What lies beneath?
Undersea observatories could unlock secrets about everything from fisheries to climate shifts.
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Relying solely on ship expeditions also can rule out the chance to study some of these changes at their most interesting turning points, adds colleague Margaret Tivey.Skip to next paragraph
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"The ship has to go during certain weather windows. The ship can't go when the weather's poor. Now, if you're trying to find out about beach erosion or shelf erosion, when do you think [these] things happen?" she asks.
With observatory sensors on the sea floor and along buoy mooring lines, however, it's possible to watch foul-weather processes unfold as they happen from the safety of a warm, dry office.
Yet for all the growing interest in ocean observatories worldwide and an ever- increasing emphasis on international cooperation, the US programs still represent what many agree are the most ambitious approaches yet proposed.
As part of a broad international observing effort, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) aims to establish a set of coastal observing systems in the US that would monitor near-shore conditions on unprecedented scale. They would draw on data gathered by a range of private, government, and university installations.
The program could cost $500 million and would bring the government's total investment in what he terms "operational" ocean observatories to between $1.25 billion and $1.5 billion. Operational observatories, as opposed to research sites, would provide steady streams of data to everyone from weather forecasters to shippers.
And that could lead to billions of dollars in additional economic activity, says Richard Spinrad, associate administrator for NOAA's National Ocean Service. For example: Conditions such as temperature and salinity affect water's density and thus a ship's buoyancy.
"We're talking about huge vessels," Dr. Spinrad says. So if water conditions cause a ship carrying cars to sink 1 inch too close to the bottom of a harbor, that could mean $3 million worth of cars unable to be brought into port. Better forecasts could head off such problems.
One example of such an operational observatory is the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, dubbed GOMOOS, Spinrad says. Set up as a prototype, GOMOOS is beginning its third year of operation, according to Neal Pettigrew, a University of Maine oceanographer and chief scientist for GOMOOS.
Dr. Pettigrew and his colleagues have worked to pioneer buoy designs, computer-modeling techniques, and protocols and standards for data and instruments that could be incorporated into a national ocean-observing system.
The system combines high-tech buoys and other instruments with coastal radar capable of tracking waves and ocean currents out to 120 miles offshore.
Pettigrew says the user base for the information GOMOOS gathers is growing and includes Coast Guard search-and- rescue teams, harbor pilots, fishermen, and even the National Weather Service, which taps meteorological data as well as visibility and wave information that the GOMOOS buoys gather.
Preliminary estimates of the benefits from the observatory peg its value at $30 million, compared with a $6 million investment to establish GOMOOS, according to a study by researchers at WHOI's Center for Marine Policy.
"A five-to-one return? That sounds like a pretty good investment to me," says NOAA's Spinrad. "If that same proportion holds nationally, we'd reap a $10 billion gain for our $2 billion investment."