snow in the Neumayer Channel, which is the navigational passage along the peninsula, and when you come around one last island, you see this incredibly remote station,” he says. “It’s just a handful of buildings perched on a tiny bit of rock at the bottom of a huge glacier, next to a harbor bordered by 300-foot cliffs of ice.”

Lowenstein arrived at Palmer in December, 2020 and plans to remain there for at least six months. It’s a position that requires a certain level of comfort in extreme isolation. Although the population of McMurdo Station, the major U.S. logistics hub on the continent, peaks at 1,300 during the Antarctic summer, the peak at Palmer is only about 45 people. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s running with an even smaller crew: Lowenstein is one of just 24 scientists and staff currently on hand.

The global public health crisis not only reduced the number of people allowed at Palmer this year. It also hampered travel to the station. Under normal circumstances, the trip takes about a week. This year, Lowenstein spent more than a month in transit, thanks to multiday quarantine stops in Massachusetts, San Francisco, and Chile.

It may be tiny and hard to reach, but Palmer enjoys an outsized importance in the world of oceanography and climate. It’s home to a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) network of more than 30 sites across the globe that have been recording continuous environmental data and samples over the past few decades. At Palmer, the LTER focuses on life that exists in and around nearby sea ice.

A waddle of Gentoo penguins hop around the rocks of the West Antarctic peninsula, where WHOI marine geochemist Dan Lowenstein is currently stationed to study the changing metabolism of the region’s microbial communities (Dan Lowenstein, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Penguins A waddle of Gentoo penguins hop around the rocks of the West Antarctic peninsula, where WHOI marine geochemist Dan Lowenstein is currently stationed to study the changing metabolism of the region’s microbial communities (Dan Lowenstein, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“There’s no place like it,” says WHOI geochemist Ben Van Mooy. “Since going online in 1990, Palmer has provided detailed information about a vast suite of chemical, biological, and physical ocean parameters in the waters that surround it. It’s an incredibly valuable record that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Van Mooy has been to Palmer twice to gather samples of the sea ice that surrounds the station. This year, he sent Lowenstein in his place. Every chunk he collected can reveal volumes of information. Since it lies at the interface of the atmosphere and the ocean, Van Mooy says, sea ice is deeply affected by changes in both environments.

“As the atmospheric climate changes, ocean circulation and other marine elements change, and those things are all reflected via changes in the sea ice. It’s a really sensitive indicator of both atmospheric and oceanographic processes,” Van Mooy adds.

Van Mooy is also interested in how these same processes affect tiny plantlike microbes called phytoplankton. These minuscule organisms form the base of the Antarctic marine food web: They’re eaten by animals like krill and shrimp, which in turn provide food for whales, fish, penguins, and other large organisms. Like plants on land, they also produce huge amounts of oxygen for the planet. Yet precisely how they’re affected by changing climate is unclear.

Whatever happens to phytoplankton has a ripple effect across the entire ecosystem of the Antarctic peninsula, Van Mooy says. That means the fate of sea ice at the extreme ends of the world is inextricably connected with the fate of animals like krill, penguins, seabirds, whales, and fish-but to understand this complex ecosystem, Van Mooy first has to venture out into the coastal ice pack to collect samples and data. It’s a dangerous undertaking.

“The thing people forget about Antarctica is that it’s essentially abandoned,” he says. “You can be a quarter mile away from Palmer Station, but once it’s out of sight, there’s zero indication of humans: No people, no ships, no jets in the sky. Nothing. It’s just you and one or two other people working on a small boat in frigid and tumultuous Antarctic water. We take a lot of precautions, but the consequences of something going wrong are pretty severe-so it forces you to look inside yourself and see how much you truly love what you’re doing.”

“We take a lot of precautions, but the consequences of something going wrong are pretty severe-so it forces you to look inside yourself and see how much you truly love what you’re doing.”

Glaciologists Sarah Das and Kristin Poinar carrying a crate off the helicopter. (Photo by Chris Linder, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Carrying a Crate Glaciologists Sarah Das and Kristin Poinar carrying a crate off the helicopter. (Photo by Chris Linder, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“You can only find good climate archives in totally pristine, untouched ice-so wherever I go in the field, I’m usually the first person ever to set foot there.”

LEARNING FROM ANCIENT ICE

Studying the ocean’s impact on global climate doesn’t stop at the coast. Deep in the interiors of Antarctica and Greenland, a record of how the oceans behaved thousands of years in the past is preserved deep within layers of buried ice.

Sarah Das, a WHOI glaciologist who studies climate history, spends her days traveling to some of the most lonely spots on the globe. She and her team have helicoptered into remote mountain glaciers in Greenland, and have flown on small aircraft into isolated corners of Antarctica to gather ice core samples.

“I’m by definition interested in studying places that humans haven’t been to before. You can only fi nd good climate archives in totally pristine, untouched ice-so wherever I go in the fi eld, I’m usually the first person ever to set foot there,” she says.

In isolated regions, polar ice sheets can stay untouched for hundreds of thousands of years, providing an incredibly long record of past climate, she notes. Unlike sea ice, which forms annually from seawater itself, glacial ice sheets are created by progressive layers of snow. As each storm blows through, new snowfall buries prior years’ snow layers deeper and deeper, preserving dust and tiny air bubbles in the process. “You essentially get all these bits of the past atmosphere trapped within ice layers. As climate scientists, we collect these clues and can unravel mysteries such as how much snow fell in the past, how many warm events there were, and what atmospheric greenhouse gas levels were during specific times in history. It feels sort of like having access to a time machine,” says Das.

It turns out the ice layers also trap compounds that can help tease out natural processes happening in the oceans during the same era, she adds. “For example, in Greenland we recently showed how we can use organic compounds in ice to reconstruct the productivity of marine phytoplankton in the past. Th at extends our knowledge of how climate change impacts the base of the marine food web.”

Collecting those samples is no small feat. Working in Greenland, Das spends days hauling gear on and off craggy coastal mountaintops to get to undisturbed patches of ice. In those cases, she says, there’s at least a few small communities along the coast that she can use as a base of operation-but when she’s working in Antarctica, her team has had to set up camp on the ice sheet for weeks at a time.

“You get on a military transport plane in New Zealand where it’s summer, and several hours later, you set down in Antarctica and walk out into blinding snow. It’s like flying to another planet,” she says. “It doesn’t even feel connected to Earth.”

Ice Crack

A research team led by Das hikes alongside an icy crevasse in Greenland to study changes in meltwater distribution across the glacier as the climate warms (Sarah Das, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

ROV Jason slowly touches down to take pictures with the “MISO” camera along Havre volcano, northeast of New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari, Chief scientists Adam Soule and Rebecca Carey, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Jason ROV Jason slowly touches down to take pictures with the “MISO” camera along Havre volcano, northeast of New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari, Chief scientists Adam Soule and Rebecca Carey, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The deep

When it comes to extreme distances, traveling to the Antarctic ice sheet ranks high on the list. Traveling to the deep ocean, however, is an entirely different-and arguably more dangerous-challenge. It’s an otherworldly place, with crushing pressures, bizarre life, and a trove of hidden scientific secrets waiting to be revealed. To study its inner workings, ocean scientists must descend to its furthest reaches, either via robotic vehicles or by braving its depths in person within the cramped quarters of a research submarine. Once there, it becomes possible to find clues to how the very early Earth may have behaved.

The volcanic rock and fluids that well up from below the ocean floor in some regions offer scientists a clear look at geologic processes that have shaped life on our planet. In areas called “spreading centers”-mountainous chains that extend for thousands of miles across the ocean floor-magma from the Earth’s mantle rises up from below the seafloor, pushes entire continental plates apart, and introduces key nutrients that enable life to thrive. Studying midocean spreading centers offers a window into that deep world, provided scientists can get there in the first place.

“We’ve studied so little of the midocean ridge and other spreading centers-but as we keep returning to them, we keep finding new things,” says Jeff Seewald, a marine geochemist at WHOI and interim Chief Scientist of the National Deep Submergence Facility.

