Saturday, September 15, 2007

Scientists to build global network of underwater laboratories

International Herald Tribune, via the Boston Globe: From global warming to energy security, some of the biggest challenges facing our species involve processes taking place in the oceans. So it might come as a surprise that even oceanographers say we know virtually nothing about the giant saltwater ecosystem that covers so much of the earth.

"We know less about the oceans than about other planets in our solar system," said Steve Bohlen, president of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, a nonprofit research consortium. But the three-quarters of the earth made up by oceans "drives our weather, provides 15 percent of protein worldwide that people eat and poses a variety of natural hazards."

…[O]ver the next five years, scientists from around the world will design and build a global network of underwater laboratories, including one in the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Massachusetts, that capitalizes on advances in satellite, Internet and sound wave technology. In an effort that scientists involved in the project liken to the race to put a man on the moon, the Ocean Observatories Initiative will for the first time give scientists a permanent virtual presence in the sea. "The information revolution is coming to the oceans," said Robert Detrick, vice president of marine operations for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

The initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation and administered by the Joint Oceanographic Institutions. While its goals are as broad as those that gave rise to the space program, scientists hope the understanding they gain of how the ocean functions and interacts with humans and the atmosphere will lead to improvements in managing fisheries and responding to natural disasters. The ability to conduct ongoing measurements is also crucial for scientists trying to sort out whether changes in weather patterns are due to global warming or normal seasonal variation.

Woods Hole last month won a $97.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build the East Coast observatory, where tiny sensors, gliders and torpedo-like robotic vehicles called Remus will roam up and down in yo-yo-like loops, measuring water circulation, temperature and other properties….

…While much of the force behind the initiative stems from concern about global warming, the collapse of fisheries, blooms of dangerous algae that contaminate seafood and advances in deep-sea oil drilling have also led to increased interest in the oceans, Bohlen said.

Data from the observatories could help scientists predict problems in the ocean, instead of just react to them, said Berrien Moore III, director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at the University of New Hampshire.

Moore said the initiative was a new phase in oceanography, one in which researchers would increasingly engage with a public hungry for information on environmental issues.

"I believe there is now a growing understanding that we need to make a commitment both to the oceans and to the atmosphere and terrestrial systems if we're going to be proper stewards of the planet," Moore said.

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