Scientific seascape. Marine researchers are polishing plans for undersea observatories, such as this cabled network off the coast of California.

Underwater Networking

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO--After a decade spent standing at the dock, U.S. marine scientists are getting ready to launch a network of ocean observatories. Drawing on 5 days of talks at a meeting, an independent panel will soon start assembling a detailed plan for a $200 million project. If all goes well, the National Science Foundation (NSF) hopes that the plan can sail through Congress in time for funding to begin in 2006.

The trouble with ship-based expeditions is that they record mere snapshots of long-term ocean changes. Now improved technologies, including wireless buoys and sea-floor cables laden with sensors, promise a much more complete picture. Three years ago, NSF endorsed the concept of building a trio of new facilities that would continuously pump marine data onto the Internet. One observatory would consist of a set of movable buoys moored deep in the open ocean. Another would expand a nascent network of near-shore sensors. The third, and most expensive, element would be a regional observatory that would spread cable-linked sensors and automated submersibles over thousands of kilometers of sea floor. However, some scientists--including biologists and physical oceanographers--have been lukewarm to the proposal. They fret that it might not work and fear that it could drain funds from existing projects.

Last week's meeting was an opportunity for enthusiasts and skeptics to share ideas. One popular concept is to use sea-floor sensors to monitor colliding crustal plates or to dispatch robotic submersibles when underwater volcanoes erupt. "You could capture events that are rare but important," says oceanographer Kenneth Brink of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. Other scientists offered ideas for studying extremophile bacteria living within the crust. A few pushed for installing coastal sensors first, because they might produce a quick payoff for policy-makers concerned about pollution or fisheries.

The next step is to produce a detailed plan that sets priorities--and totes up what it will all cost. An NSF-funded planning group led by Brink hopes by the end of the year to have nailed down a half-dozen compelling science goals and a process for setting construction priorities. That would be followed in late 2005 by a polished blueprint for surmounting a host of technical and logistical challenges.

Related sites
The ORION Workshop
NEPTUNE observatory concept