Oregon State University will receive about $14 million over the next five years to help create a global ocean observing network - the Ocean Observatories Initiative.
OSU will operate and develop three observatory sites off Newport and three sites off Grays Harbor, Wash., as part of the $386.4 million project.
The university will deploy a system of surface moorings, seafloor platforms and undersea gliders that will give scientists an unprecedented look at how the ocean responds to changes in climate, whether those are natural or triggered by human activity.
"It will tremendously improve our ability to observe the ocean," said Bob Collier, an OSU oceanographer. He noted that most ocean studies currently are done by boat.
"This puts a presence in the ocean that allows us to watch what is going on in a really sustainable way, 24-7, 365 days of the year," Collier added.
The Ocean Observatories Initiative, announced Wednesday in Washington, D.C., was created through a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit comprised of 95 public and private ocean research institutions.
Collier said the National Science Foundation has been designing the network for more than a decade.
OSU's observation sites, called the "Endurance Array," will be spread out at depths of 25 meters, 80 meters and 500 meters along lines running west from Newport and Grays Harbor.
"It will be like having underwater laboratories at each location," said Collier, the project manager for the Endurance Array. Each site will have a number of permanent scientific instruments, and water and air temperature, salinity, wave heights, phytoplankton, carbon dioxide levels and other data will be collected.
The undersea gliders, which are autonomous and send data to scientists in near real-time, will be able to patrol adjacent waters along the Oregon and Washington coast and gather additional information.
The first instruments are scheduled to be in the water in late 2012 or early 2013, after production, engineering and prototyping, said Ed Dever, OSU oceanographer and system engineer. The project is designed for a 25-year lifespan.
The observatory agreement coincides with the 50th anniversary of the oceanography program at OSU.
The ocean off the Northwest has received considerable interest from scientists for a number of reasons. There is the increasing frequency of low-oxygen events that lead to biological "dead zones." The waters also experience toxic algae blooms, and are subject to highly variable biological production that impacts the entire marine food web, including salmon.
While funding for the ocean observatories comes during the recession, Collier said it's an essential investment to understand how fisheries and coastal facilities will respond to changes in weather, wave climate and sea level.
"These are long-term economic issues that our country needs to face, and that Oregon's coastal communities will deal with every day," Collier said.