In his current post, Seewald spends his days not only studying fluids that well up from the seafloor but also working to make it possible for other scientists to reach those extreme depths.

Since the HOV Alvin, WHOI’s famed research submersible, was overhauled in 2013, it has completed more than 400 dives, bringing at least 350 researchers on their first trip to the ocean floor. “That’s about the same as the number of U.S. astronauts that have left low Earth orbit since the space program started 60 years ago. In bringing humans to extreme places, the Alvin program punches well above its weight,” adds Adam Soule.

At the moment, those scientists are able to go as deep as 4,500 meters (14,800 feet), but the sub’s latest overhaul will let it travel even farther-to 6,500 meters (21,325 feet). Th is new range will bring scientists to areas of the seafloor that were previously unreachable, enabling exiting new discoveries in the process.

“Beyond 6,500 meters, there’s a whole region of the ocean that’s been understudied. We just don’t know what’s down there,” says Seewald.

DEEP LIFE

Many of the latest Alvin dives have been to hydrothermal vent sites-hot geysers found mainly in midocean spreading zones. Nearly 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) below the ocean’s surface, in an otherwise barren landscape, the chemicals released by each vent support a strange array of life. Giant tube worms, blind shrimp, huge clams, and other species thrive around the vent’s flanks, fed by microbes that create chemical energy from the venting fluids themselves.

For many WHOI scientists, however, the extraordinary animals at vent sites aren’t the main attraction. Rather, it’s what exists below them. Vent sites provide a unique portal to the interior of the planet, as the ultrahot fluids that emerge from them contain minerals that are shaped by intense heat and pressure beneath the crust. They also provide clues to even more unusual life-forms-researchers are beginning to fi nd evidence of a hugely diverse array of microbial life both on and underneath the seafloor, where those liquids react with rock.

To WHOI marine microbiologist Julie Huber, the idea that life exists deep within the crust make perfect sense. Most life-forms on Earth have been here for only a short chunk of the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history. For much of that time, microbes ran the show. “Microbes have likely existed for billions of years in these crustal environments of the deep ocean-so studying them can improve our understanding of the tree of life on our planet,” she says.

To probe those mysteries, Huber not only samples fluid directly from vent sites but also has supervised even more dramatic eff orts: drilling operations that dig into the seafloor from aboard a specialized ship, tapping hundreds of feet straight down from the deepocean floor to reach fluids percolating through the mud and rock beneath.

“Studying the sub-seafloor isn’t glamorous, and it’s really hard to reach,” she says. But it can be well worth the intense eff orts. Once a drill hole has been dug, scientists can cap it and sample fluids from below the seafloor on a regular basis, revealing a world that’s largely inaccessible through other methods.

To search for life, spacecraft will need to be able to penetrate the icy crust of ocean worlds like Enceladus, where vehicles similar to WHOI’s Nereid Under Ice can be deployed to survey the water below. (Illustration courtesy of © NASA Jet Propulsion Lab)

ocean worlds To search for life, spacecraft will need to be able to penetrate the icy crust of ocean worlds like Enceladus, where vehicles similar to WHOI’s Nereid Under Ice can be deployed to survey the water below. (Illustration courtesy of © NASA Jet Propulsion Lab)

Ocean worlds

Whether it’s traveling to the distant poles, the deepest vent sites, or below the ocean floor itself, the lengths to which oceanographers go to study Earth’s processes are helping answer questions not only about our own planet, but about other watery worlds as well.

Enceladus, a tiny moon of Saturn, is only about 300 miles (500 kilometers) wide yet shares an eerie similarity to some of the regions on Earth that WHOI oceanographers are currently examining. Planetary scientists have recently shown that its surface is made up of slabs of solid water ice sitting atop a liquid saltwater ocean, similar to what you’d fi nd at our own planet’s poles.

Mysterious geysers on its surface regularly eject material from Enceladus into space-and after NASA’s Cassini spacecraft maneuvered through those plumes in 2015, the data it sent back to Earth raised more than a few eyebrows. Not only did the plumes contain ice, water, and salt, but they also contained chemicals like silica, methane, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, a suite of compounds that is all too familiar to oceanographers like Chris German.

“The only place we know where little silica nanoparticles like these form on Earth today is in midtemperature hydrothermal vents” where the escaping fluid is roughly 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), says German, a marine geochemist at WHOI. “It seems like compelling evidence that there could be submarine vents active today on the seafloor of Enceladus.”

In other words, by studying the ocean’s extremes on Earth, WHOI researchers are setting the stage to examine a world disconnected from ours by more than 746 million miles (1.2 billion kilometers), German adds.

The vent sites on Enceladus could share an exciting similarity with newly studied sites on our own planet.

Chris German WHOI senior scientist Chris German has worked with engineers to test Nereid in the Arctic for that very purpose. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

An unusual cluster of deep vents called the Von Damm field, which German helped identify in the Caribbean Sea less than a decade ago, turns out to have a unique chemistry: It emerges from rare ultramafic rock, which is found in the Earth’s mantle today. In the presence of heat and crushing pressures below the ocean floor, those rocks react with seawater to create something truly mind-boggling: organic compounds, the building blocks of life.

“Based on our measurements, we could make the case definitively that organic compounds are getting synthesized spontaneously, without any input from an existing life-form. Just rocks and water, as a geologic process, are generating the chemical building blocks that are essential to creating life,” German says.

The same may be happening on Enceladus.

German and his colleagues are hoping to be among the first oceanographers to peer inside the mysteries of another planet. Th rough WHOI’s Exploring Ocean Worlds program, they’re currently using oceanographic techniques to study water-rich moons like Enceladus in our solar system. (Another 20 ocean worlds in our solar system are under consideration by NASA, five of which are already confirmed: Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, which are moons of Jupiter; Titan, another moon of Saturn, and Triton, a moon of Neptune.) It’s about as distant as any oceanographer could dream of going, even with robotic means.

Julie Huber works closely with German. “The space and ocean science communities have really been coming together to study this over the last few years,” she says. “One of NASA’s key missions is exploring the origins of life: Where did we come from? Where are we going? How does life adapt to extreme environments? Lots of scientists are trying to answer those questions here on Earth, but now is the first time we’re poised to go to another place in our solar system and ask those questions.”

Eventually, researchers like Huber and German want to expand on the undersea robotics knowledge that WHOI has already invested decades in developing. Instead of designing autonomous vehicles for the open ocean on Earth, however, they’re hopeful they can develop a probe that will operate on its own while submerged beneath the ice of Enceladus.

Creating a robot like this would need to take into account all the insights scientists have gained from studying polar ice and deep vent sites on our own planet. It will need to survive as many as seven years in the vacuum of space, which can reach temperatures that dip near absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius; -459 degrees Fahrenheit). After that, it’ll need to land successfully on Enceladus, dig through several miles of surface ice, deploy itself into the moon’s ocean, and find vents autonomously. It’s a tall order. But it’s something that German, Huber, and other researchers are confident they can handle within the next decade.

German points to WHOI’s Nereid Under Ice-or NUI-a new remotely operated vehicle built in 2014. It was designed with a similar mission in mind. Although it can be steered by humans directly over a thin fiber-optic cable, NUI is smart enough to operate autonomously on its missions and return safely to the ship from which it was deployed. Forays like this, German says, are dress rehearsals for such projects farther afield on ocean worlds like Enceladus. He believes those future explorations will help answer one of humankind’s most profound questions.

“I don’t think civilization could ask a bigger question than ‘Are we alone?'” he says. “It’s amazing to know that oceanographers have the skill set to potentially answer that question within the coming decades without even leaving our own solar system.”

