Transforming Our View of 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. Improved monitoring of the ocean environment can help countries secure their maritime borders and provide early warning of marine hazards such as tsunamis. Innovative new technologies have been developed to do just that.
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 and BC governments— through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and the BC Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF)— along with other funding partners, have invested almost $200M in developing key infrastructure to transform the way scientists and the public view the oceans.
The United States is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into ocean observing programs such as the Integrated Ocean Observing Systems (IOOS) and the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Globally, similar programs are being initiated to take advantge of the opportunities that these systems create. In Canada, funding has enabled the creation of the Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) Observatory with two world-leading networks—VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea) and NEPTUNE Canada (North-East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments)— which are deployed off the west coast of Canada. The Observatory and related programs are managed through the University of Victoria (UVic) by Ocean Networks Canada.
Ocean observing systems are a rapidly expanding business sector globally, with a recent market analysis estimating that $4.6 billion would be spent on ocean observing technologies from 2007-2011 and projects continuing to be initiated.
Over the past five years, UVic has led a consortium of university, government and private sector partners to allow Canada to take a leadership role in this emerging field of science and technology which was identified as a key area for Canada’s Major Investments in Science and Technology by the visionary presidents of the Canadian federal granting agencies. Innovative submarine engineering, data communication and sensor technologies are required to support these ocean observing systems.
The observatories in turn support transformative research that creates unprecedented opportunities for commercialization, public engagement, and applications to priority areas of public policy. To maximize the economic and commercial benefits from the Canadian government’s significant investment in ocean observing systems, the Canadian Centres for Excellence in Commercialization and Research (CECR) has had the vision to fund the Ocean Networks Canada Centre for Enterprise and Engagement (ONCCEE) based at UVic, as Canada’s Centre of Excellence in Ocean Observing Systems.
ONCCEE's mandate is to stimulate the global ocean observatory market by commercializing technologies from the ONC projects and increasing public awareness. The Centre of Excellence also looks for linkages with Canadian companies to help maintain Canada’s international competitiveness in ocean observing technologies, including sensor systems, observing system infrastructure, and information/communications technology.
To date, in partnership with UVic, innovative companies such as Alcatel-Lucent and OceanWorks have invested significant resources in developing new technologies to address the emerging market segment of cabled ocean observatories. The use of ONC Observatory technologies in other application areas has resulted in interest from large corporations such as IBM Canada.
ONCCEE will continue to foster these and new relationships as ocean observing systems continue to develop and help us understand the most important resource on the planet: the oceans.
Cabled ocean observatory systems use specialized electro-optic cables to deliver power and communications to remote observation sites from hundreds of meters to hundreds of kilometres apart. System infrastructure elements are designed with operational lifetimes well beyond typical oceanographic systems, approaching the 25 year design lifetimes for typical telecom systems on which newer cabled ocean observing systems such as VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada are based.
Although cabled ocean observing systems have been in place since the early 1990’s with the LEO-15 system in the United States, Canada has taken a world-leading role in these systems with the VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada projects providing unprecedented power and network connectivity to hundreds of subsea sensor systems such as crawler vehicles, profiling winches, HD video and hydrophones, to more traditional sensors such as ADCPs and CTDs.
Other countries are following suit with major cabled ocean observing systems planned in Japan, Taiwan, China, Europe and in the United States. The attraction of this novel technology is the ability to provide interactive, continuous 24/7/365, real-time, sustained observing for decades while the infrastructure is unaffected by surface conditions—none of which is possible with the more conventional vessel or buoy based oceanographic observations.
The addition of kilowatts of power and sustained data rates of over a gigabit per second for instrumentation enables measurements of types and at time scales that previously have only been available for brief periods from research vessels. This ability to operate more extensive instrumentation for long periods, unattended, with benthic based infrastructure makes cabled ocean observing systems an ideal solution for monitoring climate scale trends while still being able to record major episodic events.
As well, the ability to observe simultaneously at these temporal scales over a broad range of technologies—including biological, chemical, physical and geological—allows for unprecedented opportunities for interdisciplinary studies of complex earth-ocean systems. Benefits provided by cabled ocean observatories include:
- High Power: up to kilowatts of power for individual instruments
- High Bandwidth: up to gigabit per second data rates to support sensors like HD cameras
- Wide scale of coverage: from a single experiment site to an entire tectonic plate
- Long lifetime: infrastructure designed to support measurements over 25 year time scales
- High temporal resolution: sustained measurements supportable to millions of samples per second
- Interactive: users can control systems and interact with the systems, move vehicles, take samples, change measurements over the Internet
- Interdisciplinary: centralized data storage allows access to broad range of technologies for non-traditional interdisciplinary studies
The VENUS observing network (www.venus.uvic.ca) has been in operation for since 2005. This system is the world’s 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 key industrial partner OceanWorks, developed innovative leading edge technology to enable VENUS to become a reality. In its two study locations, the VENUS science program 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 to 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, that takes advantage of VENUS video systems.
The Saanich site is also the location of the Ocean Technology Test Bed (OTTB) project, another multi-million dollar project funded by the CFI and BCKDF. This project uses VENUS for power and communications while it investigates high accuracy navigation for autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), greatly improving the survey capabilities of this emerging technology. The OTTB will also provide access to the Saanich site via a novel deployment system that allows instruments to be lowered to the study area 100 m below the surface without the need for an ROV and large support vessel.
The Strait of Georgia represents one of the busiest shipping lanes in North America, while supporting a rich ecosystem which is home to a large population of marine mammals including Orca, and the mouth of the Fraser River, which leads to a crucial salmon spawning habitat. In combination with stunning scenery, this rich ecosystem also supports a significant recreational and tourism industry, making this area of great economic and scientific interest. VENUS infrastructure at this location supports a wide range of science projects including: monitoring acoustic signatures from marine mammals, studies into river delta slope failures that can lead to tsunamis, sediment transport and water circulation.
The NEPTUNE Canada observatory network (www.neptunecanada.ca) has been operational since 2009 with instrument arrays containing over 400 sensors being deployed along the 860 km of electro-optic cable reaching from Vancouver Island across the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The largest cabled ocean observing system ever deployed, provides 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 enables 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. These real-time multidisciplinary measurement series will extend over 25 years and involve interacting processes, long-term changes, and chaotic, episodic events that are difficult to study and quantify by traditional means.
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 2600m, high power ROV wet mate connectors, and junction boxes to connect science instruments to the fiber optic cable at data rates of up to 1 gigabit per second. Each of the five initial observatory science locations will have a huge trawl-resistant node weighing over 13 tons to house and protect the infrastructure.
Novel science projects will be able to utilize a wide range of tools connected to the observatory including bottom crawlers, high definition video cameras, and water column profilers which have been impossible to sustain underwater for long periods, due to power and data communication requirements.
These new technologies in combination are truly transforming the way we look at the oceans.