Computer networks and power grids are common enough on land, but over the next three years a team of oceanographers will be extending such networks thousands of feet beneath the sea. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded grants to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), as well as the University of Washington, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to set up an undersea data network for oceanographic research in Monterey Bay. Known as the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS), the network will consist of undersea cables and docking stations to provide power and high-speed data links for a variety of oceanographic devices.
"The cutting-edge technology that will be used at the MARS observatory will change the way we do oceanography, and will give the research and education communities unprecedented permanent access to the ocean environment to study a wide range of processes from earthquakes to changes in climate and ecosystems," says Alexandra Isern, program director in NSF's division of ocean sciences.
Marcia McNutt, president and CEO of MBARI, notes, "We take for granted the fact that the infrastructure for power and communications is readily available on land. But for decades researchers have struggled with the problem that there is no undersea equivalent to the wall socket, the phone line, or the internet drop. MARS will provide the first state-of-the-art power and communications 'highway' into the deep sea."
By supplying both data links and electrical power, this network will allow real-time, continuous, long-term monitoring of conditions beneath the surface of the bay. Currently such information can only be gathered during intermittent ship cruises or using temporary devices that must eventually be retrieved when their batteries wear out. When complete, the MARS network will be able to support a variety of "plug-and-play" research devices, and will be expandable, with additional devices on side cables up to 60 miles from the main cable.
The first stage of the network will consist of almost 40 miles of submarine cable and a single science node located almost 4,000 feet below the ocean surface. The node will have four separate docking stations for oceanographic instruments. The cable will also supply up to 10 kilowatts of power to the instruments-enough power to supply a small neighborhood, and several orders of magnitude more power than could be supplied using batteries alone.
In addition to supporting oceanographic research within the Monterey Bay, MARS will serve as a testing ground for technologies to be used in a more ambitious undertaking-the NEPTUNE project. NEPTUNE will involve thousands of miles of undersea cables and dozens of networked seismographs and oceanographic monitoring stations off the Pacific coast, from Northern California to Vancouver Island. This dynamic undersea region, where oceanic and continental plates collide, is a key to understanding global tectonic processes, as well as assessing the risks from locally generated earthquakes and tsunamis.
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