UW News

September 2, 2009

Fact sheet: UW receives largest-ever federal award to construct ocean observatory off the Pacific Northwest

News and Information

Note: This fact sheet provides additional information about the Regional Scale Nodes project that is receiving money from the National Science Foundation through the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. Read an overview of components of the Ocean Observatories Initiative in the release with this fact sheet.

  • Today’s announcement of approximately $385 million over 5½ years in funding for the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative is the culmination of a two-decade quest to transform the manner in which science in ocean basins can be conducted.
  • The University of Washington is slated to receive approximately $126 million during 5½ years to construct the Regional Scale Nodes component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative. This is the largest award of federal funds the UW has ever had over a 5½-year period.
  • Nearly $106 million of first-year funds for the Ocean Observatories Initiative are coming from federal stimulus dollars, of which the UW will receive approximately $35 million to begin installing nearly 500 miles (800 kilometers) of fiber-optic and power cable and seven science nodes on the seafloor off the Pacific Northwest. By autumn 2010 approximately 30 UW staff will be working on the Regional Scale Nodes.
  • According to John Delaney, UW professor of oceanography and director of the Regional Scale Nodes program, “The Ocean Observatories Initiative will enable entirely novel forms of interactive human telepresence throughout much of the global ocean. The scientific challenges and innovative technological approaches will open opportunities for enhanced scientific discovery and cutting-edge educational programs. Extending the full power of the Internet to planned deep-ocean networks of underwater robots, instruments and sensors will dramatically improve human understanding of the oceans, Earth’s planetary-scale life support system. One of the primary goals is to more fully explore natural events in the oceans that influence climate change.”
  • The Ocean Observatories Initiative is managed and coordinated by a project office at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C.
  • “The UW is a long-time leader in new approaches to ocean observing,” says Delaney, “The UW-operated Regional Scale Nodes cable network will provide unprecedented levels of electrical power (tens of kilowatts) and communications bandwidth (tens of gigabits per second) to instruments on the seafloor and in the waters of the Northeast Pacific Ocean. The system is designed to have a 25-year lifespan and research will address the societal benefits of understanding big earthquakes and volcanic activity associated with the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, one of the Earth’s dozen or so major tectonic plates. The natural phenomena in the area — major ocean currents, active earthquake zones, creation of new seafloor, rich environments of plants and animals — are representative of those that occur throughout the world’s oceans.”
  • One of the unique aspects of the UW portion of the Ocean Observatories Initiative is the innovation of submarine electro-optical cables for power and real-time, two-way communication with many hundreds of sensors offshore.
  • Science nodes installed on the cable become, in essence, electrical outlets and Internet connections in the oceans for many scientists to plug into for pursuit of their discovery-oriented research or educational activities. Instruments, moorings, and robots plugged into the nodes will draw power, transmit data to shore and receive instructions from operators on land almost instantaneously. Scientists and engineers from the UW Applied Physics Laboratory and the School of Oceanography are collaborating closely to develop, adapt and integrate instrument packages and sensors for the cabled system.
  • Via the Internet, educators, students and the general public will be able to join scientists as they explore the ocean and pursue data-intensive studies using, for example, real-time high-definition video of underwater volcanic activity.
  • The cabled observatory approach will give scientists new ways to study the processes that influence global climate, store human-generated fossil fuel carbon, cause ocean acidification, support major fish stocks and threaten coastlines with storms, tsunamis and harmful algal blooms.
  • The Regional Scales Nodes website is at www.interactiveoceans.washington.edu.
  • The Regional Scale Nodes program was formerly known as NEPTUNE. Canada was an early partner in the NEPTUNE effort and is building a complementary cabled network known as NEPTUNE Canada that will be located on the northern end of the Juan de Fuca plate and will be operated by the University of Victoria. Together the UW-operated and Canadian systems will be unrivaled for real-time ocean research in the world, Delaney says. A number of other countries around the world are planning to build similar cabled ocean observatories.
