Deep Data

Craig Risien overlooks the deck of the Pacific Storm as the Endurance Array team prepares the buoy and anchor for deployment. Photo: Craig Risien.

The drizzle faded and the skies cleared as the Pacific Storm slipped under the graceful arch of the Yaquina Bay Bridge. The 85-foot trawler turned research vessel carried a full contingent of scientists, engineers and journalists. It was a momentous morning: The team was about to install a key piece of an ocean sciences puzzle, and the break in the weather seemed just right for the occasion.

Strapped to the deck, a blue and yellow surface buoy bristling with sensors and measurement devices sported a long tether connected to a mooring cage the size of a Volkswagen. The cage would rest on the ocean floor 25 meters below the surface. Together, these pieces would function as the final component of the “Endurance Array,” a system of buoys extending 35 miles off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

The array will gather an unprecedented amount of oceanographic data and send it back to shore in real-time via high-bandwidth cables. The buoys capture round-the clock updates on water temperature, salinity, acidity, carbon dioxide, zooplankton, fish populations and more.

This level of data collection will produce a comprehensive picture of the coastal ocean. It’s an audacious effort, part of a $386 million initiative by the National Science Foundation, the largest such marine sciences project in history.

As the Pacific Storm’s massive crane gently lowered the buoy overboard into calm seas, mooring technician Craig Risien said that he felt “a huge amount of relief.” The senior faculty research assistant with the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has been working on the project since 2010, and the flawless deployment belied years of effort and a frantic, last minute scramble. “The final weeks were nerve wracking, shipping everything out to Newport, building components there, getting it onto the ship and reassembling it on the boat,” said Risien.

With the array now deployed and already gathering data, a new world of scientific possibilities has opened. The Endurance Array contributes to a network of global ocean observing systems with partners such as the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the United Nations. Other systems are in place off South America, Europe and Asia.

The data will be used in many ways, whether it’s helping to grow oysters on the Oregon coast, grappling with changes in ocean acidity or monitoring hypoxia, or the dead zones, which are occurring in Oregon waters and around the globe.

Risien is thrilled by the possibilities. “It’s hard to predict how members of the public will use these data. Weird and wonderful things are created by the public and businesses with this kind of information,” he said.

While calm conditions made the deployment of this final piece seem easy, the work is only just beginning. The team now needs to switch to maintenance mode. “It’s double the work, maybe more,” said Risien. A second set of buoys is in development, ready to rotate into the array every six months. That’s when the current set of buoys will be retrieved and replaced. Retrieval of the massive devices is even more challenging than deployment.

As the Pacific Storm motored back to its home pier in Newport, the team seemed relaxed, almost baffled by the huge open space on the ship’s deck where the instruments had been positioned. But with the project scheduled to last for the next 20 to 25 years, this respite won’t last long.

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