Findings and Recommendations

In this section, we describe Committee findings, summarize potential benefits and risks associated with the establishment of a seafloor observatory program, and present the Committee's recommendations. Our findings and recommendations are based on input from the January 2000 “Symposium on Seafloor Observatories” held in Islamorada, Florida; various reports and workshop documents made available to the Committee (see Reference List); and the expertise of Committee members.

FINDINGS

Referring to the Statement of Task for this study (Box 1-1), we reach the following overall findings:

  1. Seafloor observatories have significant scientic merit and they will complement and extend current scientific approaches (see Tables 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, 2-5 through 2-6). It is also recognized, however, that there remain many scientific problems for which this approach is not well suited.

  2. Technical requirements for seafloor observatories. This report provides the broad technical requirements for a seafloor observatory network based on invited talks, discussions, posters, and working group reports from the “Symposium on Seafloor Observatories. ” If an observatory infrastructure is put in place, technical requirements will need to be continually refined to address engineering issues that may arise and to allow for enhancement of established capabilities.



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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE Findings and Recommendations In this section, we describe Committee findings, summarize potential benefits and risks associated with the establishment of a seafloor observatory program, and present the Committee's recommendations. Our findings and recommendations are based on input from the January 2000 “Symposium on Seafloor Observatories” held in Islamorada, Florida; various reports and workshop documents made available to the Committee (see Reference List); and the expertise of Committee members. FINDINGS Referring to the Statement of Task for this study (Box 1-1), we reach the following overall findings: Seafloor observatories have significant scientic merit and they will complement and extend current scientific approaches (see Tables 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4, 2-5 through 2-6). It is also recognized, however, that there remain many scientific problems for which this approach is not well suited. Technical requirements for seafloor observatories. This report provides the broad technical requirements for a seafloor observatory network based on invited talks, discussions, posters, and working group reports from the “Symposium on Seafloor Observatories. ” If an observatory infrastructure is put in place, technical requirements will need to be continually refined to address engineering issues that may arise and to allow for enhancement of established capabilities.

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE Overall feasibility of establishing an infrastructure for seafloor observatories. Simple mooring and cabled seafloor observatory configurations presently exist, and more complex systems will be feasible in the future if sufficient engineering development resources are devoted to the following major infrastructure elements: Cabled systems—Depending on the size and complexity of specific networks, significant technical developments are required, especially in the physical design of observatory nodes and power and network management (Chapters 3 and 4). Moored buoys—Depending on the specific application, significant technical developments are required, especially in satellite telemetry systems, and in the construction of reliable buoy riser systems (Chapters 3 and 4). Ships and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs)—Off-the-shelf capabilities exist for the installation and maintenance of seafloor observatories, except for very specific applications. Considering the current stress on the ROV fleet, additional capabilities may be required (Chapter 4). Scientific instrumentation—To fully leverage the capabilities of a seafloor observatory infrastructure, a significant effort to develop new sensors is required in some disciplines, particularly biology and chemistry (Chapter 4). Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs)—Significant technical development is required, depending on the tasks envisioned for specific observatory networks (Chapter 4). Data archiving and distribution—a fully integrated plan for data archiving and distribution is needed; this plan needs to be developed at an early stage in a seafloor observatory program (Chapter 5). The extent to which seafloor observatories will address future requirements for conducting multidisciplinary research is very significant, and essential in some fields (Chapter 2). The level of support for seafloor observatories within ocean and earth science and the broader scientific community is strong and, although there are indications of support from the broader scientific community, this interest was not quantified in this study. This strong support assumes, however, that seafloor observatories are one part of a broader research strategy, and that adequate support should be provided for a variety of complementary approaches (e.g., traditional ship-based expeditionary research, satellites, drifters, and floats). For example, planetary scientists have expressed an interest in using seafloor observatories as test beds and scientific analogs for exploring oceans on other planetary bodies.

