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The Long-Term Ecosystem Observatory – A Key Piece of an Integrated Observing Network Puzzle

 Real time capabilities for rapid environmental assessment and physical/biological forecasting

By Taylor Sisk and Felipe Arzayus

map of coastal New Jersey showing the location of the two LEO-15 nodes and the field station

Located 9-Kilometers off the coast of New Jersey, near Tuckerton, the LEO-15 research node stations provide real time data from the edge of the continental shelf, an area of significant importance in our understanding of coastal-open ocean interactions. (larger image)

schematic shows array of underwater data sensors connected to LEO-15

LEO-15 is designed to collect oceanographic data with high temporal resolution – these data encompass in situ , remotely sensed and meteorological types, derived from multiple agencies and platforms. (larger image)

At the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (IMCS) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the home of NOAA's Undersea Research Program (NURP) Mid-Atlantic Bight Center, oceanographers are observing the ocean, each day taking in the Mid-Atlantic Bight from a fish's eye view. It's a perspective afforded by a cabled ocean-based Long-Term Ecosystem observatory, better known as LEO-15 because of its placement in 15-meters of water off the coast of New Jersey, near Tuckerton. With data gathered from LEO-15 and its support vehicles, these oceanographers are coming to better understand at least this one little pocket of the Atlantic. Their objective is to learn what they may of the forces that govern coastal waters; of the factors, manmade and natural, that are contributing to the decline in health of the oceans; and of how to more fully and wisely take advantage of the oceans' considerable resources. In so doing, they're consistently revealing new mysteries, the results of which may improve our lives in ways we can't yet imagine.

A primary objective of those involved in the operation of LEO-15, and of a cadre of committed oceanographers across the country, is to build a complementary system in a growing network of national observatories all along our coastal waters.

"LEO-15's greatest success," says Mike De Luca, "has been in demonstrating that the scientific community can provide information at the temporal and spatial scales necessary to improve environmental decision-making." De Luca is senior associate director of IMCS as well as Director of the NOAA Undersea Research Program's Mid-Atlantic Bight center. "Our efforts now are on scaling LEO-15 up," De Luca continues, "and on building a national network of observatory systems."

De Luca and his colleagues are hopeful.

"Congress is interested," says Larry Atkinson, former National Science Foundation liaison for the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observations, or Ocean.US, and Director of the Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography at Old Dominion University. "The commission on ocean policy is recommending it; we now have the technical ability to do it, and a lot of people have the need."

While most or all observatories will contribute data toward a national, and global, perspective of the oceans, there is not a one-size-fits-all observatory; each must be capable of responding to specific regional needs.

"This discussion on how to construct a national network of coastal observing systems has been going on for several years now," says De Luca, "and LEO-15 is the model on which these discussions align."

"We want to have more of the operations and the decision-making done at the local level,” Atkinson explains, “while still providing a national backbone, because there are a lot of things everybody needs – wind speeds, surface temperatures, sea level."

"If you look at the Gulf of Mexico, they would probably focus more on near-shore fisheries and oil-spill risks, whereas off New Jersey it might be more search and rescue, recreation and concerns with hypoxia."

Recently, Ocean.US brought together regional associations dedicated to a national network of observatories. Each association presented an overview of their regional efforts, and a list of priorities for establishing a national federation was drafted. As Scott Glenn, professor of physical oceanography at IMCS, put it, "This was viewed by everyone I talked to as a major positive step forward … the first time the entire U.S. coastal community came together for this purpose."

Cooperation among regions is absolutely of the essence. Without the capacity and disposition of each regional observatory to communicate what it sees, there can be no network.

"We are developing that sense of community," says Oscar Schofield, a biological oceanographer and professor at IMCS. And that's what it's all about.


"LEO-15 started out as a research observatory," says De Luca, "and we're now trying to transfer it into a coastal ocean observing system, which would entail more routine operations, collections of data for very specific purposes as dictated by user needs – industry, government agencies, and other academic institutions."