“Beyond 6,500 meters, there’s a whole region of the ocean that’s been understudied. We just don’t know what’s down there.”

biology Coastal Ecosystems Ocean Life

Five things to know about NOAA’s 2021 Tech Demo

May 20, 2021

Five things to know about NOAA Ocean Exploration’s 2021 Tech Demo

By Oceanus Staff | May 20, 2021

Mesobot

 

Researchers prepare WHOI’s autonomous underwater vehicle, Orpheus for its first deep dive of 2021Tech Demo. During the demonstration, researchers aboard the NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer will test several emerging technologies that will potentially allow us to explore deeper, farther, and faster than previously possible. (Photo courtesy of NOAA Ocean Exploration, 2021 Technology Demonstration)

Despite the fact that the ocean covers approximately 70% of Earth’s surface and plays a critical role in supporting life on our planet, from the air we breathe and the food we eat to weather and climate patterns, only a small fraction of our ocean has been explored, and much of that exploration has occurred in shallower waters. Deep reaches of the ocean are places with almost freezing temperatures, corrosive saltwater, limited or no light, and extreme pressures, making them incredibly challenging to reach and explore without the right technology.

This week, WHOI’s autonomous underwater vehicle, Orpheus, is about to take its first deep dive of NOAA’s  2021 Technology Demonstration. During the expedition, researchers aboard the NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer will test several emerging technologies that will potentially allow us to explore deeper, farther, and faster than previously possible. Data collected with these technologies, when combined with more traditional work happening via sonars and remotely operated vehicles deployed directly from research vessels, will help us fill gaps in our understanding of the deep ocean and enhance our ability to identify, understand, protect, and manage ocean resources for present and future generations.

Here are five key things to know about the expedition:


1

Orpheus and Eurydice autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) will provide access to the some of the deepest parts of our world ocean: Orpheus and Eurydice were designed by WHOI in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to withstand the pressure in the ocean down to 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) depth, providing access to some of the deepest parts of our ocean, including the hadal zone. These AUVs are small, lightweight, low-cost, deployable from research vessels and ships of opportunity of all sizes, and require minimal specialized technical support. Integration of a vision-based system for estimating relative position developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, similar to the Terrain Relative Navigation system used on the Mars Perseverance rover, will allow the AUVs to quickly and autonomously sense their locations relative to the seafloor to avoid hazards and recognize seafloor features that may be of scientific interest. Equipped with cameras to survey the seafloor and the potential for customization to meet varying mission objectives, Orpheus and Eurydice can help to answer fundamental questions about what is living in the deepest parts of our ocean.

2

The hadal zone, which includes everything deeper than 6,000 meters (3.7 miles), is one of the most poorly investigated and mysterious habitats on Earth, meaning there is a lot left there to discover and understand. Now known to support a vast array of life, exploring the hadal zone will help us understand the composition and distribution of animal species in this part of the ocean and how they have evolved to survive under immense cold, pressure, and darkness. While Orpheus and Eurydice will not reach hadal depths during the 2021 Technology Demonstration, this deployment, which is supported by the NOAA Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute, is an important step in getting the AUVs operational.

3

What we learn from ocean exploration could advance space exploration, and vice versa: The extreme environments of Earth’s deep ocean can mimic extreme conditions in space, making our own ocean a good place to test new technologies for space exploration (and vice versa). By examining parallels in ocean and space exploration, we can develop better tools and technologies to study life both on Earth and in space. Pressures at the hadal depths that Orpheus and Eurydice can explore are roughly that which engineers expect to encounter when and if a probe is ever able to penetrate the ice shell of Europa to explore the seafloor of that ocean world.

4

eDNA (environmental DNA ) can allow us to identify biodiversity and species composition from a single sample of seawater or sediment: The genetic material shed by organisms into the environment, known as environmental DNA, or eDNA, can be analyzed to establish a baseline of community structure and biodiversity in the marine ecosystem and to detect invasive species, harmful algal blooms, pathogens and parasites, migratory species, cryptic species, endangered species, and more. eDNA techniques are nondestructive and noninvasive and can improve access to hard-to-reach ecosystems like the deep ocean. In addition, they can provide comprehensive and accurate biological data with increased efficiency, resulting in timely public access to information. During the 2021 Technology Demonstration, NOAA Ocean Exploration is partnering with NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center to pilot eDNA field sampling protocols on Okeanos Explorer.

5

Mapping operations will extend bathymetric mapping coverage of U.S. waters: Seafloor mapping is the first step in exploring our ocean. Yet despite the fact that the ocean covers 70% of our planet’s surface, less than 20% of the global seafloor has been mapped with modern high-resolution technology. Data collected during this expedition, with an advanced multibeam sonar system on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and the AUVs, will help fill the mapping gaps on the Blake Plateau, which lies offshore of the southeast United States. New mapping data collected in this region in recent years by NOAA Ocean Exploration and partners are transforming scientific understanding of this area and have led to the recent discovery of some of the nation’s most extensive contiguous formations of deep-sea coral reefs.

Text for this story was based on NOAA Ocean Exploration’s 2021 Technology Demonstration Media Resources web page.

biology AUVs HADEX

Rose Wall

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Rose Wall

May 5, 2021

Meet the Alvin 6500 Team: Rose Wall

A new engineer on learning the sub from the inside out

By Hannah Piecuch | May 13, 2021

Alvin Group Electrical Engineer Rose Wall working on the power data and imaging chassis that powers and controls the sub's external equipment. (Image Credit: Daniel Hentz © WHOI) Alvin Group Electrical Engineer Rose Wall working on the power data and imaging chassis that powers and controls the sub’s external equipment. (Image Credit: Daniel Hentz © WHOI)


Oceanus: What is it like learning the ropes in the Alvin Group?

Rose: It’s definitely been different coming from the defense contractor world where a lot of the companies are very young and don’t have established practices.

There are a lot of processes in place to make Alvin safe for humans. A lot of the design decisions have that in mind. At first, I thought it was weird that everything about the sub isn’t run by computers. But we have a lot of safety measures in place so it will meet a certification standard set by the U.S. Navy. Every piece of emergency equipment has four different ways to access to it. There are backups on backups on backups.

Oceanus: What projects are you currently working on?

Rose: I’ve been working on the underwater telephone. This is how the sub communicates with the ship during dives. An instrument in the sphere with a microphone generates an electric signal which goes to a transformer to become higher voltage. It then goes to a piezoelectric element which generates an electrical signal that goes to a speaker.

But the annoying thing about the piezoelectric elements is that you can’t really fix them if they are broken, because they are ceramic. On a few of them the wire insulation had gotten damaged or disconnected and that was easy to fix, but others had cracked or damaged ceramics so those will have to be replaced.

I’ve also designed and fabricated several circuit boards that will collect information or control various instruments on the sub, from the joystick to the hydraulic valves.

I’ve been fortunate to start working at WHOI during an overhaul. It has given me a better understanding of how everything works since we don’t typically take apart a lot of the stuff while we’re at sea.

Rose Wall with a circuit board As an electrical engineer in the Alvin Group, Rose Wall has worked on circuit boards that will collect data from the submersible’s joystick and control the hydraulic valves. (Image Credit: Daniel Hentz © WHOI)

Oceanus: What part of the overhaul are you most excited about?

Rose: I am mostly excited to go to sea. I’m excited to see and experience Alvin in use.

Oceanus: What will your job look like when Alvin goes back to sea?

Rose: I’ll be at sea as part of the operations group. If all goes well, I’ll also be a pilot-in-training.

As a pilot-in-training I’ll do practice dives and get really familiar with the engineering systems and operating procedures on the sub. There are a couple pilots-in-training already, so they will get first dibs on practice dives. Hopefully I’ll get to do one before too long. Then, there are four board examinations for certification: Navy, Alvin pilots, engineers, and scientists.

I haven’t spent time at sea before this job, but I’ve spent lots of time on long outdoor trips. I have worked plenty of river trips in the middle of nowhere with no cell service or internet, so I think that aspect of being away from your normal life and super easy communication is not new to me.

Oceanus: Do you have any advice for future engineers who want to build the submersibles of tomorrow?

Rose: When I came out of college, I was grateful to have a job but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. A lot of people told me to just be glad I had a good job. But I don’t think you have to be stuck anywhere. If you really want to do something you can make it happen.


