Feature - LOOKING to sea: grids reveal our deepest secrets
Our oceans cover 70 percent of Earth's surface and are 99 percent its living space. They run deeper than Everest is high, and contain most of the life on this planet.
And they're changing, warming up.
What effect will this have? We're not really sure.
Orcutt is working on a project called LOOKING: the Laboratory for the Ocean Observatory Knowledge Integration Grid. A team effort involving nine institutions across the United States, LOOKING is using grid technology to raise the bar when it comes to oceanographic data.
"We have a sensor grid with thousands of different sensors providing real time data," says Orcutt. "We also use a data grid, supported by Storage Resource Broker, to manage our various systems, including databases. Our information is spread over many computers, but to a user it looks like its all in one place."
Voyage of the ultra-high-tech Beagle
The LOOKING grid also includes a fleet of research vessels that scour the planet for new information.
"There are 26 ships registered in the U.S. academic fleet," says Orcutt. "Four are from Scripps, and about 15 have satellite communications. These ships are all over the planet, and all linked. They're taking measurements of everything you can imagine: ocean currents, temperature, meteorology, seismology…"
These data-much of it in real time-is coordinated through a grid, furnishing ocean-going researchers with the insight of their landlocked or similarly ocean-going peers.
"Sometimes you find things you've never seen before," says Orcutt. "When you need answers you don't want to wait till you get back; it really helps to be able to share your data and pictures to solve problems. The downside is you never escape from the office."
Underwater eyes for all
Another bonus of this distributed system is that much of the real-time data are publicly available.
It's fun to see where our ships are and what the weather is like," explains Orcutt. "It's easy now to make that information available to everybody. And it's then very simple to extend that to the ocean floor. This will be a great tool not just for research, but to encourage the public to be interested in our oceans."
And public awareness, says Orcutt, is the key to generating support for action to solve growing environmental problems, including climate change and overfishing.
"We'll need the support of citizens all over the planet," he says. "We want people to say 'we need to know about greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, acidification…' Most people have enjoyed a vacation at a beautiful reef or beach. They can understand concern about rising ocean temperatures."
Orcutt's personal passion is seismology and the structure of Earth beneath the ocean floor, but he says biology, and especially microbial biology, is the major research frontier in the oceans and what gets most people fired up about LOOKING to sea.
Rise of the jellyfish
"Biology and the genome will be an extraordinary thing for our future. Oceans contain most of the life on the planet, but we know five percent or less of the species that live in the ocean."
"We know that our oceans are changing. We're seeing more jellyfish, bacteria, harmful algal blooms," he says. "Using remote instrumentation we can now learn more about how life is reacting to the slow warming and increasing fishing pressures."
"We already have thousands of sensors and are growing very rapidly. The incremental cost of adding an extra sensor is getting smaller and smaller. The resolution of data and information that can now be achieved is breathtaking. This provides the very small-scale resolution we need to study details."
Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, LOOKING has been working with real time data and distributed and wireless systems for more than five years, and is continuing to develop its capabilities.
"We're in a very interested place in history and it's time to take advantage of what's going to happen in the commercial world with this kind of technology," says Orcutt. "That's critical to create the kind of change we as scientists rely on to be able to exploit these novel, consumer technologies."
- Cristy Burne, iSGTW