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Feature - Observing oceans online

Feature - Observing oceans online

Overview map of the NEPTUNE Canada observatory off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The network, which extends across the Juan de Fuca plate, will gather live data from a rich constellation of instruments deployed in a broad spectrum of undersea environments. This system will provide free Internet access to an immense wealth of data, both live and archived throughout the life of this planned 25-year project. Image courtesy NEPTUNE Canada.

Although the Earth is mostly water, scientists know relatively little about the ocean floor. But with the creation of ocean observatories such as NEPTUNE Canada, all that could change.

Until recently, scientists had to use cruise ships, satellites, and temporary probes to study the world’s oceans. This allowed them to take occasional snapshots of the ocean for later study.

Ocean observatories are made up of more permanent installations of instruments directly on the ocean floor, along the coast, or attached to buoys. These installations record data around the clock, making it possible to view live data and remotely adjust instrumentation according to the live data.

NEPTUNE, at present the largest ocean observatory in the world, consists of hundreds of scientific instruments off the west coast of Canada at depths ranging from 17 to 2660 meters. The data NEPTUNE’s instruments gather are piped back to land, where anyone with an internet connection and up-to-date web browser can access it. And when they do, they’ll be doing it via NEPTUNE’s web portal Oceans 2.0, which officially launched yesterday.

“It’s really an environment where people not only can chat with each other and exchange information, but also work together on data, create their own projects, and create their own little groups of users,” said Benoît Pirenne, associate director of information technology for NEPTUNE.

Based on the Yahoo! User Interface, Oceans 2.0 also boasts applications for data analysis and visualization, and a wiki.

NEPTUNE was designed to function for 25 years. The project’s longevity, combined with the relatively permanent instrumentation installed on the ocean floor, makes it a great opportunity to study how the ocean is changing over time. And that comes with its own unique challenges.

“Because scientists will want a long time series to study things like climate change and so on,” Pirenne said, “there is a need for a really well-maintained archive of all the data.” With the project’s primary servers located in the seismically active region of Victoria, BC, a well-maintained archive will need backup servers somewhere safe and stable. NEPTUNE’s are located about a thousand miles away in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

This octopus seemed unintimidated by ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science), even while the NEPTUNE team removed the dust cover to the temperature instrument port and plugged in the connector. Image courtesy NEPTUNE Canada.

“We’re trying to start small and we’re trying to figure out what users really want, so at the moment the user’s computer resources are limited,” Pirenne said. But, he added, as more data accumulates and the users become accustomed to the system, they will likely run more analyses on large amounts of data. Those computational resources will come from existing organizations such as Compute Canada and WestGrid, which are already providing backup storage located in Saskatoon.

A number of other smaller ocean observatories already exist, including NEPTUNE’s sister project, VENUS. And earlier this fall, the Ocean Observatories Initiative received a two-year award totaling nearly $275 million from the National Science Foundation and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; at present the OOI is scheduled to start broadcasting ocean data in 2013.

Each of these observatories have – or will have – their own portals. “But it is the intention of all to be interoperable,” Pirenne said. “If you ask for data it will be retrieved, and computers will talk to each other to make sure that data will be provided to you in the form that you need to do your work on the portal you’re using.”

Like Oceans 2.0, many of the portals are open for public use. “Actually I believe that the Rutgers one is very popular with surfers,” Pirenne said. “In our case we suspect that whale watchers will be logging into our website on a regular basis to find out if the whales are nearby.”

Oceans 2.0 will eventually have at least one feature designed for public use. Ocean and science enthusiasts can use it to watch live footage of the ocean floor and while they’re at it, use the portal’s annotation tool to note the time at which they spotted sealife. Then scientists can return to those spots and identify the lifeforms which were spotted, without having to look through hours of footage to find them.

Said Pirenne, “We hope that people will be attracted to doing that, will be enticed into participating in the research.”

Miriam Boon, iSGTW

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