UW Today

This is an archived article.

May 15, 2007

University of Washington to develop specifications for large ocean observatory off coast of Washington and Oregon

News and Information


  • The University of Washington has been allocated $2.2 million for a planning phase to develop detailed engineering specifications for a cabled underwater research facility to be built off the coast of Washington and Oregon, and associated with the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The facility will extend continuous high-bandwidth (tens of Gigabits/second) and power (tens of kilowatts) to a network of instruments widely distributed across, above and below the seafloor.

  • This underwater research facility will be the world’s first ocean observatory to span a tectonic plate. It will provide a constant stream of data in real time from throughout the water, on the seafloor and below the seafloor associated with the Juan de Fuca plate.

  • The facility could help unlock secrets about the ocean’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases and how seafloor stresses cause earthquakes and tsunamis along Pacific coastlines. Investigations could lead to powerful new medicines derived from microbes and animals that thrive in the extreme environments of the region’s underwater volcanoes. Data collected and transmitted in real time by the network will help improve weather forecasting and management of valuable fish stocks such as salmon.

  • The underwater research facility will initially have four sites, or nodes, connected by more than 850 miles of cable for power and communications that will send data, video, still imagery and instructions to and from shore nearly instantly, via the Internet. Instruments on the seafloor or on moorings tethered to the seafloor will be connected to the nodes. Rather than going to sea in ships and submersibles, scientists using the network will work from land-based computers and laboratories to analyze changes in the oceans and to send instructions to undersea robotic vehicles plugged into the network. See www.ooi.washington.edu.

  • Incorporating the vision of the NEPTUNE (North East Pacific Time-integrated Undersea Networked Experiments) Project, an undersea research facility on the Juan de Fuca plate has been envisioned and discussed for one and a half decades by UW oceanographer John Delaney, now director, principal investigator and chief scientist of the UW observatory program. The idea has been covered by media outlets such as the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oregonian, Los Angeles Times, Wired magazine and Science magazine.

  • A global community of users will have unprecedented interactive access to the oceans. Educators, students and the general public will be welcome to “join” scientists as they explore the ocean, with access to video and data via the Internet, similar to the live broadcasts from the seafloor available in 2005 during the VISIONS ’05 expedition. See www.visions05.washington.edu and watch one of the broadcasts at http://www.uwtv.org/programs/displayevent.aspx?rID=4157.

  • With the planning money, the UW will develop detailed engineering specifications, engage interested parties and seek permits. If the needed approvals and permits are obtained, the underwater research facility would be in line to receive $130 million of National Science Foundation money, through the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, over six years for construction.

  • The entire surface of the Earth is covered with tectonic plates. Movement of these plates controls the location of continents, volcanoes, mountain ranges, earthquakes, metal deposits and many energy deposits. Understanding plate dynamics is essential to optimizing benefits and mitigating the risks of living on Earth.

  • The Juan de Fuca plate, one of the Earth’s dozen or so major tectonic plates, was chosen because of its relatively small size and its proximity to North America. The many natural processes that occur in proximity to the plate — major ocean currents, active earthquake zones, creation of new seafloor, rich environments of marine plants and animals — are representative of those that occur throughout the world’s oceans. Parts of the plate experience earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and are dotted with eerie spires and chimneys venting water as hot as 700 degrees F. The plate includes some of the most geologically and biologically active sites in the global network of mid-ocean ridges and hosts some of the most extreme environments on Earth. See www.neptune.washington.edu.

  • A complementary Canadian program, managed by the University of Victoria, is building a cabled network off British Columbia on the Canadian portion of the Juan de Fuca plate. See: http://www.neptunecanada.ca/

  • The UW’s collaborators in the underwater research facility will include researchers at the University of Oregon (Douglas Toomey), Oregon State University (Jack Barth), Arizona State University (Deirdre Meldrum), University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (John Orcutt), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Alan Chave) and many others.

  • The cabled regional nodes developed by UW are part of a larger undersea facility coordinated by the Joint Oceanographic Institutions with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative. The Joint Oceanographic Institutions is a consortium of 31 oceanographic research institutions that serves the U.S. scientific community through management of large-scale, global research programs in the fields of marine geology, geophysics and oceanography. The OOI will construct a networked infrastructure of science-driven sensor systems to measure the physical, chemical, geological and biological variables in the ocean and seafloor. The OOI will provide continuous, interactive access to the ocean for the oceanographic research and education communities. The OOI’s observatory elements will address science questions on coastal, regional, and global scales, linked by a common instrument, infrastructure and information management system.

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For more information:
John Delaney, UW oceanographer, (206) 543-5059, jdelaney@u.washington.edu
Deborah Kelley, UW oceanographer, (206) 685-9556, dskelley@u.washington.edu  

Contacts at other institutions:
University of Oregon, Douglas Toomey, (541) 346-5576, drt@uoregon.edu
Oregon State University, Jack Barth, (541) 737 1607, barth@coas.oregonstate.edu
Arizon State University, Deirdre Meldrum, (480) 965-2147, deirdre.meldrum@asu.edu
UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, John Orcutt, (858) 822-6378, jorcutt@ucsd.edu
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Alan Chave, (508) 289 2833, achave@whoi.edu