Division of Ocean Sciences - Fall 2002 Newsletter
NSF 04-003
(Replaces NSF 03-014)

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Ocean Observatory Science

by Alexandra Isern

Over the past several months, there has been much activity in anticipation of our ability to provide the ocean science community with a new set of tools and observational capabilities. Building on several community workshop reports and two National Academy of Sciences studies, it has been demonstrated that in order to meet data collection requirements for modern ocean science research, new types of infrastructure are needed that are capable of providing long-term, high-resolution observations of critical environmental parameters on appropriate time and space scales. Consequently, the Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE) has been working to secure funds to construct an ocean observatory network. Funds for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) are being sought through NSF’s Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction (MREFC) account. OOI infrastructure will provide the oceanographic research and education communities with new modes of access to the ocean. The OOI has three primary elements: 1) a regional cabled network consisting of interconnected sites on the seafloor spanning several geological and oceanographic features and processes, 2) relocatable deep-sea buoys that could also be deployed in harsh environments such as the Southern Ocean, and 3) new construction or enhancements to existing systems leading to an expanded network of coastal observatories.

Just as the U.S. academic research fleet is accessible to all investigators, the OOI will begin building an openly accessible network of ocean observatories to facilitate the collection of long time-series data sets needed to understand the dynamics of biological, chemical, geological and physical processes. The primary infrastructure for components of the OOI includes both dedicated fiber-optic cables to shore and moorings capable of two-way communications with a shore station. Moorings are envisioned to be either freestanding, as for the global array of buoys, or attached to fiber optic cables to provide the capability for water column investigations. Seafloor junction boxes connected to this primary infrastructure will support individual instruments or instrument clusters at varying distances from cables as well as the moorings. These junction boxes include undersea connectors that provide not only the power and two-way communication needed to support seafloor instrumentation, but also the capability to exchange instrumentation in situ when necessary for conducting new experiments or for repairing existing instruments.


In the NSF FY 2004 President’s Budget Request to Congress, the OOI MREFC request was listed as a priority new start for FY 2006. Because funds acquired through the MREFC account can only be used for specific activities related to the construction and implementation phase of the initiative (see inset circle in the diagram above), it is important to distinguish the other necessary and varied ocean observatory activities that OCE currently funds and will fund in the future (such as those activities in the outer circle in the figure). The overarching ocean observatory science activity that includes the OOI construction phase, has been named ORION (Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks). Included within ORION are research and operations support, maintenance, and mobile observational capabilities, such as floats, gliders, and drifters.

Within the past 18 months many planning activities have been underway with additional ones planned for later this year. All have been designed to better define various aspects of the ORION as the community prepares for the future appropriation of OOI funding. These activities are listed in the table below. Copies of those reports noted with an asterisk can be requested from OCE and links to electronic files of most of these reports can be found on the ORION website (http://www.coreocean.org/DEOS) or on the Division of Ocean Sciences website (http://www.geo.nsf.gov/oce/ocepubs.htm).

Table 1: Listing of completed, ongoing, and future activities related to ocean observatories.

Table 1: Listing of completed, ongoing, and future activities related to ocean observatories.

In order to better ensure that activities related to ORION are managed properly and are responsive to community needs, OCE has recently released a solicitation to establish a Project Office to Coordinate Ocean Observatory Activities (https://www.nsf.gov/pubsys/ods/getpub.cfm?ods_key=nsf03576). The Ocean Observatories Project Office will be expected to successfully complete the following tasks: 

  • Identify and facilitate committees for continued refinement of the OOI network design: An advisory structure must be established that provides the scientific leadership required by the community to define user needs for a research observing system that includes global, regional, and coastal systems. This advisory structure will also have committees targeted to address technical and engineering issues related to the implementation of this research observing system.

  • Develop a consensus vision for the OOI organizational structure, governance, and operating plans: The Project Office will develop a Science Plan for the OOI based on input and recommendations from the advisory structure and then use this Science Plan to develop the various components of a Project Execution Plan for the construction phase of the OOI as outlined in NSF’s “Facilities Management and Oversight Guide” (see https://www.nsf.gov/bfa/lfp/). 

  • Identify and engage all constituencies of the ocean science research community in consensus-building activities: The Project Office will lead, coordinate and serve as the community focal point for research observatories in the ocean sciences and will report to NSF regarding these activities. Activities should include those that promote the development of integrated experimentation, computation, theory, and model-based simulation. 

  • Operate an interactive web site for communicating with the ocean science community in regards to OOI activities and planning: The Project Office will develop an interactive website that will serve as the definitive source of information about the OOI for not only the ocean science community but also for operational oceanographers, the wider scientific community, and the public. 

The deadlines for proposals are: September 29, 2003 for Letters of Intent (required) and October 27, 2003 for Full Proposals.

A major activity related to ORION and the OOI is the ORION workshop to be held January 4-8 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The goal of this workshop is to formulate science priorities and educational opportunities that can be addressed using ocean observatories. This workshop will include ORION - Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networksparticipants from the entire spectrum of the oceanographic community both nationally and internationally. Registration information and other details on this workshop can be found on the ORION website (http://www.coreocean.org/DEOS). As this will be a large workshop with many evolving activities, it will be important to periodically check this website for new information.