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What lies beneath?

Undersea observatories could unlock secrets about everything from fisheries to climate shifts.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 30, 2003


Roger Stokey throttles back on the twin Evinrudes that have sent the pontoon boat and its four occupants skimming out of Woods Hole harbor. The bow gently settles into the water, allowing Greg Packard to take a seat in front of a small TV monitor.

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"Is this the only channel we get?" Mr. Packard asks with mock dismay.

"It's all Remus, all day," Mr. Stokey replies.

Remus, a torpedo-shaped underwater vehicle, is out on maneuvers this afternoon. The researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) here on Cape Cod are trying to get this mechanical mini-Shamu to glide through an underwater hoop, using sonar. Their ultimate goal: a self-docking robotic explorer.

The trial represents one small step toward a new approach to teasing secrets out of the briny deep. Scientists worldwide are laying plans to knit together existing observatories and build new ones in an unprecedented effort to uncover the intricate facets of one of the solar system's least understood realms - Earth's oceans.

Using the latest in remote sensing, power delivery, robotics, and telecommunications technologies, marine scientists are pushing to make long-term measurements of everything from water chemistry, currents, and sea-floor hydrothermal activity to the rise and fall of plankton populations.

The potential payoffs are significant: much improved weather and climate forecasts, more effective ways to manage coastal ecosystems, sustainable fisheries, and volcano and earthquake data that could mitigate related disasters.

Even space exploration could benefit. Jupiter's moon Europa is thought to host an ocean beneath a surface layer of ice. Marine observatories on Earth could act as test beds for the robotic vehicles and suites of sensors needed to study Europa's ocean and search for possible hydrothermal activity and, perhaps, life.

By the standards of "big" science, the price is small: a few billion dollars. That would amount to a small fraction of the cost of the International Space Station or a new high-energy particle accelerator.

Momentum for a global network of ocean observatories has been building for years, as the number of disparate ocean observing systems have grown. But 2003 appears to mark a turning point.

In February, members of the European Union agreed to develop a sea-floor observatory network that could stretch from the Arctic through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Black Sea. The number and locations of the observatories are still under discussion.

Meanwhile, the United States is moving forward with two major federally funded marine-observatory initiatives.

Their architects expect the efforts to yield breakthroughs in basic ocean science as well as in techniques for forecasting a range of marine conditions - from the effects of cold water welling up on coastlines to harmful algae blooms and beach erosion.

Sea change

The growing interest in using fixed instruments to look at the same patch of ocean for a long period of time reflects a sea change in the questions marine scientists are trying to answer, according to Robert Detrick, a marine geophysicist at WHOI.

For years, ocean expeditions tended to focus on measuring conditions or features at the handful of places that researchers found interesting.

"Now, people are pushing to understand change in the ocean" and its interplay with changes in climate and marine ecosystems, Dr. Detrick says.