Researchers prepare to wade through an ocean of data

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Researchers prepare to wade through an ocean of data

Using cheap sensors and satellites.

A leading oceanographer predicts Australia is on the cusp of a dramatic increase in information on our marine environment, thanks to big data and low-cost, next-generation sensors.

Director of national research body the Integrated Marine Observing System, Roger Proctor, told iTnews new satellite data and next-generation sensors were driving an unprecedented increase in marine data.

“The emergence in oceanography of big data is only really just beginning. We also face an increase in the diversity of the data we have to handle,” Proctor said.

IMOS is the custodian of the Australian Ocean Data Network, a distributed network of open data from a range of research organisations (including Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology) that can be viewed through a single portal.

Along with satellites, some of the instruments IMOS funds to gather ocean data include gliders, autonomous underwater vehicles, listening devices, argo floats, ships, moorings and passive acoustic curtains that record the movements of tagged fish.

“In-situ sensors are getting cheaper and easier to implement, so we’ll see that scaling up. We see the increase happening over the next three to four years… We expect an increase in the frequency of data delivery as sensor networks become more powerful, and more sensors come on stream,” Proctor said.

“There are new EU Sentinel satellites that are going up that will transform surface properties for various data. The amount of data will be at least an order of magnitude more than is currently collected.

“We’re now starting to explore autonomous methods of measuring marine microbes, and that will be something that we’ll be looking at in the next 12 months.”

One example of how big data is shaping oceanography is the Australian Geoscience Data Cube project, a joint effort between Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

“This project has assembled all the Landsat imagery for the last 40 years into a four-dimensional stack so you can drill through it using supercomputer facilities,” Proctor said.

Additionally, IMOS data is currently being fed into models used by climate scientists to help provide new insights into the impact of climate change on Australian oceans.

“We now have 10 years of oceans data, which is sufficient to start identifying the impacts of climate change, for example understanding how the ocean heat content is changing over time,” Proctor said.

“That means being able to understand how deep water temperatures are changing, not just the surface waters, and where these changes may be occurring.”

Data from IMOS is also used by the offshore energy industry to aid exploration and discovery, as well as to inform government agencies and departments in areas such as fisheries management, Proctor said.

“We’re involved in a project run by BP at the moment in the Great Australian Bight looking to identify and quantify petroleum resources – IMOS’ role is to provide information about the water movements and ecosystem in the Bight,” Proctor said.

“IMOS data is used by fisheries to identify optimal fishing locations. The biological information is used by the Department of Environment in its reporting.”

A recently released federal government research issues paper [pdf] argued that maintaining Australia’s world leadership in marine science meant improved ocean observation capabilities should be a high priority.

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