Oil spill response beneath the ice

April 29, 2021

Oil spill response beneath the ice:

Test deployment of WHOI vehicle expands Coast Guard capabilities

By Daniel Hentz | April 29, 2021

 

 

Amy Kukulya (far right) steadies a dolly holding Polaris, or LRAUV, as U.S. Coast Guard avionics technician Fernando del Cid attaches the vehicle to a Jayhawk helicopter during a test deployment in Woods Hole. (Photo by Daniel Hentz, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

The ability to rapidly respond to an oil spill in the Arctic just got even faster, following the successful test deployment of a long-endurance robot between the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).

On April 15, at a baseball field in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a Jayhawk helicopter levitated within throwing distance of an ogling crowd of locals and their children. The package it came to pick up was a yellow and orange autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) capable of long-duration missions underneath a mosaic of Arctic sea ice. For Coast Guard officials, it promises to be the first rapid-response tool capable of identifying and tracking oil under ice in the event of an environmental disaster. That’s an increasingly possible problem as Canada’s Northwest Passage becomes a more attractive crossing for ships and industries looking to tap the region for oil and natural gas.

“Everyone asks, ‘If we had an oil spill in the Arctic tomorrow would you be ready?’ and the answer is yes,” says WHOI lead engineer Amy Kukulya with confidence.

The robot, known as Polaris, or the Long-Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (LRAUV), is a slender, 9-foot submersible, with a customizable payload of sensors capable of sniffing out the slightest whiff of oil and diesel fuel. At just 250 lbs, it is one of the most portable AUVs that could be deployed in the Arctic, something Kukulya and her team at WHOI’s Scibotics Lab say is a game-changer for ease of use in an emergency.

“At the end of the day, you have to be able to get the vehicles in and out of the water, and that’s usually the bottleneck,” says Kukulya. “We’ve launched [Polaris] from kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, skiffs, and a fishing pier.”

During the field test in Woods Hole, Kukulya and Coast Guard avionics specialist Fernando del Cid were able to dolly Polaris over to the helicopter. Then, Coast Guard aviation personnel attached it to a line and releasable swivel hook system, affectionately called “Brutus.” Within just 10 minutes, Polaris was airborne-soon, a giant, pill-shaped dot in the distance.

From there, the dangling vehicle was flown at different speeds to test its stability, until eventually being released into Buzzards Bay, where a Zodiac driven by Kukuyla’s colleagues waited to assess its performance in the water.

A USCG Jayhawk helicopter releases LRAUV near the Scibotics Team aboard a Zodiac in Buzzards Bay, where the team can inspect the vehicle's systems underwater. (Jayne Doucette, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) A USCG Jayhawk helicopter releases LRAUV near the Scibotics Team aboard a Zodiac in Buzzards Bay, where the team can inspect the vehicle’s systems underwater. (Jayne Doucette, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Once underwater, Polaris can switch from an active, propeller-driven system to a passive, drift mode in order to conserve energy. That hybrid design can extend its mission time up to 15 days under the Arctic ice, at depths of up to 1,000 feet, and allow it to cover more than 1,000 miles of distance. That’s enough time for operators to safely retrieve it in between periods of turbulent Arctic weather.

“This [capability] will give us a new operational way to deploy,” remarks Captain Kirsten Trego, LRAUV’s Coast Guard Headquarters project champion. The Arctic region is more open to human use today than in the past she adds. “Therefore, there’s an increased risk of accidents.”

While there hasn’t yet been an oil spill within the boundaries of the Arctic Circle, previous disasters have come close. M/V Selendang Ayu, a Panamax cargo ship, cracked in half after running aground along Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain in 2004, spilling more than 350,000 gallons of oil and diesel fuel along the coast.

Malaysian Panamax cargo ship, M/V Selendang Ayu, is seen split in two after running aground outside of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska in 2004 (Image Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard)

Traditionally, easy-to-reach spills can be tracked using a fleet of spotter planes, patrolling vessels, and deep-sea robots that can detect the oil’s dissolving hydrocarbon signature. Selendang was far enough south where that could be possible. At higher latitudes, this sort of rapid response becomes harder to execute.

With Polaris, Kukulya and her team hope to provide X-ray-like vision below the ice sheet. There, chemical readouts sent from the vehicle to nearby acoustic buoys can determine how much oil there is, where it’s spreading based on the currents, and the best locations to mitigate the damage.

“It makes perfect sense to work with the Coast Guard…they’re stewards of our waterways,” adds Kukulya. “To be able to make our equipment as simple as possible, so they can come and use their ships and their aircraft to operate it, really completes a powerful collaboration that will take our research and capabilities to the next level.”

LRAUV’s base design was initially developed a decade ago by a team at MBARI led by now-WHOI Director of the Consortium for Marine Robotics, Jim Bellingham. Today it joins 11 active projects within the Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC), another consortium that operates under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security to meet the evolving needs of the U.S. Coast Guard. Officials say Polaris is on track to meet those needs after its deployment.

“The trial we did with WHOI was more importantly about recognizing that we can deploy this vehicle anywhere we want, [even in] remote sites,” says del Cid. 

The ADAC program currently supporting the LRAUV’s R&D is set to conclude in June, 2022. By then, Kukulya and her team hope to have upgraded Polaris‘s status to a Congressionally-funded project, or “Center for Expertise.” To achieve that, the Scibotics Lab has already begun to expand the vehicle’s other capabilities, from high-resolution mapping to a dynamic docking system that could keep the vehicle in the water indefinitely.

“We’re far from having a tool that’s one-stop shopping,” says Kukulya. “But I think today was a bigger success than I could have imagined.”

Noa Yoder (left) and Ryan Govostes (right) of the Scibotics Lab return on a Zodiac with Polaris to debrief with Kukulya, after retrieving it from Buzzards Bay. (Photo by Daniel Hentz, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Scibotics Lab LRAUV / Polaris Oil Spills

From Mars to the deep

April 28, 2021

From Mars to the deep

New navigation system helps autonomous vehicles find their way

By Evan Lubofsky | May 6, 2021

Citizen scientist Seán Doran created this mosaic of NASA’s Mars rover Perseverance and Ingenuity helicopter, using 62 images captured by Perseverance on April 6, 2021. (Image courtesy of Seán Doran, NASA JPL Caltech / MSSS)

Last February, the Mars rover Perseverance-the most advanced robot ever to explore another world-landed on Mars. It tore through the planet’s wispy-thin atmosphere at 12,000 mph before a drogue parachute opened to slow the spacecraft down for its first glimpse at the planet’s rocky, pink surface.

Soon, the navigation system that made that journey possible could guide robots in another unexplored terrain that’s much closer to home: the deepest trenches of the ocean. Russell Smith, an engineer with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is involved with both projects. He recalls the thrill of watching the rover land.

“My heart was pounding in my chest,” says Smith, who was virtually strapped in at home during the live YouTube broadcast of NASA’s Perseverance landing. Smith was personally vested: he had spent many long day and nights building a system which simulated reduced gravity environments in order to test the Mars Helicopter, dubbed Ingenuity. The helicopter hitched a ride to Mars aboard the rover, and went on to perform the first powered controlled flight of an aircraft on another planet.

“It was really thrilling!” Smith says. But, he says, those “seven minutes of terror”-NASA-speak for the time it takes for a spacecraft to enter, descend, and land on Mars-were also nerve-wracking. As the rover descended, he was relieved to see that the navigation systems appeared to be working. The Lander Vision System (LVS) using Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN) enabled the Perseverance to not only land safely in “a field of dangers,” he says, but to do so within a car’s length of the landing target. The helicopter’s flight was one step closer.

Now, Smith has his sights set on moving similar TRN-based navigation technology (called xVIO) into the hadal zone, the deepest, the darkest reaches of the sea, extending from 6,000-11,000 meters below the surface. He’s working with WHOI biologist Tim Shank, WHOI research engineer Casey Machado, and others on WHOI’s HADEX program team to integrate the technology into Orpheus-class hadal robots. These relatively small, bright-orange drones are specifically designed for hadal zone exploration.

On Earth, advanced GPS systems are sufficient for navigation-at least on land. “But deep in the ocean it’s far more difficult,” Smith says. Space and the deep ocean both lack the constellations of sensors that make such navigation technology possible.

