The observatory will be integrated technologically and geographically. The technologies – coastal radars, satellites, drifting and anchored sensors and undersea robot gliders – allow scientists to construct a holistic portrait of the ocean in near-real time.
The coordinated undertaking begins this month. It will focus the efforts of all those scientists and their institutions to cover gaps in geography and operations that until now have prevented scientists from seeing how the different ecosystems along the coast interact, and how and when animals move between them.
“We know that we have a lot of animals that migrate along the east coast,” said Oscar Schofield, professor of marine science and co-director of Rutgers’ Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory. “So, if we set up an observatory off the coast of New Jersey, and other people set one up off Newfoundland, that leaves a big gap in between. This year, all the regional observatory organizations are working together to gather information.”
Those regional observatories are linked together in the Integrated Ocean Observing System, an association of regional groups led by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Rutgers is a member of the mid-Atlantic regional observatory. An integrated observatory means, for example, that a striped bass whose individual presence is noted each year in Barnegat Bay and in the Gulf of Maine can be tracked continuously along the coast in between.
It also means that anything else that happens in the ocean – storms, pollution events, the effects of climate change across neighboring ecosystems – can be tracked in an integrated way. The temperature and salinity of the water can be monitored as they change over time. The gliders that roller-coaster through ecosystems can monitor temperature and salinity, augmented by information from satellites that pass over those ecosystems, drifters that float across them, sea-floor sensors embedded beneath them.
The gliders – a dozen to be deployed over the next few weeks – will run in tracks from the coast to the edge of the continental shelf, using sensors to measure the temperature and salinity of the water and transceivers to listen to migrating fish that have been previously caught, tagged and released.
“Different institutions have been monitoring different species of fish,” Schofield said. “Rutgers does striped bass, for example, and the University of Delaware sturgeon and sand sharks. These gliders have listening devices that can pick up individual tagged fish.”Schofield notes that marine animals often migrate based on the sea-surface temperature (actually the temperature of the first few hundred meters below the surface) and the presence or absence of food, so the gliders will help scientists understand the impact of climate change on migration.
Though not targeted specifically at tracking storms, the gliders are being deployed along the east coast during what is traditionally the busiest two months of the hurricane season. Should a storm appear off the coast this fall, a dozen gliders, several satellites and a long string of coastal radars will be able to track it in a coordinated fashion.
“We are hitting just the right moment to capture important data that will almost certainly impact our understanding of major storms in Nova Scotia and the Atlantic coast,” said Fred Whoriskey, executive director of Canada’s Ocean Tracking Network. “This is a very exciting opportunity for scientists to serve the general public, and to make this information easily understandable and publically accessible.”
Rutgers’ participation is funded by NOAA, through IOOS, and in Canada by the Ocean Tracking Network.