CORVALLIS, Ore. - Oregon State University oceanographers deployed their first undersea glider in 2005 and in the past five years, their small fleet of data-gathering autonomous vehicles has logged more than 43,000 kilometers - a distance that would more than circumnavigate the globe.
That fleet is set to expand, opening the door for a new wave of oceanic research that will greatly enhance scientific understanding of issues ranging from climate change to hypoxia and "dead zones."
The university's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences has been operating as many as nine gliders during the past year, a number that will grow to 21 by 2012 through funding from the national Ocean Observatories Initiative.
Three years ago, OSU was selected as one of the lead institutions for the OOI, a $387 million National Science Foundation-funded project to study the world's oceans and their relationship to climate variability. One component of that project is to create a coastal observatory off the Northwest coast that will use moorings, buoys and gliders to better observe and monitor the ocean.
The gliders have revolutionized the study of the ocean off the Pacific Northwest, scientists say.
"In more than half a century of work, OSU scientists have recorded about 4,000 profiles of the near-shore from ships," said Jack Barth, an Oregon State professor of oceanography and one of the lead scientists for the Ocean Observatories Initiative. "During the past five years, our gliders have logged more than 156,000 profiles - nearly 40 times what six decades of shipboard studies have provided.
"That's pretty amazing, when you think about it," Barth added. "Each year alone, we log more profiles than have ever been recorded via ship off Newport. And the beauty of gliders is that the data is continual. They record 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather or how rough the sea is."
The glider project led by Barth and fellow oceanographer Kipp Shearman is featured in a special marine science issue of Terra, OSU's research magazine. It is online at: http://oregonstate.edu/terra/ and offers stories on marine reserves, ocean acidification and the Gulf of Mexico. A two-page info-graphic presents 10 examples of ocean observing systems used by West Coast scientists.
OSU's glider fleet represents a significant investment. Each of the undersea gliders costs between $100,000 and $200,000. The machines can be programmed to run for 3-5 weeks, from near-shore to the continental slope, and every six hours they rise to the surface and transmit data to OSU computers via satellite.
The data they collect informs scientists on conditions including El Niño and La Niña, hypoxia and resulting "dead zones," harmful algal blooms and others.
In addition to recording ocean temperatures, salinity and dissolved oxygen levels, the newest gliders will use acoustics to measure water velocity. "For the first time," Barth said, "we will be able to nearly simultaneously map ocean currents - from the surface to the bottom of the ocean - and detect just where these underwater 'rivers' run."
OSU scientists are excited about sharing their data - in near real-time - with researchers, fishermen and the public.
"The fishermen we've talked to are intensely interested in the data we will generate," Barth pointed out "Crabbers don't want to put their pots into areas that have strong bottom currents, nor do trawlers want to contend with strong drifts. The findings will also be important for ecologists studying larval dispersal of marine animals."
Technology is advancing so rapidly, Barth says, that the gliders will carry new instruments as early as the next year or two.
"We're putting hydrophones onto the moorings, for example, and there's no reason why we can't put them onto the gliders and listen for marine mammals or fish that have been tagged with transmitters," he said.
Click photos to see a full-size version. Right click and save image to download.
Jack Barth, 541-737-1607