TRN, however, could be an ideal solution. The concept behind the technology is simple- it works much like you do when walking around your own house. You know where you are based on the objects you see: doors, furniture, the refrigerator, a staircase. But in order for a robot to function in this way, a tightly integrated system of advanced machine vision cameras, lighting, and pattern-matching software algorithms is necessary. These components enable the system to reconstruct the seafloor by creating three-dimensional maps that stitch together images of features it sees, such as rocks and clams. The maps are stored in the system’s memory, so when Orpheus flies back over a mapped area of the ocean, it will know where it is based on the familiar objects it sees.

But the maps are more than simply a navigation tool. They will also enable Orpheus to locate scientifically interesting features like cold seeps, hydrothermal vents, and even animals. Shank says this could be a revolutionary advance.

Casey Machado, Tim Shank, and NASA engineer Russell Smith cluster around an Orpheus hadal robot. (Photo by Taylor Heyl, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Tim Shank and Casey Machado Casey Machado, Tim Shank, and NASA engineer Russell Smith prepare Orpheus for its deepest dive to 1,600 meters below the surface in Veatch Canyon off the New England Continental Shelf. (Photo by Taylor Heyl, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“These will be the most detailed maps we’ve ever had on the seafloor, with a resolution that gets down to the biological scale,” he says. “From there, we want to be able to command, ‘Go back to that clam we saw earlier’ and have the system tell the vehicle how to get back there. It’s a huge step we hope to reach.”

Another key advantage of this navigation system, according to Shank, is that it is compact. “To do conventional mapping in the ocean, you typically have to mount heavy sonars on the vehicle,” he says. This system, by contrast, adds very little weight.

But getting the technology to work well in the ocean will be a challenge. On Mars, visibility is relatively good due to the planet’s thin atmosphere (unless you find yourself in the middle of a dust storm). But the ocean is often murky, and conditions change quickly. The combination of turbulence, particulates, and even sea life swimming around a robot’s cameras can make it difficult for the system to recognize landmarks.

WHOI engineer Molly Curran works with Russell Smith to calibrate the TRN software during Orpheus operations. (Photo by Ken Kostel, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Shank and Smith believe the system will nevertheless be a game-changer for ocean exploration. They will field test it next month, when Orpheus and its twin robot Eurydice descend to the Blake Plateau in the Western Atlantic Ocean.

“To date, we’ve been testing the system out on a mini version of Orpheus in a tank at JPL,” Shank says. “So, we’re excited to be able to finally get it into deep ocean conditions. The seafloor is relatively flat along the Blake Plateau, but there is relief there that we think may be coral mounds and methane seeps which we’re very interested in studying.” 

For Smith, the field tests will give him yet another opportunity to watch with bated breath as an autonomous robot roams a completely different unexplored world. “The engineering challenge of working in extreme environments like this is always fun because you don’t know the challenges you’re going to hit,” he says. “And down there, there’s so much potential for finding interesting things.” 

AUV Orpheus HADEX Seafloor & Below
Methane seep

Microbial Methane – New Fuel for Ocean Robots?

March 8, 2021

Microbial Methane – New Fuel for Ocean Robots?

By Evan Lubofsky

Methane seep A seep of methane bubbles up from the seafloor. (Photo by NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Imagine if the same marine microbes we study with ocean robots and autonomous underwater vehicles(AUVs) could help power those same vehicles?

Researchers at WHOI and Harvard University are working on it. They’re collaborating with Maritime Applied Physics Corporation (MAPC) — which is leading the effort with support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — on an energy harvesting platform that extracts methane produced by microbes and converts it to electricity. The system could be an answer to power-hungry robots that are being asked to explore increasingly larger swaths of the ocean.

“Deep sea microbes make tons of methane each year” says WHOI adjunct scientist and Harvard professor Peter Girguis. “So, we’re developing these harvesting systems that can be deployed above methane seeps to see if we can generate electricity from this methane.”

When it comes to powering AUVs—or other underwater ocean technologies for that matter—methane is an ideal choice given its abundance. It’s also free, and tends to hang around.

“It’s a crazy stable molecule,” says Girguis. “You can put it in a glass vial, and thousands of years later it will still be methane.”

Peter Girguis WHOI adjunct scientist and Harvard professor Peter Girguis (Photo courtesy of Harvard University)

It is, however, a potent greenhouse gas—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that methane has a heattrapping power 25 times greater than CO2. But fortunately, very little of it ever leaves the ocean, thanks to the expansive communities of marine microbes that eat it.

Using methane to give ocean robots a power boost may sound like sci-fi, but it may be closer than you think. A prototype of what the researchers refer to as a ‘seafloor generator’ is being built for testing later this year. It’s roughly the size of a large dorm room fridge, and when deployed, sits above methane seeps bubbling up from the seafloor. As the gas bubbles enter the system, a device recovers the methane through a membrane. The new device is being developed by MAPC, in conjunction with Girguis and WHOI scientist Anna Michel, who has been collaborating with Girguis since 2013.

“We utilize similar approaches for in situ chemical sensing of methane and carbon dioxide,” says Michel. “We extract gases from seawater and then measure them using infrared spectroscopy or mass spectrometry. These instruments require much less gas than we aim to use here. In my own lab, we’re especially interested in finding ways to power sensors underwater. So, working with WHOI Engineer Jason Kapit, we are investigating ways to scale up our extraction processes.”

Once the methane is in gas form, the system combusts the gas to drive an engine and generator. This is a common approach to converting chemical energy from the gas to electrical energy, but this would be the first time it’s been done on the seafloor for re-charging vehicles and powering sensors.

“The exhaust gases produced are cooled and recirculated back to the inlet of the generator,” explains Tom Bein, a principal engineer with MAPC. This novel approach, he says, minimizes the power required by the system which maximizes the energy available to recharge AUVs or to power sensor networks.

Seafloor Generator The seafloor generator, depicted here, is designed to continuously generate one kilowatt of power from methane seeps—enough power to recharge AUVs on long-endurance missions without having to resurface. (Illustration by MAPC)

From Girguis’ perspective, the new system will help address a key question that’s been lingering over the ocean science community for decades: How do we sustain our presence in the deep sea? The need for AUVs, for example, to travel over longer distances—and longer time periods—without having to surface to charge up, is very real. Particularly in endurance-sapping applications like geologic surveys, search and rescue missions, and oil spill monitoring.

Girguis sees value in the “cabled observatories we all clamored for” but says their capabilities are limited to the regions of the seafloor that they can reach. There have been advances in battery technologies, and in low-power instrument design, that have spurred the launch of new high-endurance vehicles.  WHOI’s Long Range Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (LRAUVs), for example, areultramarathoners: they can operate continuously for more than two weeks over a distance of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers).

But Girguis says that for autonomous vehicles to reach their potential, they will ultimately need underwater charging capabilities. He refers to the concept as a “Supercharger Network”—a network of underwater charging ports that provides rapid charging for an AUV on a mission—ideally in remote and deep locations throughout the global ocean. These networks could also power underwater sensors and other instruments.

“Today, we have vehicle charging stations that make it possible for us to drive cross-country with an electric car,” says Girguis. “If I had my druthers, we’d have a supercharger highway beneath the surface that helps keep AUVs going as far as they need to.”

This work is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) under contract number W912CG‐20‐C‐0015. The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied of DARPA. (Approved for Public Release, Distribution Unlimited 3/8/21)
Photo of Susan and Coleman Burke

Gift enables new investments in ocean technologies

November 7, 2020

Gift enables new investments in ocean technologies

By  | November 9, 2020

Photo of Susan and Coleman Burke Susan and Coleman Burke. Photo courtesy the Burke Foundation.

As any business knows, access to startup capital is key to staying competitive in a rapidly-shifting technological landscape. A $500,000 grant from the Coleman and Susan Burke Foundation has allowed WHOI to make crucial investments in ocean technology, a gift that will have lasting impacts on the institution’s technical and research prowess.

