Last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the academy to determine whether underwater stations packed with sensors are technically feasible and scientifically desirable. The eight-member panel, led by seabed mapper William Ryan of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, answered "yes" on both counts. "Sea-floor observatories present a promising, and in some cases essential, new approach for advancing basic research in the oceans," it concluded.
The panel urged NSF to get on with plans for long-term monitoring stations hung beneath buoys or hitched to abandoned sea-floor cables. Such stations, which might be assisted by automated submarines that scan surrounding seas, would augment traditional short-duration, ship-based expeditions and help researchers understand long-term changes in marine environments, says panel vice chair Robert Detrick, a geophysicist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. He suggests that NSF could phase in the program by field testing new sensors and power supplies at a few sites, such as the University of Washington's planned NEPTUNE system that would wire sensors to 3000 kilometers of fiber-optic cable in the northeastern Pacific.
Expanding such test-beds into a "comprehensive" network of deep and shallow water bases would be expensive, however. The panel estimated that it would cost several hundred million dollars to build and tens of millions a year to operate. NSF's budget couldn't accommodate that "extremely ambitious vision" immediately, says NSF's Mike Purdy, head of ocean sciences. But advocates are hoping that NSF will propose spending up to $30 million in start-up funds as part of its 2002 budget request, to be submitted this fall.