UCSD gets big grant for global ocean study


Our local university will be a big part of an effort to transform the way we study the biggest part of our planet: the oceans.

UCSD has received $29 million to design and construct information technology and networking for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a project of the National Science Foundation to transform ocean research by establishing a network of interactive sensors distributed in oceans across the globe. Total funding for the contract may reach $24 million by the time the 11-year project is complete.

Steve Bohlen, president of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, which is carrying out the project, said that a network of ocean sensors would fundamentally change the way ocean science is conducted.

“Rather than relying on limited expeditions from ships to gather data, observatories in the ocean will allow us to access data from our labs and desktops,” he said. “Through the (Oceans Observatories Initiative), real-time data will be made available to scientists, citizens, teachers and schoolchildren across the country.”

The contract awarded to UCSD is only part of the massive project. The University of Washington also received a large grant to construct an underwater research facility off the Oregon and Washington coastlines.

UCSD researchers, led by those at the school’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will be responsible for creating a blueprint for digital infrastructure that will allow ocean observatories to collect, process and transmit data 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Among their main tasks will be creating a regional, cabled network which will wire a region in the Northeast Pacific Ocean with a high-speed optical and power grid. The project also calls for creating a global network of moored ocean buoys that transmit data to shore via satellite.

John Orcutt, professor of geophysics at Scripps, will be the principal investigator on the project. He said the global reach of the system would allow researchers to study nature on a much larger scale than previously possible.

“Routine, long-term measurement of episodic ocean processes is crucial to continued growth in our understanding and predictive modeling of complex natural phenomena that are highly variable and span enormous scales in place and time,” he said.

The system is intended to measure the physical, chemical, geological and biological variables in the ocean and seafloor. It would then have the capability to transmit the data via the Internet to every researcher, teacher or citizen who desired to see it. Two-way connectivity will allow scientists to operate robots on the ocean floor from the relative comfort of their own laboratories. The system will allow for the removal of a level of human interaction that Orcutt called exhausting and expensive.

Scripps director Tony Haymet said in a statement that creating such a large global infrastructure will connect American researchers with ocean science taking place in other countries, as well.

“This project will seek to leverage U.S. leadership into simliar initiatives underway around the world,” Haymet said.

Computer scientists and engineers at UCSD will perform the bulk of the work, drawing on expertise from the school’s San Diego Supercomputer Center and National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research. Experts and facilities from other campuses will also contribute, including MIT, Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, and Rutgers University.

“The OOI infrastructure will provide users with the means to characterize the oceans for decades,” said marine biologist Oscar Schofield of Rutgers University’s Coastal Ocean Observatories Lab. “It will integrate ocean observatories across coastal, regional and global scales into a coherent system of systems.”

The University of Washington’s portion of the project will focus on creating an underwater research facility at the center of the first robot-sensor network to span an entire tectonic plate.

“This is science at its grandest, and the University of Washington is an eager participant in this venture,” the school’s president, Mark Emmert, said in a release.

The Joint Oceanographic Institutions, which is a consortium of 31 premier oceanographic institutions, will award grants to create coastal and global scale nodes later this year. For more information visit