As a former officer in the US Navy, Coleman Burke has a particular passion for ocean exploration and technology-enhanced research at sea. After funding the R/V Neil Armstrong’s computer lab in 2016, as well as the computer lab in the LOSOS building, Burke wanted to finish these projects with a follow-up investment, says Richard Pittenger, a retired Navy admiral who now works with WHOI administration.

“Coley has a deep love of the sea, and as a passionate environmentalist, a very real commitment to the preservation of our most precious resource. We applaud the work of WHOI and we are delighted to support it,” says Susan Burke of the donation.

A picture of the new interactive display monitors A new interactive display on board the R/V Neil Armstrong shows the ship’s sensors and a view of deck operations.

One part of the funding will be immediately obvious to researchers aboard the Armstrong. Video monitors have been installed in nine locations throughout the vessel, including in the conference room. The new monitors allow users to toggle between a navigation screen, sonar and Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) sensor data, while providing video conferencing capabilities. Another upgrade, expected in 2021, will enable researchers on the ship to video conference with their colleagues on shore.

“The Burke Foundation gift opened an opportunity to significantly improve access, control, and use of the Armstrong’s sensors and cameras by a wide variety of researchers and crew from many locations throughout the ship— and even from off the ship through telepresence,” says Pittenger. “This is a first for the UNOLS research fleet, so it’ll put the Armstrong ahead of the rest.”

WHOI marine chemist Aleck Wang recovers samples from a CTD during a 2016 research cruise aboard the R/V <em>Neil Armstrong</em>, deployed along the New England Continental Shelf in the vicinity of the Ocean Observatories Initiative Pioneer Array. (Photo by Elise Hugus, UnderCurrent Productions) WHOI marine chemist Aleck Wang recovers samples from a CTD during a 2016 research cruise aboard the R/V Neil Armstrong, deployed along the New England Continental Shelf in the vicinity of the Ocean Observatories Initiative Pioneer Array. (Photo by Elise Hugus, UnderCurrent Productions)

 

The Burke Foundation also funded three projects making use of novel data streams from the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Marine geochemist Aleck Wang will use data from the Pioneer Array to examine the relationship between coastal and mid-ocean carbon dioxide fluxes along the New England continental shelf.

Using data from the Irminger Sea Array off the southern tip of Greenland, a project led by physical oceanographers Isabela LeBras and Roo Nicholson will investigate deep mixing and oxygen cycling, while Malcolm Scully will use physical and bio-optical data from the array to look into diurnal and seasonal controls on phytoplankton.

Following up on its past support of WHOI senior scientist Chris German, the Burke Foundation provided funding for an innovative technology that enables remote communication with the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, and potentially, a fleet of deep-sea AUVs.

In testing planned next summer on the East Pacific Rise, German’s “WaveGlider” will float on the ocean surface, using satellite communications to send commands and receive data from Sentry. German says this capability will more than double the efficiency of research vessels, which are free to travel miles away from the WaveGlider to conduct other operations.

German says the Burke Foundation’s investment is critical for providing a “proof of concept” that he can use to attract government funding.

“To understand our changing ocean in a sufficiently rapid way, we need to massively accelerate the pace with which we explore vast, unknown expanses of ocean,” says German. “Once the WaveGlider is field-proven, we expect the National Science Foundation, NOAA-Ocean Exploration, and others to take notice.”

A three-phase concept for robotics-led deep ocean exploration. A three-phase concept for increasingly sophisticated, telepresence-enabled and robotics-led deep ocean exploration using the WaveGlider platform and one or more autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Tools & Technology R/V Neil Armstrong Ocean Observatories Initiative
the sea ahead

Sea Ahead

July 27, 2020

Sea Ahead

The game-changing ocean
technologies that will transform our
ability to understand—and manage
—Earth’s last great frontier

By Evan Lubofsky | July 27, 2020

Sea Ahead

The game-changing ocean

technologies that will transform

our ability to understand

—and manage—Earth’s

last great frontier

By Evan Lubofsky | July 27, 2020

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The palm tree was a peculiar sight. In many respects, it was identical to countless other coconut palms collaring the turquoise lagoon. But this one stood out: Empty food cans were nailed up along its curved stem at three different, yet evenly-spaced, heights. Like a try-your-luck beanbag game at a carnival.

But on that hot July afternoon in 1946, there was no time for fun. The first in a series of nuclear bomb detonations was hours away from dropping on Bikini Atoll—a low-lying slice of paradise in the Marshall Islands—during the post-World War II weapons testing campaign known as Operation Crossroads.

WHOI scientists were standing by. They had come to Bikini to learn more about atomic explosions and the ocean—from above and below the surface.

They were particularly interested in studying the height of waves generated by the blasts.  But there was one small problem: wave-height sensors and tide gauges didn’t exist yet.

So, WHOI engineer Allyn Vine (for which the famed submersible Alvin was named) had an idea to nail empty bean cans to palm trees on Bikini and surrounding islands. Those cans would act as tide gauges by trapping seawater and sediment deposited by the basal surge of the explosion.

An ocean tech revolution

Bean cans may have been a crude-but-ingenious answer to a science problem in 1946, but today they are emblematic of the tight partnership shared between ocean scientists and engineers.

Monitoring instruments—and ocean technologies in general—have come a long way since the bean can. We now have Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled robots that not only allow researchers to access the most remote spots in the ocean, but can decide where to explore once they get there. New types of underwater vehicles mimic the weird and exotic animals they’re studying in the ocean twilight zone, a shadowy layer just beneath the sunlit surface between 200 to 1,000 meters. And aerial drones measure whales and seals in their natural habitats without scientists ever having to touch them.

It may seem the future of ocean technology is already here, but according to WHOI chief technology strategist Chuck Sears, we’ve only scratched the surface.

“Right now, we’re on the cusp of a number of fundamental technological breakthroughs that will be game-changing for oceanography,” says Sears. “Decades from now, I don’t think the ocean technology landscape will look anything like it does today.”

Bikini archive To monitor wave heights on Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads in 1946, WHOI scientist Allyn Vine devised a crude but effective solution: He nailed empty tin cans to palm trees at various heights. (Photo courtesy of WHOI Archives)

Always on, always connected

The sun was slowly sinking over Boston’s Charles River on an early June evening in 2019, when a trio of tiny ocean robots was unleashed into the water. As darkness set in, the robots began cruising the river. Unlike most ocean robots that run their missions independent of one another, these robots were using acoustic communications to explore together

“We put strobe lights on the robots so we could see them moving in sync through the water—it was pretty amazing to watch,” says WHOI engineer Erin Fischell, who is on her own mission to replace larger and expensive underwater robots with swarms of smaller robots that work cooperatively. The goal, she says, is to get a fleet of tiny robots deployed for less cost than one or two larger and more complex robots. 

WHOI biologist Tim Shank says this concept fits squarely into deep-sea exploration—particularly in the Hadal Zone, the deepest part of the ocean reaching 11,000 meters. With a total area roughly five times the state of Texas, the Hadal Zone is considered the least explored place on Earth. 

Shank wants to change that. He, along with WHOI lead engineer Casey Machado and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has developed a bright-orange ocean robot named Orpheus—the first in a new class of lightweight, low-cost autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). Orpheus can withstand the pressure of the ocean’s greatest depths, and can explore independently or as a networked “fleet.” 

Orpheus is a key component of our HADEX hadal exploration program,” says Shank. “In the future, I can envision twenty or more of these low-cost robots exploring hadal trenches cooperatively.”

This concept feeds into a long-range vision for what WHOI senior scientist Dennis McGillicuddy calls a networked ocean. He says the digital ocean ecosystem of the future will rely on an integrated network of underwater vehicles, sensors, and communications systems that will cover the ocean in an “always on, always connected” way.  

“A networked ocean will connect individual vehicles and instruments, and provide real-time information about what’s happening in the ocean, much like the National Weather Service,” says McGillicuddy.  