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE BENEFITS AND RISKS The establishment of a network of seafloor observatories will represent a new direction in ocean science research, and one that will require a major investment of resources over many decades. Such a major commitment carries with it both potential benefits and risks. POTENTIAL BENEFITS The potential benefits associated with the establishment of a seafloor observatory program include the following: establishment of a foundation for new discoveries and major advances in the ocean sciences by providing a means to carry out fundamental research on natural and human-induced change on timescales ranging from seconds to decades; advances in societally relevant areas of oceanographic research, such as marine biotechnology, the ocean's role in climate change, the evaluation of mineral and fishery resources, and the assessment and mitigation of natural hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and harmful algal blooms; improved access to oceanographic and geophysical data, enabling researchers anywhere in the world to study the oceans and earth in real-time or near real-time by providing basic observatory infrastructure with a wide variety of sensors; establishment of permanent observation sites over the 70 percent of Earth's surface covered by oceans to provide truly global geophysical and oceanographic coverage not possible with observations limited to continental or island stations; development of new experimental approaches and observational strategies for studying the deep sea; enhancement of interdisciplinary research for improving the understanding of interactions between physical, biological, and chemical processes in the oceans; establishment of observational resources as fully funded facilities, with the use and access to these facilities being determined by peer-reviewed proposals; and increased public awareness of the oceans by providing new educational opportunities for students at all levels using seafloor observatories as a platform for public participation in real-time experiments.

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE POTENTIAL RISKS The potential risks associated with the establishment of a seafloor observatory program include the following: installation of poorly designed and unreliable observatory systems if program and project planning and risk management are inadequate, technical expertise is lacking, and/or engineering development resources are insufficient; potential for interference between experiments resulting from inadequate design, coordination, and/or testing of scientific instrumentation; inefficient use of resources if important technological questions are not adequately resolved before major investments in observatory infrastructure are made; possible compromise in system performance if critical technologies (e.g., satellite telemetry systems and development of some sensor types) driven by market forces outside the scientific community are not available when needed; potential for a growing concentration of technical groups and expertise at a smaller number of institutions involved in supporting the observatories, with the result that many students and scientists may become further removed from understanding how observations are made; unreasonable constraints on the freedom of individual investigators to choose the location and timing of their experiments; potential for severe impacts on observatory science funding, and funding for other kinds of research and expeditionary science, if the cost of building, maintaining, and operating an observatory infrastructure is higher than initially estimated, and/or if there is a catastrophic loss of observatory components; underuse of observatory infrastructure if insufficient funds are budgeted for supporting observatory-related science and the development of scientific instrumentation; and potential inability of the present funding structure (based on peer-reviewed, 2- to 5-year duration, discipline-based grants) to judge the merit of projects requiring sustained time-series observations over many years or decades and/or projects that are highly interdisciplinary. RECOMMENDATIONS Based on a detailed consideration of the potential benefits and risks that might be associated with a seafloor observatory program, the Committee makes the following recommendations.

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE The National Science Foundation (NSF) should move forward with the planning and implementation of a seafloor observatory program. Observatories represent a promising approach for advancing basic research in the earth and ocean sciences and for addressing societally important issues. This report, which is based on symposium working reports and discussions, documents some of the significant opportunities for new discoveries and major scientific advancements that could result from the establishment of a seafloor observatory network. The establishment of a major seafloor observatory program will require some philosophical and intellectual reorientation within the oceanographic community, building on and complementing the more traditional focus on ship-based mapping and sampling programs. It will also require a major new commitment of resources. Based on the limited information available to the Committee, it is estimated that the initial cost of establishing a seafloor observatory infrastructure could eventually approach several hundred million dollars, and the cost of operating and maintaining this system could be several tens of millions of dollars annually. Thus, seafloor observatories may ultimately require a level of support comparable to that of the present academic research fleet. An investment of this size must be approached cautiously. In addition, mechanisms need to be put in place to deal with contingencies that arise (NRC, 1999) during the establishment of a seafloor observatory network. A comprehensive seafloor observatory program should include both cabled and moored-buoy systems. Moored-buoy systems should include both relatively high-power, high-bandwidth buoys and simpler, lower-power, limited-bandwidth buoys. The diverse applications for seafloor observatory science require the use of both cabled and moored-buoy observatories. Thus, the development of both systems should proceed in parallel. Because of the scientific need to study transient events, it is also important that some rapidly deployable (within weeks or months) observatory systems be developed. Applications demanding high-telemetry bandwidth and large amounts of power will preferentially use submarine telecommunications cables. Retired telecommunications cables may become available from time to time in areas of scientific interest and may be used on an opportunistic basis. Alternatively, cables may be deployed specifically for scientific purposes as part of a seafloor observatory program. While the high bandwidth and power capabilities of submarine cables make them ideal for seafloor observatories, their relatively high cost could limit the number of such observatories and may restrict their location to areas relatively close to land.

