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Ocean observatory news

Ocean observatory

NEPTUNE Canada instrument installation off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) Observatory is bringing an ocean full of safety, economic and environmental benefits to Canada and the world.

When tsunami waves radiated outward across the Pacific after the March 11, 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan, sensors on the ocean floor off British Columbia helped coastal residents and emergency planners know what to expect when the waves hit Canada.

Those sensors—part of the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) Observatory—picked up the size, speed, and direction of the waves, assuring us that the waves had shrunk to a fraction of their initial force.

Information at our fingertips

The world-leading ONC Observatory is studying much more than tsunamis. Through continuous, real-time observations from clusters of instruments at key seafloor sites in the northeast Pacific Ocean, the observatory is changing the way we study the oceans. It’s providing scientific evidence for policy-makers on a wide range of critical issues, and developing new technologies that will create jobs and economic opportunities.

“Put simply, the observatory is transforming global ocean science as we know it,” says Dr. Martin Taylor, president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, which manages the observatory for UVic.

Comprised of the NEPTUNE Canada and VENUS cabled underwater networks, the ONC Observatory stretches hundreds of kilometres offshore, connecting the ocean bottom to desktops everywhere.

Scientists across Canada and abroad are remotely conducting coastal and deep-sea experiments and analyzing data—without getting their feet wet. They can respond instantly to events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, fish migrations, plankton blooms, storms and volcanic activity.

World-class leadership

Beginning in September 2011, Dr. Kate Moran, a world-renowned ocean engineer who was previously assistant director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington, DC, will take the helm of NEPTUNE Canada, with the retirement of founding director Dr. Chris Barnes.

In her White House role, Moran advised the Obama administration on the oceans, the Arctic and global warming. She is especially well qualified to lead NEPTUNE Canada, the world’s largest cabled ocean network. NEPTUNE Canada has five study sites on an 800-km loop of cable stretching across the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, as deep as 2,600 metres down.

A seismic shift in study

The VENUS coastal network has four study sites: one in Saanich Inlet and three in the Strait of Georgia. Scientists use these sites to learn about ocean change, fish health and abundance, animal behaviour, low-oxygen zones, Fraser Delta slope failures, and the changing soundscape of the strait as the region’s shipping traffic gets busier.

When fully instrumented, VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada will amass more than 60 terabytes of scientific data every year—or the equivalent of almost six million phonebooks. This ever-expanding digital library is a lasting resource for scientists, policy-makers, educators and students everywhere.

“This continuous flood of data allows for advanced system-based science in ways not previously possible, and supports a quantum leap in understanding complex ocean processes and their consequences,” explains Taylor.

Coastal health and safety

Concerns about the health of coastal environments are escalating in BC and around the world. Rising sea levels, changes in fish abundance, and the possibility of a mega-earthquake all threaten the safety and livelihoods of BC residents. Long-term ocean monitoring by the observatory helps keep the people, economy and environment of BC healthy.

For example, instruments on the VENUS coastal network are observing seafloor changes near the mouth of the Fraser River. Changes to slope stability in this underwater delta are of significance to the nearby coal port, container terminal and Tsawwassen ferry terminal.

Charting the ocean’s wealth

As the marine environment changes, so will marine life. Warmer waters make it easier for some local animals and harder for others. Invasive species may move in. As the seas become more acidic due to increasing carbon dioxide, species that build calcite shells, such as scallops and oysters, will have increasing trouble maintaining their shells. Research on the ONC Observatory is tracking these critical changes and looking at how they might affect the marine food chains upon which we depend. Marine monitoring helps track ocean productivity, including the growth of plankton blooms. These are key to productive fisheries and to minimizing the health and commercial impacts of harmful red tides.

Both networks use underwater listening devices to assist in monitoring the activities of killer whales and other marine mammals—cornerstone species in BC’s growing ecotourism industry.

VENUS is also mobile—in 2011, the network is putting sensors on ferries sailing the main Vancouver routes to learn about the water masses coursing through the Strait of Georgia and the nutrients they carry. New coastal HF radar will steadily monitor sea state conditions including waves and currents, which will help all boaters make safe decisions about navigating these waters.

A growth industry

The observatory’s cutting-edge technologies make Canada, and specifically BC, a leader in ocean science and technology. Other countries are looking to Canada for assistance as they build their own marine observation systems. For instance, a partnership with OceanWorks International in North Vancouver, a major supplier of observatory components, led to new product lines and new markets for the company. OceanWorks recently secured a major international contract in the Mediterranean for subsea technologies proven on the ONC Observatory.

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