World's Largest Underwater Observatory Will Enable Real-Time Interactive Ocean Study

ocean floor corals photo
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A system of high-tech sensors and fiber optic cables is being set up in the northeast Pacific Ocean that will enable real-time monitoring and data gathering from the ocean floor, and when completed, will become the world's largest underwater observatory.

Many aspects of the ocean are incredibly difficult to study with traditional methods, as human researchers are somewhat limited in their reach. Going to sea in a ship to study at specific locations can work for some research, and satellite and other monitoring equipment can work for others, but for some locations, such as the ocean floor near an active underwater volcano, more elaborate methods are required.

The Regional Cabled Observatory initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, is one project that can bring ocean studies into the 21st century, as it will gather and stream data and realtime video from 12 sensors under the ocean, informing both scientists and the general public.

The sensors will be monitoring pressure, oxygen levels, deep sea currents, seismic activity, underwater audio, and more, at key ocean floor and water column locations hundreds of miles off of the northwest coast of the U.S.. The first three sites are at Hydrate Ridge (methane seeps location), Axial Seamount (active volcano), and the Endurace Array Newport Line (studying the coastal upwelling region), and will be networked together with a high power and bandwidth cabling system.

The fiber optic cables will form, in effect, an ocean internet, and are part of the NSF Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), which is a planned 900 km long networked infrastructure under the ocean for both telecommunications and power needs.

Cabled Component of the NSF Ocean Observatories Initiative

© University of Washington

"The fiber-optic cables of the Regional Scale Nodes, the cabled component of the NSF Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), will carry electrical power (up to 200 kW) and telecommunications bandwidth (up to 240 Gbits/sec) into the oceans to serve the needs of science, education, and humanity at large. With design and construction led by the University of Washington, the 900 kilometers of OOI cable will create a large-aperture natural laboratory for conducting a wide range of long-term and innovative experiments within the ocean volume using real-time control over the entire cabled system." - NSF

Once in place and operating sometime this summer, the underwater monitoring devices could let the public watch sea life in places inaccessible to most people, or view an underwater volcanic eruption in realtime, as well as give scientists, students, educators, and policymakers better data on the state of the ocean at these sites.

This cabled observatory project could rapidly advance marine studies, as it "is designed to funnel a fire hose of open source, real time data to the internet, 24/7", and could lead to potential discoveries or collaboration between many different disciplines in the study of the ocean.

Find out more at Interactive Oceans at the University of Washington.