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE Moored-buoy observatories will be the preferred approach at remote sites where cabled observatories would be prohibitively expensive, when bandwidth and telemetry requirements are modest, or when the duration of the experiment is not sufficiently long to justify the cost of fiber-optic cable. Some applications will require buoy systems with telemetry bandwidths of a few 100s of Mb/day and power generation capabilities of several kW, while in many other cases buoys capable of delivering only a few 10s of W to the seafloor and transmitting a few Mb/day of data to shore could meet scientific needs. The first step in establishing a seafloor observatory system should be the development of a detailed, comprehensive program and project implementation plan, with review by knowledgeable, independent experts. Program management should strive to incorporate the best features of previous and current large programs in the earth, ocean, and planetary sciences. The development of a program and project implementation plan must begin early in the planning process and should include a comprehensive definition of the management and science advisory structure for an observatory program, an implementation timeline and task list with specific milestones, a funding profile for the program, and a schedule for periodic review of program planning and implementation efforts by knowledgeable, independent experts. The management structure must ensure fair and equitable access to observatory infrastructure and must also provide information concerning such issues as protocols and engineering requirements for attaching instruments to a node. The requirements of a management and operational structure for a seafloor observatory program are likely to be similar to other large, coordinated programs in the earth, ocean, and planetary sciences (e.g., University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System [UNOLS], Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling/Ocean Drilling Program [JOIDES/ODP], University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/National Center for Atmospheric Research [UCAR/NCAR], Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology [IRIS], and National Aeronautic and Space Administration [NASA] mission structures), and the most successful features of these structures should be adopted. A phased implementation strategy should be developed, with adequate prototyping and testing, before deployment of seafloor observatories on a large scale because of the cost, complexity, and technical challenges associated with the establishment of these systems. Great care is needed in the design and implementation of seafloor observatories if they are to meet their scientific potential. Observatory networks

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE should start with simpler nodes having minimal technical risk, adding more complex nodes and configurations over time. This growth plan will allow lessons learned from early deployments to be factored into the design of the later, more complex systems. As such, consideration should be given to the establishment of one or more pilot observatory sites to test prototype systems and sensors in areas that are readily accessible by ships and ROVs. A certified testing capability is also needed to test instrumentation and identify possible interference problems. The engineering development of some component systems that will be part of the initial pilot observatories (such as power and communications systems, AUVs, and sensor technology) could occur in parallel with the establishment of a program and project implementation plan. This will prevent delays in the establishment of initial pilot observatory needs. A seafloor observatory program should include funding for three essential elements: basic observatory infrastructure, development of new sensor and AUV technology, and scientific research using seafloor observatory data. Advances in sensor and AUV development must proceed in parallel with the development, design, manufacture, and installation of basic observatory infrastructure. The development of biological and chemical sensors and instrumentation for long-term in situ measurements is of particularly high priority. AUV development is important because these vehicles will provide the means to greatly expand the footprint of a fixed observatory node by undertaking a variety of mapping and sampling missions around the node. For AUVs to be routinely used at seafloor observatories, significant engineering development is required to provide a reliable docking capability (including homing, capture, data downloading, battery recharging, and mission programming) and the capability to operate for extended periods (at least one year and preferably longer) without human servicing. Some of this development may result in the near-term from the expanding commercial AUV service industry activities in offshore oil and oceanographic research. These developments must be carefully monitored and complemented with appropriate research and development where necessary to meet the planned seafloor observatory mission requirements. There will be no benefit to seafloor observatories unless scientists are using them to advance our knowledge and understanding of the oceans. Funding for infrastructure and sensors must be balanced with funding for excellent peer-reviewed science that takes advantage of the unique capabilities of observatories. As seafloor observatories are established there will inevitably be some shift in emphasis of existing major science programs and core-supported projects toward more observatory-type studies, but there will also be a need for new support of observatory-related science initiatives. There will still be