Heterogenous “swarms” of robots are in the mix, but other advances round out the picture. McGillicuddy says ocean observing systems like the Pioneer array, which tracks the shelf break front south of New England, and the OSNAP array, which tracks Atlantic Ocean circulation, will span the global ocean and beam data back to scientists via acoustic, optical, and satellite communications. There will also be a trend towards “data mule” type vehicles on the surface that receive data from AUVs below and beam the information up to satellites to transmit to laboratories on shore. And, fixed docking stations will be deployed in the open ocean that allow ocean vehicles to offload data and power up before heading to their next exploration site. 

“Decades from now, I don’t think the ocean technology landscape will look anything like it does today.”
—Chuck Sears, WHOI chief technology strategist

colored Atlantis photo Scientists deploy an instrument off the deck of the Atlantis in October 1952. (Photo by Jan Hahn, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Orpheus Orpheus, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), surfaces after one of several test dives in September 2019. (Photo by Evan Kovacs, Marine Imaging Technologies, LLC / Courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

A new nerve center

If a networked ocean is the brain stem, sensors are the cranial nerves. 

Today’s ocean sensors detect things in the water that humans can’t, giving scientists a fuller picture of ocean phenomena, whether it be the speed and direction of ocean currents, changes in seawater chemistry, carbon cycling, or biological productivity in the deep sea. 

Yet according to Jim Bellingham, director of WHOI’s Center for Marine Robotics, the oceanographic community is “massively underinvested” in sensors. The proprietary “one-off” design of certain sensors can drive costs through the roof, making it difficult or impossible for scientists to deploy quantities of them in the ocean. 

Another issue is size—some sensors are so large and bulky that they can only be transported by large remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), or towed by a ship.  

Bellingham says future ocean sensors will become increasingly compact and affordable as they take advantage of smaller and more powerful microprocessors being developed for consumer electronics. 

“You can make highly capable things that are small and low-cost, as long as you can scale out,” says Bellingham. 

Sears shares a similar view. He says ocean technologies in general have often been “exquisite and available to very few,” but feels electronics will become significantly smaller, cheaper, and more capable. 

“Eventually, it will become possible to create entire 3D ocean imaging systems that are smaller than a dime,” he says.  

That’s a far cry from some of the hefty sensors of today, like Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs) used to study harmful algal blooms. ESPs rival the size of punching bags, but thanks to smaller components, the latest generation is about half the size and deployable on a wider range of vehicles.   

“Today, we can create maps of the seafloor with amazing clarity,” says WHOI scientist Adam Soule. “But the problem is, only a very small portion of the seafloor is mapped.”
—Adam Soule, WHOI scientist

Rather than relying on just a single, larger, and more expensive underwater robot to cover an area of the ocean, ocean scientists hope to leverage hundreds or even thousands of smaller, lower-cost robots all working in sync as depicted here. (Illustration by Tim Silva, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Remote ocean sensing also stands to benefit from smaller and relatively low-cost technology. WHOI engineer Paul Fucile sees a trend towards the increased use of CubeSats—ocean sensing microsatellites smaller than a shoebox—for taking temperature, color, and salinity measurements from space. 

“A CubeSat can be extremely useful for oceanography,” says Fucile. “Much the way that gliders emerged in scientific use some 20 years ago and are quite common in the community today, CubeSats have the capability to provide an investigator with an economically-customized and dynamic sampling tool that can go from conception to launch in as little as 2-3 years.”

The future will also see new types of sensors for studying ocean biology, says Andy Bowen, director of WHOI’s National Deep Submergence Facility. In particular, sensors that can shed light on life in that shadowy ocean twilight zone.  

“We know so little about this vast area of the ocean, so there’s a huge push—and a huge challenge—to develop new sensing solutions,” he says. 

This will include high-sensitivity light sensors that measure light levels in the twilight zone. Bowen says these sensors will help scientists understand how solar radiation drives the daily migration of mesopelagic animals to the surface to feed. And, new sensors for measuring environmental DNA (eDNA)—the genetic traces organisms leave behind as they move through the water—will help scientists track which organisms live in the twilight zone, and identify previously unknown species. 

Expanding the view

Ocean scientists today are getting unprecedented glimpses below the surface, thanks to advances in high-definition camera and lighting systems, multi-beam sonar, lasers, satellites, and other imaging technologies. Today, 4K resolution cameras are used to spy on seal-prey interactions in fishing nets near the surface, underwater video microscopes image plankton and other organisms in the ocean’s midwater, and stereo machine vision camera systems document hydrothermal vents in the deep. 

But despite the tremendous strides made in imaging technology, researchers want to see more. 

“Today, we can create maps of the seafloor with amazing clarity,” says WHOI marine geologist Adam Soule. “But the problem is, only a very small portion is mapped.”

Estimates suggest that less than 20% of the world’s ocean floor has been mapped, which pales in comparison to our topographic understanding of the Moon. This is a problem. Getting a good read on the seafloor is essential to understanding ocean circulation and its effects on climate, tides, and underwater geo-hazards. 

Soule says new sonar imaging tools will be needed to facilitate a complete mapping of the ocean floor—a lofty goal of the project known as Seabed 2030. 

SINGLE BLADE

Compass Testing

WHOI engineer Robin Littlefield carries his miniature Single Blade submersible in Woods Hole, Mass. (Photo by Kalina Grabb, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

As ocean sensors continue to shrink in size, they’ll become more suitable for use on smaller submersibles like Single Blade. Driven by a single-bladed propeller and a lone tiny motor, it maneuvers through the ocean without fins, actuators, or additional thrusters. According to WHOI engineer Robin Littlefield, who designed Single Blade with Jeff Kaeli, Fred Jaffre, and Ryan Govostes, it takes the simplicity of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to a whole new level. 

“We are very excited about this technology because it dramatically simplifies the hardware needed to propel and control an AUV. This makes for a more compact and reliable means of propulsion and opens up new possibilities for exploration,” Littlefield says.

Illustrations by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

“One idea is to build barges that are essentially huge floating sonar systems,” says Soule. “This will give us a much bigger array to work with and cover more of the seabed in less time.” 

Bellingham also feels that new tech approaches to mapping are in order, but sees the potential for smaller-scale solutions. 

“Today, we use large physical apertures on our sonar systems,” he says. “That means our vehicles have to be big enough to accommodate them. In the future, I can see things evolving to the use of synthetic apertures, which can perform the same functions computationally and require far less real estate. This would open up the range of vehicles we could use for seafloor mapping.”

Deep-sea imaging is another area where the tech landscape will continue to evolve, according to WHOI marine geologist Dan Fornari, who has helped pioneer a number of deep-sea imaging systems. Specifically, he sees promise in 3D imaging technologies, an environment that is often visually noisy. 

“When you go into the deep ocean, the visibility can be very poor due to all the particulates floating around and turbulence from currents,” says Fornari. “Even with the best cameras and lights, it can be like pea soup.”

He says 3D imaging could help in these poor-visibility environments by creating fine-scale, physical representations of the features that oceanographers are trying to study. One idea he’s discussed with HOV Alvin vehicle managers is populating the sub with a half-dozen cameras for a 360-degree, virtual reality-like view of the terrain as Alvin moves along. 

“If we get a really good handle on the physical settings and their structures in three-dimensional space, we can dive more into the biological, chemical, and other process-oriented phenomena happening in the deep in ways not possible in the past,” says Fornari. 

Advances in high-definition cameras, lighting systems, and other imaging gear provide scientists with unprecedented glimpses of marine life in the deep sea, like the zoarcid fish and tubeworms at the hydrothermalvent shown here. (Photo by P. Gregg, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign/NSF/HOV Alvin 2018 © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

An unmanned future

The ROV Nereid Under Ice (NUI) hovered gently a few feet above thick, colorful carpets of microbes stretched along the mineral-rich seafloor. The robot, about the size of a Smart Car, was navigating the dark and dangerous world of Kolumbo Volcano, an active submarine volcano off Santorini Island, Greece. 

Through a bubbling fog of CO₂ gushing from a nearby hydrothermal vent, the robot’s vision cameras locked-in on a patch of sediment at the base of a hydrothermal vent. Moments later—without the aid of an ROV pilot—a slurp-sample hose attached to the robotic arm extended down to the precise sample location and sucked up a bit of dirt. It was the first known automated sample taken by a robot in the ocean. 

