ABOARD THE PACIFIC STORM — A steady drizzle pelted the deck of the Pacific Storm on Wednesday morning as the 84-foot Oregon State University research vessel pulled away from Port Dock 5 in Newport and motored smoothly under the Yaquina Bay Bridge.
The rain stopped as the converted fishing trawler cleared the harbor mouth, and by the time it took up station a mile off the coast, the skies had begun to clear and the ocean’s surface was smooth as glass: Ideal conditions for putting a buoy in the water.
But this was no mere navigational marker. The three-part assembly — consisting of the surface buoy, a sea-floor anchor and a connecting cable — weighed several tons and carried a precious cargo of scientific instruments. And it had to be placed in exactly the right spot.
Using a crane, a winch and handheld slip lines, the crew carefully lowered the massive assembly into the water in stages, waiting for the ship to maneuver into position. Then Capt. Yogi Briggs came striding out on deck.
“We’re dead on it,” he announced.
The crew dropped the buoy’s anchor onto the sea floor at a depth of 25 meters, the blue and yellow buoy bobbed placidly on the surface, and the last major piece of the Endurance Array was in place.
More than five years in the making, the array is operated by a team of OSU researchers and forms a key component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, an ambitious marine science enterprise with lofty goals and global scope.
According to OSU oceanographer Jack Barth, who’s been involved with the project since the earliest planning stages more than a decade ago: “It’s a whole new way of doing oceanography.”
A new approach
The traditional way of collecting basic scientific data about the sea has been to mount an expedition on a large oceangoing research vessel. But there’s a limited number of such ships available, and reserving space on a research cruise is extremely expensive.
Moreover, this method of gathering water samples and measuring temperature, salinity and other factors was limited by the length of the cruise, providing at best a short-term snapshot of ever-changing conditions in one part of the ocean. Researchers then had to take their data back to shore for analysis.
The Ocean Observatories Initiative aims to vastly improve humanity’s understanding of what’s happening in the world’s oceans by providing a continuous flow of data from permanent sensor installations at strategic locations around the globe and making that information available in real time over the Internet to everyone — from scientists and teachers to policymakers and fishermen.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the $386 million project is in the final stages of establishing seven permanent data-gathering arrays:
• Station Papa, in the Gulf of Alaska.
• Southern Ocean, off the Chilean coast.
• Irminger Sea, near the southern tip of Greenland.
• Argentine Basin, to the east of Argentina.
• The Cabled Array, anchored to the seabed in the northeast Pacific.
• The Pioneer Array, just off the New Jersey coast.
• The Endurance Array, off the coast of Oregon and Washington.
All seven should be fully operational sometime this summer, and the project website is expected to go live toward the end of the year.
In addition to Oregon State, other partners include the University of Washington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Rutgers University.
The Consortium for Ocean Leadership, a nonprofit agency headquartered in Washington. D.C., oversees the whole enterprise, which the National Science Foundation has pledged to continue funding for the next 25 to 30 years.
OSU’s primary responsibility is to set up and operate the Endurance Array, an integrated network of fixed and mobile data-gathering platforms.
The buoy assembly — called a mooring by oceanographers — that was placed last Wednesday by the Pacific Storm is one of three arranged in a line running west from Newport. The first, anchored to the seabed at a depth of 25 meters, is a mile offshore; the second, moored to the continental shelf at a depth of 80 meters, is 10 miles out; and the third, attached to the continental slope 500 meters below the waves, is 42 miles offshore.
A similar line of three moorings runs 37 miles out from the coast at Grays Harbor, Washington, anchored at identical depths.
Each mooring is equipped with multiple sensing devices on the anchor assembly to monitor conditions on the sea floor and on the buoy to gather information on surface conditions. There’s also an instrument-equipped “profiler” that can travel along the cable to collect data from up and down the water column.
In addition, the Endurance Array will be patrolled by a fleet of 12 undersea gliders, unmanned submarines that resemble bright yellow torpedoes and can stay at sea for three months at a time. The battery-powered, sensor-packed vehicles can be programmed to cruise at varying depths along preset routes or can be redirected by researchers to locations of particular interest. Six gliders will be deployed at any given time while the other six are out of service for maintenance, reprogramming and fresh batteries.
Finally, two of Endurance’s Oregon moorings will be plugged into an arm of the Cabled Array, a 150-mile length of modified telecom cable that runs west along the bottom from Pacific City out to the continental slope, jogs south for a bit and then heads east toward Newport to terminate on the continental shelf 10 miles offshore. (Another arm of that array, which is operated by the University of Washington, runs out to the edge of the Juan de Fuca Plate.)
Each cluster of sensors is capable of transmitting information via broadband cable or satellite links back to shore, where the data is fed into the Ocean Observatories Initiative’s servers for dissemination over the Internet.
Altogether, the Endurance Array is equipped with 218 individual sensors of 47 different types capable of collecting information on a dizzying variety of factors, from the strength and direction of winds and currents to the temperature, salinity and pH of seawater to seismic and volcanic activity on the ocean floor. The project will also take readings of light intensity, light absorption, particulate concentrations and levels of carbon dioxide, dissolved oxygen, nitrate and chlorophyll and provide information on fish and plankton populations.
“What’s unique is that we’re actually measuring the physical, chemical and biological properties of the ocean at the same time and place,” Barth said. “And we’re doing it across the continental shelf, from near shore out to the deep ocean, and we’re doing this on both sides of the Columbia River.”
A wealth of data
In the short term, Barth said, the information coming from all these high-tech sensors is likely to generate significant benefits for commercial fishing fleets, which will be able to leverage real-time readings on currents, water temperatures and other factors to determine the best times and places to drop their nets. Other data could help inform management decisions to prevent overfishing of dwindling stocks.
Perhaps more importantly, he and his colleagues at Oregon State University say, the Endurance Array and the Ocean Observatories Initiative open up a whole new world of possibilities for research. Not only will the permanent data-gathering installations provide a steady stream of information on changing ocean conditions at key locations, but the data feed should keep pouring in for the next three decades.
“What we’re trying to do is understand how these systems are changing on a basic level – not just here but all over the world,” said Ed Dever, OSU’s project manager for the Endurance Array.
A long-term, reliable flow of high-quality data is crucial to understanding two of the biggest threats to ocean health, global warming and acidification, both of which have the potential for major negative impacts on marine life.
“As we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, that carbon enters the ocean at the surface,” Dever said. “It can act as a partial (carbon) sink, at least for the short term. It’s a service the ocean is providing right now, but it comes at the cost of acidification.”
By taking consistent, meticulous measurements of these kinds of changing conditions, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of all the factors that play a role in driving global climate change – understanding that can help drive changes in government policies to protect our planet.
“When we talk about warming oceans or we talk about the oceans getting more acidic or hypoxic, how much of that is due to man’s burning fossil fuels, how much of that is due to fishing activities and how much is due to natural cycles?” Barth asked.
“Having that understanding will help us make much, much better decisions about how we manage the oceans.”