CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University oceanographer has been appointed as program director for the National Science Foundation’s signature research project focusing on climate change – a $400 million anticipated investment in a national Ocean Observatories Initiative that just passed the agency’s final design review.
Timothy J. Cowles, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will coordinate the activities of the initiative, which seeks to enhance fundamental understanding of the biological, chemical, physical and geological processes of the ocean and address several challenging scientific problems, including the ocean’s role in climate change.
The effort will launch and maintain an array of ocean and seafloor monitoring tools, including cabled moorings, buoys, autonomous underwater vehicles – both propeller-driven and gliders – and a unique seafloor observatory network spanning a tectonic plate off the Pacific Northwest coast.
“The initiative was designed to install the infrastructure required to support 20-30 years of innovative research,” Cowles said. “Going out on a cruise gives researchers a two- to three-week snapshot of one area. This combined observing system will give us a coordinated, ongoing look at how large regions of the ocean work, providing us more insight into the Earth’s dynamics.
“It’s an enormous effort that will not only help us understand climate change, but it will allow us to better document the conditions that precede and follow major ocean events, including severe storms, seafloor volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis and rising sea levels.”
Cowles said recent events along the West Coast, including hypoxia events resulting in marine “dead zones” and increasing harmful algal blooms, illustrate the importance of understanding biological responses to different perturbations in the ocean’s physical processes.
The Ocean Observatories Initiative, known as the OOI, entered formal planning stages in 2000 after more than a decade of discussions and meetings within the oceanographic research community. The National Science Foundation has funded the process and the program now consists of three different “scales” of observatory elements – coastal, regional and global. These components include:
• Coastal moorings and autonomous underwater vehicles off the Oregon coast and the central Atlantic coast;
• A regional scale, seafloor network of instruments and moorings on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate;
• Global scale, deep-ocean buoys at three high-latitude locations – the North Pacific, the North Atlantic, and the Southern Ocean.
“These elements will be linked into a single integrated network through satellite communications, fiber optic cables and sophisticated software,” Cowles said, “providing date access to scientists, teachers, students and policy makers.”
The program is scheduled to begin its five-year construction phase in 2010, and then have a 25-year operational phase.
Much of the initial focus of the project will be on the ocean and seafloor off the Pacific Northwest coast. The new monitoring efforts at the coastal and regional scales will allow scientists to observe the area in an unprecedented way and use it as an analog for understanding other systems around the world, according to Cowles.
The area is home to the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which has experienced numerous major earthquakes and tsunamis during its history, and its undersea volcanic mounts have remarkable hydrothermal vents sustaining unique biological communities. The region’s marine food web is fed by wind-driven upwelling and strongly influenced by changes in currents.
The University of Washington is coordinating the major cabled seafloor observatory off the Washington and Oregon coasts, while the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and OSU are designing the “Endurance Array,” a series of moorings, gliders and other instrumentation that will feed data into that cabled system as well as directly to laboratories on the Oregon State campus and the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.
The global moorings at three high-latitude, deep ocean locations will be installed by Woods Hole and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They are designed to detect climate signals through continuous monitoring of ocean conditions.
“We’ll start putting instruments into the ocean in July of 2010,” Cowles said, “and the data should begin to flow within 12 months.”
That data will include ocean temperatures, salinity, dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide content, chlorophyll levels, wave heights, current directions and velocity, and meteorological measurements, including wind. The instruments also will monitor the ocean’s biological responses. All of the data will be shared, not only with the scientific community, Cowles noted, but “anyone with an Internet connection.”
The Ocean Observatories Initiative is coordinated and managed through the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, an organization of oceanographic research institutions.
Cowles has been on the OSU faculty since 1984. His research has focused on plankton ecology and the development of new instrumentation for biological oceanography, including optics.