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The New Oceanography

The combination of sensors, robots and cheap information technology is triggering a transformation of oceanography, according to a lengthy article from SeaWeb published at PhysOrg. High-tech oceanography is moving away from connect-the-dots sampling and towards a whole-system, big-picture understanding of the oceans, marine life, and the role of the sea in the global climate. From mapping via multi-beam sonar arrays to tracking fish migrations using microelectronic tags to the discovery of new species using deep sea remote-operated vehicles, oceanographers and ocean biologists have tools at their fingertips now that rival those of space exploration.

"For every tool we have to explore outer space - space stations, tethered missions, rovers, mapping - we have a comparable tool for ocean exploration," says James Lindholm of the Pfleger Institute. "This suite of technologies allows us to study an environment that is equally hostile to human life."

"It's exciting," adds Les Watling of the University of Maine. "There hasn't been this level of true exploration in the ocean for a hundred years."

Of course, some of the tools now used are the direct result of space research, such as satellites able to see across the breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, peering into the ocean's depths, identifying changes in temperature and chemistry.

The revolution in oceanographic technology couldn't have come at a better time. Oceans are in real trouble. "Hypoxic" and "dead" zones, unable to support marine life of any kind, are appearing. 28% of fish stocks are nearing extinction, with another 47% at the limits of sustainability. And we've come to realize that the oceans may be the best way to understand the magnitude of global warming-induced climate disruption.

The new oceanography lets us better see what is happening, to look for warning signs of problems, and to discover new complexities. The growing use of sensors, robots and IT will also make it possible to monitor conditions and changes more completely:

A test system, scheduled for Monterey Bay this fall, will use a cable the size of an average garden hose to bring power and Internet connectivity to the ocean. These new power outlets in the sea will allow complex instruments and robotic vehicles to stay in the water and "plug in" - sending data back to shore in real time without being connected to the surface. Scientists and engineers hope that this new technology will allow us to wire the entire ocean basins in the future.

[...] "...what shapes the ocean are highly episodic events that are fast and intense - algal blooms, upwelling events, deep oceanic convection. We need to be very, very lucky to be at the right place at the right time to see these events."Monitoring devices at sea take away this element of luck, allowing around-the-clock observations and the real time connectivity needed to study short-lived and often unpredictable events. [...]

There are other advantages too. In recent test experiments on the effects of carbon dioxide sequestration, scientists found that chemical reactions proceeded quite differently in the lab than on the seafloor. With the new system, scientists studying everything from ocean floor ecology, to whale migrations, to seismic activity and tsunamis, will be able to conduct ocean experiments at depth. "It's going to be an era of point and click oceanography," says [Monterey Bay Research Institute's James] Bellingham.

Digital tools are a catalyst for a new understanding of the workings of our planet. As we gain a greater appreciation for just how catastrophic our environmental situation truly has become, tools such as these will be how we eventually figure out the solutions.


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