CORVALLIS - Scientists are creating a series of ocean observatories off the West Coast of the United States and Canada, employing networks of sensors on the seafloor and in the ocean that will provide real-time data with interactive capability - a development that will open the doors for a new era in oceanographic research.
Creating such an interconnected system - which must rely on optical networks, wireless transmission and computer grid technology - is a considerable challenge, especially considering the enormous amounts of data that will constantly be streaming ashore.
Oregon State University has received a grant to begin developing the software that will help make that system work - and become accessible to scientists and educators from around the world.
On Thursday, the National Science Foundation announced a four-year, $3.9 million grant to the University of Washington, the University of California-San Diego, and several partner institutions - including OSU - to build the Laboratory for the Ocean Observatory Knowledge Integration Grid, or LOOKING.
"The easiest way to visualize the project is to compare it to a huge telescope looking into the ocean," said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, who will lead Oregon State's portion of the project. "You have to be able to adapt the system to measure biological, physical or chemical processes in real time.
"That will enable scientists to constantly monitor the ocean off our coast," Abbott added, "and when we notice an unusual situation - like an underwater volcanic eruption, or a hypoxic event - we can deploy sensors, such as underwater robots, to study the phenomenon first-hand."
The LOOKING project is part of NSF's growing focus on ocean observation. In 2001, the federal agency began its Ocean Observatories Initiative and the second five-year phase of that effort, beginning in 2006, will be funded through a proposed $245 million appropriation. The series of observatories will be managed and operated by ORION, the Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks program. Jack Barth, an OSU professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences, is on the ORION steering committee.
Several new observatories are planned during the next few years, including the North East Pacific Time-series Undersea Networked Experiments observatory off the coast of Oregon and Washington. NEPTUNE, the prototype for the multi-faceted network of sensor arrays, should be operational in 2007.
"The first step is to put sensors on the Juan de Fuca plate and begin observing sea vents and other seafloor phenomena," Abbott said. "That data will be transmitted through fiber optic cables formerly used by telephone companies. Here at OSU, we'll be creating the software to help make these data accessible and useable by a wide range of researchers and educators."