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But the observatories still depend on battery power and require remotely operated vehicles to retrieve the data. That still leave’s scientists and researchers with a troubling gap between the occurrences of events and their detection.

A better answer may lie in efforts to link the study of marine seismology and other earth sciences with wireless and optical networking, which have been endorsed by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The agency has allocated $250 million over the next five years for an ambitious effort to develop a network of seafloor observatories, dubbed the Ocean Research Interactive Observatory Networks (ORION)

Among the most challenging aspects of the ORION program is managing the streams of real-time data that it will generate from thousands of instruments, says John Orcutt, deputy director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a leading researcher of the middleware that will manage the ORION system.

“Typically in geophysics, you set up instruments to make a measurement, and record the results, or you dial up on a phone line and download the data from time to time,” says Orcutt. “But now we can create a data grid of sensors that all forward their data to the system.

“The tricky part is to interact intelligently with the sensors. Thats something that hasn’t been done much. We’re using it for seismology, but it’s applicable to meteorology, oceanography – all sorts of fields in which you’re using instruments remotely.” 

While the NSF grant covers basic research, Orcutt pointed out the potential commercial applications might include traffic control, with sensors that are buried beneath roadways capable of providing intelligent directions to drivers. 

“Even NASA, which has to remotely manage a lot of instruments, hasn’t had to grapple with anything of this scale,” says Alan Chave, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Chave says a paradigm shift for the study of oceans and marine seismology is in the offing, though it won’t be in his generation, or perhaps even the next.

“Success represents much more than just an incremental change,” agrees Orcutt of the advances ORION could bring. “It represents a change in oceanography.”

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