Ocean ‘observatories’

Kendra Daly of the University of South Florida is working to build a network of observatories to examine one of the solar system’s most mysterious planets: Earth.

She leads an ambitious $309-million effort, financed by Congress through the National Science Foundation and based in Washington D.C., to create “ocean observatories.”

The idea is to place sophisticated scientific equipment in deep oceans and coastal waters, so scientists can monitor underwater environments.

Just as astronomers use telescopes to study distant worlds, and meteorologists use instruments to check on weather around Earth, marine scientists want a better system for continuously monitoring conditions beneath 70 percent of this planet’s surface.

This, Daly said, is an important way of learning more about the health of the planet – and keeping track of it in the future.

“The critical message is the quality of life on Earth depends on our ability to understand the oceans,” Daly said.

Compare the situation to the weather, which millions of people across the United States can monitor themselves with outdoor thermometers or wind gauges. Checking the temperature a mile under water is a different kind of problem.

Daly said that in spite of advances in marine science, there’s still plenty that scientists don’t know. By using remote-controlled devices to constantly check on such factors as water temperatures, currents and salinity, scientists would begin to learn more about different ecosystems underwater, how they interact with each other and how they might be changing.

This information, she said, is not only interesting but also critically important. “Our environment is changing around us from that which we grew up in,” she said.

Because oceans cover two-thirds of the Earth and control rainfall even over inland areas, carefully monitoring the oceans could give scientists a better understanding of global climate issues as well.

Daly, 55, is on leave from her job as a USF professor. She works in Washington, D.C., to head the effort, but frequently returns home to St. Petersburg, and still confers with students in the College of Marine Science. She said she’s excited about her role because oceans are “this last vast frontier on Earth that we don’t know well.”

The project she directs is called ORION, for Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks. She is working with many scientists who are developing proposals for several projects that her office would like to see completed by 2013:

– A “global observatory” with scientific instruments set on the ocean floor, as much as two miles beneath the surface. Long mooring lines and a fiber-optic cable would snake all the way up to a buoy on the surface, which could transmit data via satellite.

– Coastal observatories, to monitor the physical and chemical changes in a region called the Mid-Atlantic Bight, and also off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. The system would include monitoring devices on the sea floor, and also remote-controlled vehicles that could be sent from spot to spot for additional scientific testing.

– A “regional cabled observatory,” to monitor earthquake activity on the Juan de Fuca plate, also off the Pacific Northwest coast.

Daly said all this work “is designed to do what the National Science Foundation does best, and that’s cutting-edge research.”

But that research will be put to practical use, said John H. Dunnigan, assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the National Weather Services and National Marine Fisheries Service.

“What they’re doing basically is laying the foundation and answering the questions that we need in order to build an operational system,” he said.

Source sptimes.com