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What lies beneath?

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Momentum for a global network of ocean observatories has been building for years, as the number of disparate ocean observing systems have grown. But 2003 appears to mark a turning point.

In February, members of the European Union agreed to develop a sea-floor observatory network that could stretch from the Arctic through the Strait of Gibraltar to the Black Sea. The number and locations of the observatories are still under discussion.

Meanwhile, the United States is moving forward with two major federally funded marine-observatory initiatives.

Their architects expect the efforts to yield breakthroughs in basic ocean science as well as in techniques for forecasting a range of marine conditions - from the effects of cold water welling up on coastlines to harmful algae blooms and beach erosion.

Sea change

The growing interest in using fixed instruments to look at the same patch of ocean for a long period of time reflects a sea change in the questions marine scientists are trying to answer, according to Robert Detrick, a marine geophysicist at WHOI.

For years, ocean expeditions tended to focus on measuring conditions or features at the handful of places that researchers found interesting.

"Now, people are pushing to understand change in the ocean" and its interplay with changes in climate and marine ecosystems, Dr. Detrick says.

Relying solely on ship expeditions also can rule out the chance to study some of these changes at their most interesting turning points, adds colleague Margaret Tivey.

"The ship has to go during certain weather windows. The ship can't go when the weather's poor. Now, if you're trying to find out about beach erosion or shelf erosion, when do you think [these] things happen?" she asks.

With observatory sensors on the sea floor and along buoy mooring lines, however, it's possible to watch foul-weather processes unfold as they happen from the safety of a warm, dry office.

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