To study the oceans, scientists rely on a network of orbiting satellites and surface vessels. But space-borne instruments cannot penetrate the inky surface, and ship time remains expensive and scarce. These frustrations, compounded by the growing need to understand global changes, have spurred researchers to design the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI)—a $330-million project that promises to herald the next generation of oceanographic study. 

At the heart of the OOI lies an infrastructure expected to operate for 25 to 30 years. Truly comprehending the world’s waters and how they react to climate change requires observations spanning decades, says Uwe Send, a physical oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. But because many important events happen suddenly, such as storms, red tides and earthquakes, permanent sensors must be ready to capture them.

The envisioned system combines stationary devices with mobile sensors. Moorings anchored to the seafloor will support upgradable instrument packages that move vertically along taut cables, measuring various conditions from the surface to the bottom. Autonomous underwater vehicles will glide outward from these moorings along preprogrammed paths, capturing details about the physics, chemistry and biology of broad areas around the moorings.

Investigators plan to anchor three arrays in the polar regions, where climate change could dramatically impact ice formation and global ocean currents. Around Cape Cod, a similar array will monitor the ecosystems crucial to local fisheries for up to five years, after which the moorings will be moved to study other coastal ecosystems, including the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of the project is planned for the Pacific Northwest, where an entire tectonic plate—the Juan de Fuca plate—will be wired with sensors to monitor its movements and the resulting volcanic activity and earthquakes. Providing power and two-way communication, fiber-optic cables installed along the seafloor will allow scientists sitting in their laboratories to adjust measurements instantaneously as events unfold on the plate.

For the first time, investigators will be able to observe the extreme events that shape the planet in real time, remarks John Delaney, a physical oceanographer at the University of Washington. Through these robots, sensor packages and high-definition cameras, he adds, researchers will establish an unprecedented telepresence in even the most hazardous environments of the deep ocean.

Moreover, data from the networks will be immediately—and freely—downloadable via an “iTunes-like” interface, says Scripps geophysicist John Orcutt, who believes that the approach will encourage virtual labs to spring up across the Internet. In a field steeped in a culture of proprietary data, such open access could be hard to accept, notes Holly Given, director of the OOI at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C. The hope is, though, that data available to all will lead to novel algorithms for modeling changes to the oceans. Organizers also hope the readings, which could be used to create interactive games, will provide a window through which the public can learn about the oceans.

Although the OOI stems from a grass­roots movement that started in the late 1980s, a sense of urgency now prevails if the U.S. hopes to stay at the forefront of oceanographic research. “In the past 10 years, almost all developed nations with the capacity to enter the oceans are doing it or getting ready to do it,” Delaney states. In fact, Canadian researchers have already moved forward with plans to place sensors along the northern third of the Juan de Fuca plate, and China recently entered the fray with ambitious plans for observatories in its coastal waters.

The U.S. began preliminary work this past August—namely, mapping the seafloor of the Pacific Northwest to identify sites for fiber-optic cable installation. Actual construction could start in a couple of years, pending its expected inclusion in the National Science Foundation’s 2010 budget. With permanent observatories under the sea, scientists could soon literally use their fingertips to tap into the ocean’s secrets.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Stations in the Seas".