This new role for LEO-15 required a significant upgrade in 2005 to ensure that the observatory continued to support undersea research programs, that it would integrate into the emerging network of coastal ocean observing systems, and that LEO-15 continued to serve as a proving ground for emerging sampling and sensing technology. The upgrades addressed a variety of technical issues associated with power, communications, the software operating system, autoprofiling and maintenance of connections to the electro-optic cable that connects LEO-15 to the Internet.

One of LEO-15s nodes

This is one of the two LEO-15 nodes. The nodes are linked to the Rutgers Marine Field Station in Tuckerton , NJ , with an electro-optic cable, providing a real time connection between the undersea world and the internet.

Port simulator lets researchers test equipment prioe to installation on the nodes

Port Simulators replicate in the laboratory the Ethernet science ports aboard LEO-15, allowing researchers to test equipment prior to installation on the nodes.


"There's a great deal of effort underway worldwide to build observatories," says Schofield, "and not just cable systems – radar systems, for example, leading to new ways to do search and rescue or to assist in national defense."

Another area of considerable interest is the effects of sea breeze on power usage.

"When there's a sea breeze," Schofield elaborates, "you don't turn on your air conditioning. So there's a log of interest in gauging and monitoring breeze. Power companies buy energy in advance, but they do it without any strong sense of whether there will be a sea breeze or not. There's a potential there to save millions of dollars in being able to make those predictions. We've gotten a lot better at predicting the weather, and a major reason for that is observatories."

"The traditional way to do oceanography is with cables," Schofield adds, "but that only gives you a point in space. This is a big lesson we've taken from LEO-15. We need to have spatial, real-time data and it needs to be of scientific quality."

"This discussion on how to construct a national network of coastal observing systems has been going on for several years now," says De Luca, "and LEO-15 is the model on which these discussions align."


The NOAA Undersea Research Program (NURP) is assuming a leading and active role in the development of a networked observatory system. NURP-supported observatories through its regional centers include LEO-15 as well as Aquarius and the soon to be formed Gulf of Mexico Gas Hydrates Seafloor Observatory. NURP's National Institute of Undersea Science and Technology, provides expertise in undersea vehicle design and development, in addition to opening new grounds in undersea research engineering and biotechnology.

Other participants would include academic institutions, government agencies and industry.

"The idea," Larry Atkinson explains, "is, first, to provide some modest funding to get regions organized. The second part is to provide funds to try out some new observing systems that might be in the research stage now, that could perhaps be moved into a pilot-project stage and have them tested a little more thoroughly."

"I think everybody agrees having the regions do this is the best approach. But the regions must first self-organize. It could be a different kind of organizational structure in each area.

"The view right now is that while there's a lot of observing being done, because it's not well integrated it's very difficult to get at all the different forms of data – from remote sensing to fish counts – and use it for both research and management. So by creating an integrated observing system you provide a way to integrate these data sources.

The requisite technology is improving, and costs are coming down. Still, cable is very expensive. "Fiber optics will get you what you want," Schofield says, "but we're never going to have the money to completely cable with fiber optics. We need to use satellites and AUVs, which are, relatively speaking, much cheaper."

Much work remains to be done. "We've got a long ways to go," Atkinson allows. The drive, though, is there. "We seem to be getting over the hump; the politicians see the advantages. There are some studies now being funded that are addressing the economic benefits.

"It's a great way to do science, and it's also a great way to help people who support us. ‘Do I want to go fishing tomorrow?' ‘Where?'" – these are the sorts of questions an observing system could help answer for the general public.


"The issues of how we observe the ocean are being researched with LEO-15," says Atkinson. "LEO-15 is a research test-bed site.

"In the end, there isn't going to be a LEO-15 site every 15 miles. We need to find more economical ways of doing this. What LEO-15 has shown though is how you can take an incredibly diverse suite of information and bring it in and blend it into a model so that you can actually visualize a chunk of the ocean."

Is he optimistic?

"I'd have to be; otherwise I'd go nuts. We're trying to figure out how to do things interagency and weave them through our government. It's a challenge. How to engage private industry is another big challenge. We just hope to get some early small successes. If a region can show that they're getting organized and get some pilot projects going, then show that there can be some data sharing between the regional groups and federal agencies – that'll be the key."

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Updated: November 2, 2005