New technologies, programs transforming the way we see the oceans.
Countries around the globe are investing billions of dollars to monitor and expand our knowledge of the vast and virtually unexplored oceans. Oceans affect our everyday lives, controlling global climate, acting as a transportation hub, and providing a rich source of resources for national economies. The oceans have provided seemingly unlimited resources for thousands of years, but now this is changing and mankind is causing significant changes to the oceans and the planet. We need to understand how and why. Innovative new technologies are being developed to do just this.
In the past we have only seen brief glimpses of the ocean depths through technologies such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and manned submersibles. However, thanks to the vision of leading scientists and governments, that is about to change significantly. The Canadian government, through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the BC Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF), has invested over $120 million in developing key infrastructure to transform the way scientists and the public view the oceans. The United States is also planning to invest billions of dollars into programs such as the Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS) and the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). The Canadian funding has enabled two major observing system programs, VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea) and NEPTUNE (North-East Pacific Undersea Networked Experiments) Canada to be deployed off the west coast of Canada. These, and related programs, are managed through the University of Victoria (UVic) by Ocean Networks Canada (ONC).
Venus and Neptune
The VENUS observatory has been in operation for three years. This system is the first multi-node electro-optic cabled coastal observatory, currently with two system arrays, one in Saanich Inlet and one in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia. UVic, in combination with the key industrial partner OceanWorks, developed innovative leading edge technology to enable VENUS to become a reality. The VENUS science program in the two study locations has lead to a wealth of new knowledge.
Saanich Inlet is a deep glacial fjord with poor deep water circulation that creates conditions for hypoxia, a reduction in dissolved oxygen. Hypoxia is becoming more prevalent around the world due anthropogenic causes. Saanich Inlet is an ideal location to study the chemistry of hypoxia events and related effects on benthic communities. Conditions are also ideal for studying water circulation of fjords and zooplankton migration. More unusual long-term studies include forensic science, taking advantage of VENUS video systems. The Saanich site is also the location of the new Ocean Technology Test Bed (OTTB) project, another multi-million dollar project funded by the CFI and BCKDF. The OTTB will provide access to the Saanich site via a novel deployment system that allows instruments to be lowered to the study area 100 meters below the surface without the need for an ROV and large support vessel.
The NEPTUNE Canada observatory is just now entering the pre-operational phase with instrument arrays containing over 400 sensors being deployed along the 800 kilometers of electro-optic cable reaching from Vancouver Island across the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The largest cabled ocean observing system ever deployed, NEPTUNE Canada is expected to be fully commissioned in late 2009, providing international science teams with a continuous stream of data from a vast sensor network initially expected to deliver over 50 terabytes per year. This data will enable NEPTUNE Canada science teams to provide information to other scientists and the public on a diverse range of themes never before possible. This includes: the structure and seismic behaviour of the ocean crust; dynamics of hot and cold fluids and gas hydrates in the upper ocean crust and overlying sediments; ocean and climate change and effects on ocean biota and fisheries at all depths; deep-sea sedimentation; ecosystem dynamics and biodiversity; and engineering and computational systems research.
Numerous new technologies have been developed within the NEPTUNE Canada project. These include systems to convert the 10,000V DC backbone voltage to 400V DC for science projects, new telecom branching units and repeaters capable of switching and delivering 100,000W of power to depths of over 2500 meters, high power ROV wet mate connectors, and junction boxes to connect science instruments to the fiber optic cable at data rates of up to one gigabit per second. Each of the five initial observatory science locations will have a huge trawl resistant node (see figure) weighing over 13 tons to house and protect the infrastructure. The novel science projects will use a wide range of tools connected to the observatory including bottom crawlers, high definition video cameras, and water column profilers that have been impossible to sustain underwater for long periods due to power and data communication requirements. These new technologies in combination will truly transform the way we look at the oceans.
Scott McLean is the Director of Ocean Networks Canada Centre for Enterprise and Engagement, a new center funded by the Canadian Centres for Excellence in Commercialization and Research. Visit: www.onet.ca.
Dr. Chris Barnes is the Director of the NEPTUNE Canada project at the University of Victoria. Visit: www.neptunecanada.ca.
Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe is the Director of the VENUS project at the University of Victoria. Visit: www.venus.uvic.ca.