Cables spanning Pacific ocean seafloor give ocean science a new edge
Marine scientists and a commercial telecommunications company are
exploring partnerships that could dramatically advance scientists'
ability to observe and study ocean processes, provide early alerts for
potential disasters and study deep Earth geodynamics.
Scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and
engineers at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) are
in the initial discussion stages with Morristown, N.J.-based TE SubCom, a
TE Connectivity Ltd. company and an industry pioneer in undersea
communications technology, to integrate scientific instruments onto
thousands of miles of seafloor communication cables across the Pacific
Ocean. The data collected will be open and available to the global
"This is the first time a commercial telecommunications company's cable
installations will be deployed with embedded science sensors," said John
Orcutt, a distinguished professor of geophysics at Scripps and one of
the leaders of the project. "It provides us with a whole new world of
The exploratory partnership between Scripps researchers, NOAA and TE
SubCom is in the formative stages seeking funding for engineering and
operations and looking at new approaches to collect high-bandwidth ocean
data from the seafloor.
"This is an exciting opportunity to launch a new direction in subsea
telecommunications, as there is significant potential in opening up data
and power connectivity along undersea cables," said Mark Englund,
managing director, TE SubCom. "TE SubCom has a solution for ocean
connectivity with unprecedented performance-to-cost ratios, and together
with Scripps and PMEL, we have the right ingredients to make
cable-based ocean connectivity a reality in every major ocean."
The initial project is envisioned to focus along a cable route spanning
12,950 kilometers (8,105 miles) from Sydney to Auckland and across the
Pacific Ocean to Los Angeles. Initial efforts are exploring the use of
seismometers, pressure gauges and temperature sensors for hazard warning
and mitigation. As funding develops, sensors could be deployed on
future cables for the first time at 75 kilometers (47 miles) spacing.
The sensors could allow NOAA scientists to measure the size and
direction of tsunamis propagating across the ocean more precisely and to
alert disaster management officials and first responders more quickly.
The installation on the seafloor cable has the potential to greatly
reduce long-term costs for tsunami monitoring, while at the same time
dramatically increasing sensor density, accuracy and reliability.
"We've seen an unprecedented number of large and devastating tsunamis
over the last several years," said Christopher Sabine, Director of
NOAA-PMEL. "We must explore new approaches for improving tsunami
detection at lower costs while maintaining our existing capabilities."
The fiber optic cable is capable of transmitting data at a maximum of 40
gigabits per second from deep-sea locations where gaps of instrument
coverage currently exist. For comparison, the entire print collection of
the Library of Congress could be transmitted over the link in just more
than 30 minutes.
"More than 70 percent of the world is water and we need to understand
much more of it," said Orcutt, a scientist at the Cecil H. and Ida M.
Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps. "If this
project expands to other oceans it could change the face of
The collaborators hope the academic-government-industry project will
create a handful of new jobs, primarily in data management and
near-real-time analysis, while providing the scientific community with
an invaluable stream of data.
In addition to seismometers and pressure gauges, the scientific ports
along the cable line could eventually include a comprehensive suite of
sensors such as climate instruments (acoustic tomography and water
column temperature and conductivity, for example) to measure ocean
"We strive to explore new ways of observing the ocean that are
innovative as well as cost-effective. This three-way collaboration
between academia, government and industry could change the way we work,"
Scripps research geophysicist Frank Vernon, deputy director of the NSF
Ocean Observatories Initiative Cyberinfrastructure program, is expected
to use seismological data from the project to supplement details of
Pacific Ocean earthquakes and develop deep images across the Pacific
that presently are not possible.
"Currently we don't have enough seismometers out there, so this effort
will help us better understand the world beneath us," said Vernon. "This
includes our understanding of the plates, the interfaces inside the
Earth and structural components from the crust down to the core."