Wiring the Oceans


By Annie Reisewitz

Imagine an underwater world with flying androids whizzing thousands of feet below and robotic creatures crawling along vast stretches of ocean floor. They hurry themselves into remote docking stations to send back snapshots of the life aquatic and receive details on their next mission before scurrying off on a new deep-sea adventure.

This is not Avatar 2 but the vision of scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and others around the world who are wiring the oceans to create observatories to monitor their vital signs and improve scientific understanding of the ocean and planet.

In an ambitious undertaking, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded the construction of the world’s largest ocean observatory, known as the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI).

“Observatories are the next huge revolution in ocean science,” said Scripps Director Tony Haymet. “By continuously collecting information, we can build a more complete picture of the environmental threats facing the world’s oceans.”


Observatories already exist in Canada, Japan, Europe, and Australia, and others are under construction in China and Korea.  OOI is set to complement these and add its data to theirs, delivering reams of data to scientists, students, and the public. When fully built and implemented, OOI, managed by the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership, will consist of four global, two regional and two coastal-scale nodes that will be commanded from land-based laboratories. The network will measure physical, chemical, geological and biological components of ocean phenomena.

Some will be everyday events that on large scales are hugely influential upon natural systems, but currently not well understood. Some will be phenomena like rising ocean acidification and expanding oxygen-poor ocean dead zones that pose immediate threats to specific ecosystems. OOI will relay all this data almost instantly to scientists through a centralized computer network.

Scripps physical oceanographer Uwe Send will receive a total of $60 million from the NSF for the construction and five-year initial operation phase at four high-latitude sites chosen for the breadth of data they could provide to varied oceanographic disciplines and also to make up for a dearth of data from ocean regions nearer to the poles.  Together with colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Send’s research team will build and maintain four deep-ocean observatory nodes  — two in the Atlantic and two in the Pacific. Each will consist of four moorings and three underwater gliders — which are meant to provide continuous long-term observations of processes and changes representative of the larger surrounding oceanic region.

Scientists will receive data from sensors that monitor oceanographic conditions during El Niño events, watch the ocean absorb CO2, detect abundance of zooplankton and fish, observe the impact of storms, and use gliders to remotely track algal blooms from below the surface.

Sensing the Problem

On the surface, buoys pitch and roll along with the waves. What lies below, however, is a suite of intelligent sensors tethered along several vertical cables and affixed to robotic vehicles that fly along programmable tracks capturing ocean conditions near the surface and at depths of up to 5,000 meters (16,405 feet).

Send has been building observation platforms for use in the California Current.


In December 2009, he deployed a mooring 241 kilometers (150 miles) offshore of Pt. Conception, Calif., with a variety of sensors that monitor ocean currents, pH, CO2, oxygen, and nutrient levels as well as the abundance of biological species such as fish, plankton, and zooplankton. He worked with Scripps scientists Mark Ohman, Andrew Dickson, Todd Martz, and John Hildebrand and with U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers to build a complete mooring system that looks at the environment from a biological, physical and chemical standpoint in an effort to better understand how they effect one another.

“This is the most ambitious system we have ever deployed,” said Send, who is the principal investigator of the OOI global component at Scripps. “It gives us the expertise we need for OOI and serves as a prototype.”


Send’s research team will begin building three of the OOI moorings this fall in their Scripps Seaweed Canyon facility that will be deployed in the Atlantic’s Argentine Basin and are expected to be operational in 2013. One of Send’s moorings will also carry profiling systems that move up and down in the water column, building a profile from the deep ocean to the surface to see changes at various depths.

One of the more complicated instruments being considered for use is a profiling system called SeaCycler that will monitor subsurface waters between 150 meters (492 feet) and the surface. At this depth range, the scientists believe more information is needed to study ocean processes to understand the interplay of physics, chemistry, and biology for the uptake of CO2 that causes ocean acidification or changes in the ecosystem as a whole.

Working with the developers at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and with ODIM Brooke Ocean, Send is hopeful that the 1,814 kilogram (4,000-pound), four-meter (13-foot) -long SeaCycler will show that it can be a candidate to successfully carry out the OOI mission off Argentina. The team will deploy it off the San Diego coast in June 2010 to test its capabilities and to make sure the bulky instrument is manageable when deployed in rough seas.

In total, scientists will initially install 600 sensors and will operate along moorings and on gliders and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to remotely monitor hourly and monthly monitor changes in the ocean.


In November, a team of researchers, including Scripps scientist John Orcutt, tested this virtual world by deploying four gliders and three AUVs in coastal waters off New Jersey and New York. They were commanded remotely using the satellite Earth Observer 1 to measure wave height, currents, temperature, ocean color, and salinity.  The simulation experiment took place in Baltimore at the same time as a severe Nor'easter was battering the seaside with heavy rains and widespread coastal flooding.

As the data came streaming back, the team comprised of ocean scientists and engineers fed the data into four ocean models capable of predicting what the ocean conditions would look like five hours into the storm.

“We learned a lot about that particular weather event,” said Orcutt, a distinguished professor of geophysics at Scripps,  “more than we could have ever learned without this technology.”


Scientists anticipate this type of command and control science operation will be common in the future. The result will be more and better sampling of the oceans in remote areas where ship-based research limits the ability to continuously sample and observe environmental threats.


Information Overload

Managing the information has its challenges. The immense data stream will require new ways to store data for analysis. Orcutt and others view the quest as an opportunity to transform science.

Scripps and California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at the UC San Diego are slated to receive a total of $32 million over the next five years to construct its cyberinfrastructure, which connects all the OOI instruments into a single integrated system.


The backbone of the observatory is the network of computer hardware and software that controls the two-way communications between the instruments and the scientists and the storage and dissemination of the data being collected. The data can now be fed directly into climate models, so scientists can better understand ocean conditions and forecast global climate changes and coastal processes.

Orcutt envisions scientists, students, and the public subscribing to the data much like iTunes podcasts. Data will stream through the Internet, making it open and widely available in near-real-time so users can set up their own personal observatories.  Subscribers can choose the information they want to receive, from occasional to continuous data being collected by a suite of instruments around the world.

Cheryl Peach, science educator at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, is working closely with Orcutt and national science educators to integrate educational goals into the observatory design to make the scientific information accessible, especially to kids used to learning in new ways.

With this in mind, Peach is also spearheading a serious gaming effort to connect kids with OOI science.  

“Kids are more adept at using computers and social networks as learning tools than any generation before them,” said Peach, who refers to kids today as ‘digital natives.’


A prototype Xbox game is in development, in which visitors to Birch Aquarium can share the experience by driving a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) through obstacles along one of Earth’s most inhospitable environments – hydrothermal vents.  If the ROV game is popular among visitors, they plan to create a remotely operated deep-sea gliders game that utilizes real-time information from OOI.

OOI’s initial design is meant to encourage the scientific community to expand its current capacity by developing new sensors and instruments beyond what is possible today.

“We are excited to push our science and engineering capabilities forward,” said Send.  “OOI will teach us a lot of things about what is happening in the oceans.”




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