The field test, in November, 2019, was a significant step in the evolution of autonomous
ocean robots. It shifts the playing field from standard autonomous vehicles—which rely on scripted mission programs—to fully autonomous vehicles that use AI-based tools to decide where to go and how to move. 

According to WHOI scientist Rich Camilli, this level of autonomy will become more important as robots are called on to explore deeper and more extreme parts of the ocean. In particular, the ability for a vehicle to balance possible scientific gain with safety concerns will be key. 

“Sending a robot into these kinds of environments can be like telling someone to hang glide through mid-town Manhattan in a heavy fog,” he says. 

But vehicle survivability is just one consideration. Underwater vehicles will also need fuller autonomy for decision making. During the Kolumbo expedition, an automated planning tool named ‘Spock’ gave NUI the ability to decide which areas of the volcano to explore. 

“All the sites Spock took us to turned out to be outstanding, scientifically-relevant sites,” says Camilli. 

It’s no coincidence that Spock is being developed as part of a NASA-funded program (called the Planetary Science and Technology from Analog Research interdisciplinary research program, or PSTAR, for short). If a robot needs to reason its way through Earth’s ocean, it will really need such skills to resolve unanswered questions on ocean worlds elsewhere in our solar system. 

“We don’t want a vehicle on a distant ocean world waiting for us to tell it what to do,” says WHOI senior scientist Chris German, who has also been working with NASA’s Planetary Science Division on technology development. “It would take hours, not minutes, to get a message to a robot in space based on the speed of light.” 

German has had his eye on other ocean worlds ever since the presence of ice-covered liquid oceans were confirmed on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and, subsequently, Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan. He says that plans are underway for testing new autonomous capabilities of WHOI’s ROV Sentry

Neriud launch The WHOI-developed robotic vehicle Nereid Under Ice is lowered into the ocean for an initial dunk test in the port town of Lavrio, Greece. (Photo by Evan Lubofsky, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

“We’re going to have Sentry on the seafloor interpreting data on the fly and making its own decisions as to what’s scientifically interesting,” says German. “Then, it will send us a message indicating what features it found interesting and why, along with information about where it explored, what it looked at, and how it searched.”   

Loral O’Hara, an adjunct oceanographer at WHOI who recently became a NASA astronaut, says that the engineering needed to develop ocean vehicles and spacecraft can be very different. But when it comes to technologies and methods required to detect life in our own ocean—or on other planets—there may be common threads. 

“Searching for life when you don’t really know what you’re searching for is really exciting, and is one of the challenges we face both here on Earth and on other planets,” she says. “So, we’re working on instruments and system architectures that will allow us to do that in very diverse environments.” 

“On other planets, we’ll be looking for life, but we don’t really know what we’re looking for,” says O’Hara. “So that creates a lot of challenges: how do we detect life, what sensors do we need, etc. It’s mindboggling, but that’s the really exciting part.”

The virtual ocean

Gains in robot intelligence will undoubtedly lead to more ocean monitoring and sampling, particularly in areas that have been too dangerous or remote for oceanographers. But sampling the ocean is only one part of the equation. In order to make accurate predictions of long-term changes, ocean scientists will need to rely on a completely different technology used above the surface: computer models. 

“Models are incredibly good at forecasting future changes,” says Mara Freilich, an MIT-WHOI Joint Program student who studies how the ocean affects global climate and the cycling of nitrogen and other nutrients. “But the technology we have today could improve in terms of how they simulate certain things.”

She says that some small-scale ocean currents that are relevant to her studies cannot be simulated well due to limitations in pixel resolution. Climate models typically represent vast swaths of virtual ocean in a pixelated grid of uniform boxes, with each box spanning areas of tens of kilometers or more. This gives a broad spatial view of the environment as a whole, but doesn’t provide enough resolution to represent smaller scales. But she expects that as computing power increases, models will overcome these resolution constraints and become more adept at resolving ever-smaller ocean processes. 

Another factor that could help fine-tune ocean models is more hard data. “Improving our fundamental understanding of ocean processes through real-world observations will allow us to better represent them mathematically in the computer code,” says Freilich. 

MIT-WHOI Joint Program student Mara Freilich demonstrates how a computer model, known as the Process Study Ocean Model (PSOM), simulates swirling ocean currents called eddies. (Photo courtesy of Troy Sankey)

WHOI physical oceanographer Carol Anne Clayson also feels that more observation data is key to optimizing models. She has an eye on what she refers to as “Super Sites”—floating instrument platforms that measure a broad range of parameters in the ocean and the atmosphere. 

“Typically, when we have a permanent monitoring site in the ocean, we’re only measuring a few things,” says Clayson. “The idea here is to measure everything we can in a relatively small area for a few years at a time—from biogeochemical and physical processes underwater to turbulence in the atmosphere—so we can provide more comprehensive statistics that higher-resolution models will need.” 

Freilich says machine learning—a form of AI that enables systems to learn from data—could make models more capable by discovering patterns in hard data to understand or “learn” how particular ocean processes work. These patterns can then be incorporated into high-resolution models to help make predications. 

WHOI physical oceanographer Young-Oh Kwon agrees. He, too, uses computer models to simulate ocean circulation systems, and says the use of machine learning to enhance models looks promising. 

“Many in the community talk about the potential for machine learning to connect observation data and models, and figure out where models can be improved upon based on data collected in the ocean,” he says. “That’s a very exciting area.”

Science into action

In a 1977 research paper, physical oceanographer Walter Munk—often referred to as the “Einstein of the ocean”—commented on the lack of samples collected by the oceanographic community prior to the 1960s. “Probing the ocean from a few isolated research vessels has always been a marginal undertaking, and the first hundred years of oceanography could well be called ‘a century of under-sampling,’” he wrote. 

“A networked ocean will connect individual vehicles and instruments, and provide real-time information about what’s happening in the ocean, much like the National Weather Service.” ~ Dennis McGillicuddy, WHOI senior scientist

WHOI deep-sea biologist Taylor Heyl (in foreground) explores Lydonia Canyon in the OceanX submersible Nadir during a dive in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument. (Photo by Luis Lamar for National Geographic)

One hundred years from now, some may call what we’ll be doing “over-sampling”—particularly if advances in networked oceans, sensors, underwater imaging, and decision-making robots are brought to bear. Collectively, these innovations should yield dramatic shifts in our understanding of the global ocean. 

Bellingham puts it simply: “When you extend the reach of your tools, you learn more about the world around you.” 

Beyond a better understanding of the ocean, however, new tech will allow scientists to put real-time information into the hands of policy makers, resource managers, and others who can use it to plan sustainable uses of the ocean, adapt to changing ocean conditions, and create better governance and accountability over its use. 

“How and where the ocean is managed in the future depends heavily on the technology advances to come,” says Bellingham. 

The human connection

While technological advances will propel ocean science forward, Soule points out that human exploration will play a key role well into the future. It will still be vital, he says, for scientists to go to sea and immerse themselves in underwater environments in order to see what’s down there, interpret it, and make decisions. 

“You still need the creativity of people to make sense of it all,” he says. 

McGillicuddy echoes the sentiment. He notes that while things like networked oceans and fully autonomous robots will play exciting and important roles in our future ocean, past experience shows that some of our greatest discoveries come from human beings who are present at sea and able to recognize the unexpected—properties and phenomena—for which we don’t have autonomous sensors. 

“The future will be woven from a mixture of modern technology and ocean scientists who take water samples from the ocean and look at them the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We’re not giving up on bean cans just yet.” 

Jason

The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Jason
is captured by the MISO GoPro 12MP digital camera developed by WHOI scientist Dan Fornari. The system combines specialized optics that correct for visual distortion underwater, ~20 hours of battery life, and a pressure-resistant housing designed for ocean depths of 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). (Photo courtesy of Dan Fornari, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Rebecca Carey, Univ. of Tasmania/NSF/WHOI-MISO)  biology Coastal Ecosystems Ocean Life