OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU major participant in initiative to create global ocean observatory system

09/02/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership to support the Ocean Observatories Initiative, which was announced today in Washington, D.C., will create a global ocean observing network, part of which will operate off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

The $386.4 million initiative has coastal, regional and global ocean elements and Oregon State University will join the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in leading the coastal element. Woods Hole and Scripps Institution of Oceanography will lead the global element, and the University of Washington will deploy the cabled seafloor network. The University of California-San Diego provides the cyberinfrastructure.

Overall management and coordination for the project is provided by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a non-profit organization comprised of 95 public and private ocean research institutions.

OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences will coordinate the development and operation of three observatory sites off Newport, Ore., and three sites off Grays Harbor, Wash. OSU researchers will receive approximately $14 million over the next five years to develop and deploy a system of surface moorings, seafloor platforms and undersea gliders that will give scientists an unprecedented look at how the ocean responds to changes in climate.

“Investing in ocean observing and monitoring is precisely what California Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger, Washington Gov. (Christine) Gregoire and I called for in the ‘West Coast Governors Agreement on Ocean Health,’” said Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. “The Ocean Observatories Initiative demonstrates a successful partnership between the states and the federal government as we begin to unlock the mysteries of the deep ocean.

“The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU is a national leader in conducting cutting-edge research that has real life applications and with this new initiative the public will learn more about our vast ocean and the effects of climate change,” Kulongoski added.

The Northwest region has drawn considerable interest from scientists because of the increasing frequency of hypoxia (low-oxygen) events leading to biological “dead zones.” Pacific Ocean waters here also experience toxic algal blooms, play a critical role in sequestering atmospheric carbon, and are subject to highly variable biological production that has an impact on the entire marine food web, including salmon.

An observatory network also will help scientists better evaluate local impacts from global issues including ocean acidification, and the sites off Newport and Gray’s Harbor are strategically positioned to provide monitoring of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which has the potential to produce catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis.

“The Oregon and southwest Washington coastal waters provide an ideal laboratory for learning how the ocean responds to variability in climate, whether it is natural or triggered by human activity,” said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“This project will be transformative in that our ability to observe and monitor the ocean will be constant – 24 hours a day instead of the episodic nature of a week at sea here and there,” Abbott added.

The Ocean Observatories Initiative has been in the planning stages since the year 2000, after more than a decade of discussion within the oceanographic research community. The project is being led by Tim Cowles, an OSU oceanographer serving as director of the Ocean Observatories Initiative program office at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

OSU’s role in the initiative focuses primarily on developing the six sites off Newport and Grays Harbor. Called the Endurance Array, the sites will be spread across the continental shelf at 25 meters, 80 meters and 500 meters on east-west lines from Newport and Grays Harbor.

The sites at 80 and 500 meters off Newport will be connected to a cabled observatory operated by the University of Washington that provides continuous high bandwidth and power to run a variety of oceanographic instruments, said Robert Collier, an OSU oceanographer and project manager for the Endurance Array.

“It will be like having underwater laboratories at each location,” Collier said. “One of the limitations of ocean research has been the lack of power and connectivity. That will no longer be a problem.”

Each of the six sites will have surface moorings, water column profilers and seafloor sensors, Collier said. The basic “core” instrumentation will measure water and air temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen content, carbon dioxide levels, phytoplankton, wave heights, current directions and velocity, and meteorological data, including wind. One instrument will use acoustics to monitor zooplankton size, levels and distribution, giving scientists an unprecedented look at how the biological ocean responds to changes in the physical ocean.

“This is just the beginning,” said Jack Barth, also a professor of oceanography and project scientist with the initiative. “Researchers in the future will be able to bring in their own experiments using new technology. One example is a methane ‘sniffer’ now under development to detect the presence of methane hydrates leaking out from the sea floor.”

Complementing the various moorings and instruments will be a fleet of undersea gliders, which OSU will operate, along with the moored infrastructure. The National Science Foundation funding will allow the purchase of 12 new gliders that will be able to patrol adjacent waters along the Oregon and Washington coast lines and gather additional data.

The first instruments are scheduled to be in the water in late 2012 or early 2013, after production engineering and prototyping, according to Ed Dever, OSU oceanographer and system engineer. The project is designed for a 25-year lifespan.

Cowles said data from the observatory will be shared not only among scientists, but with the public.

“The elements will be linked into a single integrated network through satellite communications, fiber optic cables and sophisticated software,” Cowles said, “all of which will provide data access to scientists, teachers, students and policy makers.”

OSU and University of Washington scientists also are working with the fishing industry to look for ways to maximize the benefits of the data that will be collected and contribute to sustainable fisheries, according to Collier. “We look forward to collaborating with coastal communities and a variety of ocean users to identify the final locations of the moorings and other instrumentation,” he said.

The observatory agreement coincides with the 50th anniversary of the oceanography program at Oregon State, and dovetails with other ocean monitoring efforts the university has conducted over the years with funding from NSF and NOAA.