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Advances and challenges in ocean sciences

February 13, 1998

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Avancement of Science (AAAS), on February 15, 1998, President Marcia McNutt participated in the session entitled "Advances and Challenges in Ocean Sciences." The abstract of her presentation follows.

Ocean observatories: 
Present effort and future prospects

Marcia McNutt
 Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

The vast majority of ocean research to date has involved transient occupation of the oceans during research expeditions or short-term instrument deployments. While much exciting science has been accomplished with this strategy, the solution to a whole host of important scientific problems requires the ability to maintain a long-term presence in the sea. By establishing ocean observatories, we can capture the record of infrequent events as they happen and continuously monitor properties that change rapidly with respect to the return time of an oceanographic vessel.

Maintaining a long-term scientific presence in the oceans is a challenge akin to space exploration, although in most ways even more daunting and even more vital to mankind's survival. Physical, chemical, and biological agents are continually trying to destroy or incapacitate instrument packages. Electromagnetic waves for communication and sunlight for energy cannot be used except in the uppermost portion of the water column. Vandalism by passing ships is not uncommon, and moorings themselves become microhabitats for marine organisms, thus changing the parameters of the experiment. Seafloor observatories, in particular, are difficult to install and service. Researchers frequently drown in the sheer volume of their own data. The financial resources needed to surmount the technical challenges, deploy observatories, maintain them in any great number, and fully understand the data exceed what is available to an individual PI, an institution, and perhaps even a nation. But if we do not meet this challenge, it will be difficult to obtain the scientific knowledge needed to maintain the health of the ocean environment and optimize the use of its resources for the benefit of society.

Many of the technical difficulties cited above have been overcome. We can and do deploy moorings and ocean floor instrument packages for months to a year at a time using manned and unmanned submersibles, advanced materials, low-power instrumentation, long-life batteries, and cable or satellite communications. Therefore, now is a good time to mount a major initiative in ocean observatories, using them to overcome the temporal aliasing and lack of resolution that plague most marine data sets. The observatories should be used not only in passive mode to monitor changes in the ocean environment, but also in active mode to perform controlled experiments. Elements of the observatories should be modular so as to allow ingenuity while maintaining compatibility, low cost so as to encourage proliferation, and easily maintained. The data should be in the public domain and readily downloaded from the Internet anywhere in the world.

Contact: Debbie Meyer, Communications Coordinator