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE many important scientific problems that are best addressed using traditional ship-based techniques or fleets of drifters or floats. There is some concern in the scientific community that funding for a seafloor observatory program might have a negative impact on these other ocean-sciences research needs. It is essential that a seafloor observatory program be only one component of a much broader ocean research strategy and that adequate support be provided for a variety of complementary approaches. New mechanisms should be developed for the evaluation and funding of science proposals requiring sustained time-series observations over many years or decades and for proposals that are highly interdisciplinary. Support for observatory-related science will pose new challenges for funding such agencies as NSF. Observatory proposals will typically be more interdisciplinary and will require funding over longer time periods than is currently the norm. The NSF program and review structure is currently not well structured to handle these kinds of proposals, and NSF is taking steps to remedy this problem through increased cooperation and cooperative review of interdisciplinary proposals among program units. This deficiency was highlighted in the National Research Council (NRC) report Global Ocean Science: Toward an Integrated Approach, which proposed the creation of a new unit within the Research Section of the NSF Ocean Sciences Division that would be charged with managing a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary projects (NRC, 1999). A mechanism should be developed to transition successful instrumentation developed by an individual scientist toward a community asset. The development of mechanisms to support and encourage the transition of new instrumentation and technology from successful prototype to supported elements of the observatory infrastructure provides a major challenge both for funding agencies and the scientific community. NSF has an excellent track record of funding individual investigators to develop new instrumentation, but turning this instrumentation into a community asset has not been easy. The fundamental problem is to take an instrument that is successful in the hands of the developer and to make it successful in the hands of the broader community. Such a transition may impose significant demands beyond those that an individual investigator would normally undertake; for example, re-engineering elements of the system for non-expert use, production of systems in quantity, and operational support of fielded systems. The importance of operational support can be understood by considering a straightforward Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth (CTD) capability, which requires a trained and experienced operator base despite the commercial availability of

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE CTD hardware. Involvement of industry through existing mechanisms, such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, although clearly important, does not address the fundamental need of providing mechanisms for extending infrastructure support to appropriate new systems. Since the observatory can be characterized as an extension of our network and power infrastructure into the ocean, with the goal of supporting diverse oceanographic instruments, mechanisms for making such instruments widely available must be an integral part of the plan. An active public outreach and education program (including K-12) should be a high-priority component of a seafloor observatory program, with a specified percentage of program funding dedicated to this effort. Seafloor observatories with real-time communications capabilities should offer an excellent opportunity for public outreach and innovative education initiatives at all levels. With real-time data links to deep sea instruments, it will be possible to involve students and the public directly in ocean science. However, the educational and public outreach potential of seafloor observatories can only be realized by making a meaningful financial commitment to support the development of new ways to present and interpret data for the nonscientific public. To ensure that this effort is made, a percentage of program funding should be provided for outreach and a mechanism should be put into place to encourage researchers to incorporate education and public outreach activities in science proposals. This financial commitment should be drawn from public, private, and industry sources. A seafloor observatory program should have an open data policy, and resources should be committed to support information centers for archiving observatory data, generating useable data products, and disseminating information to the general public. Routine (facility-generated) information products and data should be archived in a central facility and be made available in as near real-time as possible to all investigators and the general public, ideally through the Internet. Data from experimental sensors or individual investigator-initiated experiments should be made publicly available after quality control procedures have been applied, but within 1-2 years of retrieval. A distributed data management system is desirable, and, to the extent possible, existing data management facilities should be used (NRC, 1999).

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Illuminating the Hidden Planet: THE FUTURE OF SEAFLOOR OBSERVATORY SCIENCE Seafloor observatory programs in the United States should be coordinated with similar international efforts to the extent that progress in the U.S. program is not inhibited. In addition, the Committee recommends that the potential of an integrated, international observatory program be explored. The goals of a seafloor observatory program in the United States are closely linked to a number of ongoing international initiatives, such as GEOSCOPE and the International Ocean Network. Where practical, coordination of these efforts at the international level will be beneficial and, in some cases, essential. Some major scientific objectives (e.g., global seismic coverage) will be achievable only through this kind of global cooperation. The vision of establishing a global network of seafloor observatories holds tremendous promise for advancing our understanding of Earth and its oceans. The Committee recognizes that realizing this vision will be difficult and expensive, but based on examination of the important scientific questions that remain to be answered and the current state of technology, the Committee believes the time has come to take the first concrete steps.