Plumbing depths of earth's life support

Fri, Dec 16, 2011, 00:00

MARINE SCIENCE:JOHN DELANEY’S feelings about the ocean run deep. Soft spoken and contemplative, the US oceanographer is a driving force behind an ambitious initiative to collect real-time information from the seas. He takes the big picture of the ocean seriously, and stresses the urgency of understanding what he terms the life support system of the planet.

“The world’s population is growing,” says Delaney, a professor in the school of oceanography at the University of Washington, Seattle. “They are not going to go to Beverly Hills or the Riviera, they are going to the places where it is hard to feed people. These are issues that cannot be solved by studying the ocean, but which may be addressed by understanding the life support system for the whole planet. We don’t understand the life support system, so how can we manage it?”

Getting a handle on the planetary ocean and its vast complexity is something that needs broader co-operation, according to Delaney, who recently spoke at a symposium on Our Environmental Economy hosted in Dublin City University by the Marine and Environmental Sensing Technology Hub (Mestech).

Delaney wryly points out that land-based scientists paint oceans blue on their maps while oceanographers paint the continents black on theirs, but in the real world the black and blue are part of an overall system.

He explains that, while there have been strides in understanding the more spatial aspects of the ocean, the vast complexity of the temporal changes and the impacts of how processes interrelate mostly still have to be plumbed.

Delaney became hooked on oceanography in 1978 during his first foray to sea on a scientific mission, and over time he has developed the idea of an undersea observatory powered by cable that would use sensors and robots to let you capture information from the depths in real time.

“I am excited about the potential of being there without being there,” he says.

That dream is now becoming a reality through the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a project funded by the US National Science Foundation. It is constructing a series of undersea observatories dotted around North and South America to gather data from the ocean for decades to come. “The vision is to launch an era of scientific discovery and understanding across ocean basins,” says Delaney.

He is directing an arm of the initiative in creating an undersea observatory that uses submarine cables both for the power to capture large amounts of data and for the communications infrastructure to get the enormous streams of real-time information back to scientists.

The approach has its advantages over satellites, which have their limits because they can only see upper surface, and ships, which can only be in one place at one time, as Delaney points out.

But deploying a network of high-powered and well connected robot-sensors in the ocean isn’t like simply installing a CCTV camera you might use to watch for intruders, he says. “This is a telepresence, distributed through the volume of the ocean. We have finally within our grasp the ability to do science over volumes that are changing.”

Soon to be rigged out is the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate and ridge off the northwestern coast of the US and part of Canada. It’s an appropriate point for dipping a toe into the ocean’s complexity, says Delaney. “It would be pretty hard for us to study all places on the planet all the time, so we chose this one because it is pocket-sized, accessible and we already know a bit about it,” he says.

Sensors will pick up information from the upper layers and the deeper waters, right down to the seabed, and the system should be able to predict and divert resources to an imminent event such as an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption that may spew microbes up into the water.

One of the most jaw-dropping potential capabilities Delaney describes is a system that could anticipate such an eruption and then go in and sample the plume. An autonomous vehicle could then collect sampled material at the sea surface and bring it back to dry land for analysis – or future technology could even support analysing the genetic information of microbes on the spot and sending the data back straight away.

The capabilities to set up and run such systems have largely come from investments outside oceanography, says Delaney, and the power to capture and model marine data is being driven by advances in sensor, imaging and computing technology.

The challenge now is to bring it together in a way that lets researchers work on the pooled data together, to get their collective minds around the complexity of marine systems.

“We can have many different kinds of scientists, all specialists in their own fields, working in volumes offshore – such as the observatories – so that all their results are instantly captured and archived and available,” says Delaney.

“That means they don’t have to become generalists – they can be specialists, but all the data is archived and available for others to sift through it.”

Images and information from the observatories could also be used in education, and we could one day be watching underwater volcanic eruptions on our phones. And the picture looks set to get bigger still: Delaney wants the network to extend further around the globe.

“The planetary ocean is a global system that requires international co-operation,” he says. “I have been to 14 different countries recently. Every one of them wants to build something like this in their territory and maybe expanded further offshore – some of the wealthier nations could even take on an entire ocean basin.” He is confident of engaging researchers with the project, which he hopes will run for decades.

“It’s hard for me to believe we will have this capability and I’m confident we’ll have people beating a path to the door to use the next-generation capability,” he says.

But looking again to the bigger picture of the oceans – and problems such as acidification and climate change – he has concerns about whether the world is on board. “I am mainly worried about the global society that doesn’t quite get how important the oceans are,” says Delaney. “Are we going to understand the ocean soon enough, so we can avoid the pitfalls of a tipping point phenomenon that we don’t know about and can’t anticipate – or that we can anticipate but can’t avoid because we have so much momentum?”

As the world’s population grows, we are going to have to start figuring out how to better understand, protect and harness the stuff that covers more than two-thirds of the planet, Delaney says. “The ocean is a powerful system and we have to learn how to use it,” he adds, stressing the need for many minds to grasp the issues. “I think there is huge potential here, but we need everything from poets to physicists to solve the kinds of problems we face.”