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El Gordo ocean vent
Sensors that are part of the Cabled Array monitor the El Gordo hydrothermal vent at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast. (Credit: NSF / OOI / UW / ISS; V15)

The National Science Foundation and its partners, including the University of Washington, are showing off the real-time data streams from the $386 million Ocean Observatories Initiative after more than a decade of planning and years of controversy.

Imagery and readings from the initiative’s network of undersea platforms and sensors have been flowing over the Internet for months, and the data flow is still on the increase. But the NSF is highlighting the project’s progress this week to celebrate World Oceans Day on June 8.

“The OOI is placing as much ocean data online as possible, and making it available in real time,” Roger Wakimoto, the NSF’s assistant director for geosciences, said in a news release. “In addition to scientific discovery, we hope to spark the public’s interest in the sea, and contribute to the safety of those who make their living on the water or vacation along the coast.”

The OOI Data Portal provides free access to the raw data from more than 830 instruments, spread across 83 platforms in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The offerings include seismic data, temperature readings, chemical measurements – and regularly scheduled real-time HD video feeds from the Mushroom, a 14-foot-tall, active hydrothermal vent located 250 miles off the Oregon Coast on Axial Seamount.

The video comes courtesy of the OOI’s Cabled Array, an underwater observatory that’s connected to the Internet by fiber-optic cables. The University of Washington played a lead role in the Cabled Array’s construction and installation.

“About four out of five instruments on the Cabled Array are still streaming data live to shore, which is phenomenal for something that’s as technologically advanced and deployed in harsh ocean environments,” Oceanographer Deborah Kelley, who now leads the UW portion of the project, said in a news release. “It’s an astounding piece of infrastructure.”

The OOI data should lead to a better understanding of the exotic organisms that thrive around deep-sea hydrothermal vents and methane seeps, the seismic forces that reshape continents, and changes in ocean circulation that may be related to climate change. UW students already have used underwater sensor readings to track whale calls, investigate sounds related to an Axial Seamount volcanic eruption and study plumes of methane bubbles.

But the OOI isn’t a done deal yet: Even as the flow of data continues to increase, questions are being raised about how the NSF will pay for the network’s maintenance. Earlier this year, a report from the National Research Council recommended cutting the project’s operations budget by 20 percent. A bid solicitation for OOI management is expected to go out later this year, the journal Nature reports.

In the meantime, maintenance has to be done. The UW says Kelley is scheduled to lead a cruise from July 11 to Aug. 14 to swap out instruments on the Cabled Array, polish off camera lenses and bring in some of the array’s tethered robots for annual maintenance.

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