  • “Ships, satellites and submarine dives, with their inherent limitations of temporal and spatial coverage, have been the mainstays of oceanographic research for the past 50 years. But the oceans are highly complex. Understanding them requires a new kind of remote, interactive access to ocean processes and instruments on a 24/7/365 basis for decades. Cabled observatories offer a revolutionary approach to studying the oceans by allowing a vastly enhanced instrumental presence throughout entire volumes of the complex, turbulent system comprising oceans and atmosphere. This enhanced ability is crucial, because the oceans are essentially the ‘engine’ driving weather and climate systems that affect everyone on Earth. Better understanding of the oceans will be crucial to anticipating changes in the habitability of our planet,” Delaney says.
  • The initial system will have two cable “legs” on the Juan de Fuca plate, with the potential to expand substantially in the future. Currently, a 160-mile (260-kilometer) cable segment from a shore facility in Oregon will extend to a site known as Hydrate Ridge to allow detailed studies of the icy methane hydrate deposits that collect along the continental margin where the Juan de Fuca plate plunges beneath North America. Many developed nations have major research efforts focused on understanding and learning to use these energy-rich deposits of methane hydrate, Delaney says. The other cabled segment, 320-miles (520-kilometers) long, will reach the west side of the Juan de Fuca Plate at Axial Volcano. At this site scientists will observe and interact with a complex suite of volcanic phenomena that represent many systems throughout the world’s oceans: an active seafloor volcano, underwater eruptions, and hydrothermal processes that support exotic life forms, perhaps similar to what may be found on other planets.
  • “The UW is pleased to have played a seminal role in helping to establish this exciting program. I look forward to the day when this network, which has the potential to transform the way we educate future generations of scientists, will begin sending high-definition video and other data from the oceans into laboratories, classrooms, science centers and even living rooms via the Internet,” says UW President Mark Emmert.
  • To ensure an expeditious start on the construction phase of the cable program, the UW already is in final contract negotiations with a vendor for construction and installation of the main cable, science nodes and some shore components.
  • Communications within the new cabled system will begin operations at a rate of 10 gigabits per second, enough bandwidth to transmit live high-definition and possibly stereo video from remote, inaccessible locations throughout the offshore region. Future upgrades doubling this rate are part of the design for the longer term.
  • Negotiations are under way to establish a shore station where the cable comes ashore near Pacific City, Ore.
  • The UW-led cabled component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative will be conducted in conjunction with several other institutions, including Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Oregon State University. One of the other Ocean Observatories Initiative components, Global Scale Nodes, will consist of four moorings, one each in the Pacific near the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Southern Pacific near Chile, the Atlantic near Greenland and the Atlantic off Argentina. The other major field component, Coastal Scale Nodes, will employ moorings and underwater mobile robots off the U.S. east coast near Cape Cod and off Washington and Oregon to study a wide range of coastal processes. Two of the coastal moorings in Oregon waters will take advantage of the cable’s higher bandwidth and power capabilities by connecting to the subsea network system.
  • The initiative also is funding the University of California, San Diego, to implement a cyberinfrastructure component to manage the network’s data distribution and access.


For more information:
Delaney, principal investigator, 206-619-6472,  jdelaney@u.washington.edu

Deborah Kelley, project scientist, 206-685-9556, dskelley@u.washington.edu

Pete Barletto, project manager, 206-221-6883, barletto@u.washington.edu

Mike Kelly, assistant project manager, 206-685-4946, mgkelly@u.washington.edu

Gary Harkins, chief engineer, 206 543-1302, harkins@apl.washington.edu

Nancy Penrose, communications coordinator, 206-221-5781, penrose@ocean.washington.edu

WHOI release about coastal/global components: http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=7545&tid=282&cid=59310&ct=162

OSU release about coastal component: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2009/sep/osu-major-participant-national-initiative-create-global-ocean-observatory-system

UCSD release about cyberinfrastructure: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/general/09-09OOI.asp

Video news release, short sound bites and B-roll available by contacting Sandra Hines, 206-543-2580, shines@u.washington.edu