Nearly 25 years of dreaming, planning, strategizing

Post from John R. Delaney, Chief Scientist, VISIONS '14; Director and Principal Investigator, OOI Regional Scale Nodes

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

                                                                     Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This field season is tremendously exciting for me because it is the culmination of nearly 25 years of dreaming, planning, and strategizing; of working and collaborating with science and engineering communities to propose, design, and construct the first U.S. regional cabled ocean observatory. Funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the cabled observatory is part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a program that is launching a new era of ocean science.

Many countries across Europe and Asia are in the early, or, in some cases mature, stages of developing cabled networks that operate in real-time in coastal and offshore waters without requiring an in situ human presence in the environment. In the opinion of many, this real-time 24/7 approach has the potential to transform the way we interact with the global ocean.

Why study the oceans? Simply put, the global ocean is our planetary life-support system: fifty percent of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the upper ocean; a large fraction of the CO2 released into atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been absorbed by the ocean; there is more heat in the upper 6 feet of the ocean than in the entire atmosphere and that heat is readily exchanged by mechanisms to regulate our planetary thermostat. These—and hundreds of other processes—continuously interoperate in the global ocean. Each process changes and shifts others in often complex ways. To examine this complex linkages and to understand them requires a continuous presence throughout the ocean volume and on the seafloor. If we are to survive and thrive on Earth, we must understand and, possibly, eventually manage the ocean upon which planetary habitability depends.

The breakthrough insight that lit up my imagination came more than two decades ago when a colleague told me about submarine fiber-optic cables. These thin silicon fibers, smaller in diameter than a hair on your head, can transfer many billions of bits per second. When coupled with a conductor and wrapped inside a protective sheath, fiber-optic cables can provide unprecedented electrical power and nearly unlimited communications bandwidth in the oceans. That recognition, for me, was the beginning of the dream: these communication capabilities—developed by industry to link human beings around the globe—could be pressed into service by scientists; a human presence could be projected throughout volumes of the ocean without the need to physically be there. Thanks to many creative and hard-working engineers, the dreams of scientists are becoming reality.
We are putting to sea on the Thomas G. Thompson, the oceanographic research vessel operated by the University of Washington and supported by NSF. About fifty-five people are on board for this first leg of the 84-day cruise called VISIONS '14. About every two weeks the Thompson will come in to Newport, Oregon, to transition crew and to replenish equipment, instruments, supplies, and cables.

As part of the VISIONS '14 effort, we will use a satellite to provide two-way communications between ship and shore. This capability allows for routine phone conversations and limited real-time video coverage that will connect those of us at sea with onshore science and engineering colleagues as we confront and overcome the challenges of installing a suite of submarine laboratories designed for the cutting-edge of US science.

I close with a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Through the decades I have often been guided and encouraged by these words:

"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.  Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:  that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

"Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

John R. Delaney, Seattle, 13 July 2014