UW News

September 21, 2023

NSF funds internet-connected ocean observatory through 2028

map of Juan de Fuca plate

This map shows the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate and the UW-operated Regional Cabled Array (red squares). A cable along the seafloor brings power and internet connectivity to instruments that since 2014 have provided continuous observations of the ocean and seafloor.University of Washington

The U.S. National Science Foundation announced Sept. 21 that it is awarding a coalition of academic and oceanographic research organizations a new five-year cooperative agreement to operate and maintain the Ocean Observatories Initiative. The University of Washington, Oregon State University and project lead Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will continue operating the OOI, a science-driven ocean observing network that delivers real-time data from more than 900 instruments to address critical science questions regarding the world’s oceans. The coalition was previously funded in 2018.

Under this new $220 million total investment, each of the three institutions will continue to operate and maintain the portion of the observatory for which it is currently responsible. The award amount for the UW is $52.4 million.

“I am extremely excited about this next five years of operations and the continued opportunities that the Regional Cabled Array will provide for unparalleled environmental data throughout entire ocean depths in some of the most dynamic environments on Earth,” said Deborah Kelley, a UW professor of oceanography and director of the Regional Cabled Array. “Decade-long measurements from more than 150 instruments sampling every second make this a perfect system to captivate users with ‘new eyes’ and AI applications, which will undoubtedly lead to important new discoveries and predictive capabilities.”

People looking at bank of screens

The R/V Thomas G. Thompson’s control room during the 2023 maintenance cruise. Screens show engineers different views of the remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that visits deep-ocean sites to repair or swap out instruments.Mitch Elend/University of Washington

UW operates what’s now known as the Regional Cabled Array, an underwater observatory  on the seafloor of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate — a small tectonic plate off Newport, Oregon, that’s home to an active underwater volcano and deep-ocean life — at 1 to almost 2 miles depth. The array also has instruments that move up and down to monitor properties in the ocean above. More than 500 miles (900 kilometers) of submarine fiber-optic cable provide power, real-time data transmission and live, two-way communication between the observatory and computers back on shore.

The Regional Cabled Array is the largest component of the full OOI network that collects and shares measurements from more than 900 instruments on the seafloor and on moored and free-swimming robotic platforms. The instruments are maintained with regular, ship-based expeditions to the equipment sites. All data are freely available to users worldwide, including members of the scientific community, policy experts, decision-makers, educators and the public.

“We’re so pleased to have the opportunity to continue providing streaming, real-time ocean data for all to use as part of the OOI,” said Maya Tolstoy, the Maggie Walker Dean of the UW College of the Environment. “This support will allow the global research community to conduct multi-faceted, cutting-edge science for years to come, which is vital to understanding and protecting our oceans.”

Oregon State University will continue to operate the Endurance Array in the coastal waters near Oregon. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which is based in Massachusetts, will operate projects outside the Pacific Northwest region, inluding the Pioneer Array off the North Carolina coast, subject to environmental permitting, and two global arrays, off the southern tip of Greenland and at a long-term ocean observing station in the Gulf of Alaska.

“OOI has proven to be an exceedingly valuable source of information about the ocean. Its freely available data are contributing to better understanding of ocean processes and how the ocean is changing,” said NSF Program Officer for OOI George Voulgaris.  “Scientists are using OOI data as the source of cutting-edge scientific discoveries — everything from getting close to predicting underwater volcanic eruptions to changing ocean circulation patterns that have real life implications for weather and fishing patterns.

“OOI data also are serving as inspiration for students in the classroom, who are excited about learning about the ocean with access to real-time ocean data. We at NSF are proud of our continued investment in making these data available.”

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will continue to lead operations and management of OOI through 2028, and OSU will continue to house and operate the data center that ingests and delivers all OOI data.

For more information about the Regional Cabled Array, contact Kelley at dskelley@uw.edu.

Adapted from a press release from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.