OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

The science of ocean observing

09/02/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists and engineers are about to launch a project to create an ocean observatory off the Pacific Northwest coast. Within the next few years, an array of instruments will stretch from Newport, Ore., and Grays Harbor, Wash., westward, complemented by a fleet of data-collecting undersea gliders.

The footprint of this array will extend into the North Pacific by a fiber-optic cabled observatory on the Juan de Fuca Plate and a permanent open-ocean site in the Gulf of Alaska.

What do scientists hope to learn?

“Once we turn this thing on, the data we gather within a year will be staggering,” said Oregon State University oceanographer Jack Barth. “It will provide information on climate change, ocean biology, winds and currents…on just about everything. We will be able to analyze storms at sea for the first time and actually measure how much carbon dioxide gets washed out from the near-shore to the deep ocean. The possibilities are endless.”

OSU oceanographers leading the project say there are a number of scientific themes that will be central to the observatory. They include:

  • The ocean-atmosphere exchange of energy during high storms and winds, giving scientists better climate change models and storm predicting ability;
  • A better understanding of climate change, especially the ocean’s role in the global carbon cycle, and the impacts of climate variability on ocean circulation, acidification, food webs, ecosystem structures, and weather;
  • How the mixing of water, heat and energy affect plankton growth and distribution, and the transport of carbon to the deep ocean;
  • The role of coastal margins in the global carbon cycles and the dynamics of episodic events including hypoxia, harmful algal blooms and El Niño/La Niña;
  • The role of the ocean crust in carbon cycling, heat exchange, and the formation of methane gas and hydrates, as well as the role hydrothermal vents play in ocean chemistry (including acidification) and the unique biological communities associated with them;
  • Tectonic plate dynamics, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides and tsunamis.

OSU scientists say the episodic nature of field expedition research will be augmented by a transformative 24/7 capability that will give researchers greater insights into climate change and ocean health, said Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“We’ve tried to understand the ocean by conducting research for a couple of weeks at a time under different conditions in different locations,” Abbott said. “That’s like trying to understand the weather by going outside every July 10 and drawing grand conclusions. Our knowledge and understand will grow exponentially.”

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, who chairs the Oregon Coastal Caucus, said the announcement of the Ocean Observatories Initiative builds on the research strengths of OSU and its partners in marine sciences.

“The Coastal Caucus is looking forward to the scientific information OSU will generate with this project,” Johnson said. “With the state investments we made last session to conduct ocean floor mapping, our help with the recruitment of the NOAA fleet, and our support for other marine research, it is clear that we are well on the way to achieving a critical mass in oceanic sciences, thanks to the combined effort of the legislature, the governor and the federal government.”