CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University will receive $20.6 million over the next six years to lead a component of the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative that will be located in the Pacific Northwest’s coastal ocean.
The university also could receive an additional $29 million over the succeeding five years to continue operating the coastal observatory.
The NSF initiative is coordinated by the Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI), a consortium of leading academic institutions. The $331.5 million research facility project will create a distributed, multi-tiered observatory spanning global, regional and coastal scales. It will be linked by a common computer network intended to operate for up to 30 years. The OSU-led coastal observatory will be based off the Pacific Northwest, focusing on the continental shelf off Newport, Ore., in what is one of the most heavily studied marine environments in the world.
Earlier this year, JOI announced awards to the University of Washington to design a regional fiber-optic cabled observatory off Washington and Oregon, and to the University of California at San Diego to direct the system-wide computing infrastructure.
OSU partnered with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on a proposal to develop, install and operate the combined coastal and global observatories. Woods Hole will provide the overall administrative leadership and engineering for the project and will implement a separate coastal observatory on the shelf break off the northeast coast of the United States. Scripps and Woods Hole will combine to implement global scale elements of the observatory.
The Pacific Northwest coastal observatory, led by OSU, will place a series of permanent moorings off the Northwest coast called the Endurance Array, and will include a network of undersea gliders that can be programmed to patrol the near-shore waters and collect a variety of data and transmit it to onshore laboratories.
“The long-term coastal scale observations by the Ocean Observatories Initiative will be a key to understanding and monitoring the impacts of global climate change,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “Although the area off the central Oregon coast has been studied at length and has a significant impact on regional and national climate, we’ve simply lacked the infrastructure to monitor conditions on an ongoing basis to see how the ecosystem responds to change. This will allow us to do that.”
The region is particularly important for a number of reasons, said Robert Collier, an OSU professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences who will serve as deputy project manager at OSU. The California Current System has a major influence on the West Coast and changing ocean conditions may have created a recent series of hypoxic events and harmful algal blooms.
“It is a dynamic area that is the interface between the open Pacific Ocean and the human-populated coast,” Collier said. “It includes rich habitats for marine life, hydrothermal vents, methane fields, storm-induced waves that have caused erosion, and the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which may produce large earthquakes and tsunamis.
“Oregon was an obvious place for locating this portion of the coastal observatory,” Collier added, “in part because of the years that OSU researchers and others have invested in this environment and in part because of its seamless connection to the regional and global observatories offshore.”
During the next year, OSU researchers including Collier, Jack Barth and Ed Dever will help finalize the scientific and engineering plans for creating the array. Once approved by JOI and the National Science Foundation, construction on the permanent moorings and deployment of the gliders can begin.
Between five and seven mooring sites are planned, including several that will be directly connected to the University of Washington’s fiber-optic cable that extends into deeper waters and provides regional scale coverage of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate offshore. OSU will work closely with UW to integrate these systems, which will provide exceptional power and bandwidth for new instrumentation to study the ocean and seafloor.
Instruments aboard the moorings will take a series of measurements that include temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen content, optical properties of the water, chlorophyll levels, nutrient levels, and the speed and direction of currents. Each mooring site will include a surface buoy to monitor the atmosphere as well.
The entire region is significant to scientists because of the complex interactions of winds, currents and terrain, said Barth, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State who will serve as project scientist at OSU.
“The Heceta Bank just south of the Endurance Array is one of the most important locations along the coast because it deflects the waters flowing from the north and creates a quiet pool of water that serves as an incubator for the phytoplankton that feed the rich marine food web found there,” Barth said. “That’s also the location of the most intense hypoxia events we’ve experienced.
“Oregon is situated at a point where changes in the atmospheric Jet Stream have a major impact on local weather conditions and the ocean’s response to them,” he added. “This coastal observatory will help us better understand and monitor the complex interactions that affect us every day.”
Collier said the Ocean Observatories Initiative will have strong public outreach and educational value, and scientific data compiled at the different sites will be available to scientists and the public alike in real-time on the Internet.
“Fishermen and crabbers may apply the data we gather on the ocean,” he said, “because they can readily see an application that directly influences their livelihood. The potential also exists for improving scientific literacy in general, and ocean literacy in particular, through involving high school students and others in education initiatives.”