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Mission Blue Voyage

John Delaney: Wiring an interactive ocean

April 14, 2010

Oceanographer John Delaney is leading the team that is building an underwater network of high-def cameras and sensors that will turn our ocean into a global interactive lab -- sparking an explosion of rich data about the world below.

John Delaney - Oceanographer
John Delaney leads the team that is building a cabled network of deep-ocean sensors that will study, over time and space, the way the ocean's complex processes interact. By networking the ocean to gather data, he's helping to revolutionize ocean science. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
For a moment, what I need to do
00:16
is project something on the screen of your imagination.
00:18
We're in 17th century Japan
00:23
on the west coast,
00:25
and a little, wizened monk
00:28
is hurrying along, near midnight,
00:31
to the crest of a small hill.
00:34
He arrives on the small hill,
00:37
dripping with water.
00:39
He stands there,
00:41
and he looks across at the island, Sado.
00:43
And he scans across the ocean, and he looks at the sky.
00:46
Then he says to himself, very quietly,
00:51
"[Turbulent the sea,]
00:55
[Stretching across to Sado]
00:58
[The Milky Way]."
01:01
Basho was a brilliant man.
01:04
He said more with less
01:08
than any human
01:10
that I have ever read or talked to.
01:12
Basho, in 17 syllables,
01:16
juxtaposed
01:19
a turbulent ocean
01:22
driven by a storm now past,
01:24
and captured the almost
01:28
impossible beauty
01:31
of our home galaxy
01:34
with millions of stars,
01:37
probably hundreds and hundreds of -- who knows how many -- planets,
01:41
maybe even an ocean
01:44
that we will probably call Sylvia in time.
01:46
As he was nearing his death,
01:52
his disciples and followers
01:55
kept asking him,
01:58
"What's the secret?
02:00
How can you
02:02
make haiku poems so beautiful so easily?"
02:04
And toward the end, he said,
02:09
"If you would know the pine tree,
02:14
go to the pine tree."
02:17
That was it.
02:20
(Laughter)
02:22
Sylvia has said we must use
02:25
every capacity we have
02:27
in order to know the oceans.
02:30
If we would know the oceans,
02:32
we must go to the oceans.
02:34
And what I'd like to talk to you today about, a little bit,
02:36
is really transforming
02:39
the relationship, or the interplay,
02:42
between humans and oceans
02:45
with a new capability
02:47
that is not at all routine yet.
02:50
I hope it will be.
02:52
There are a few key points.
02:55
One of them is the oceans are central
02:57
to the quality of life on earth.
02:59
Another is that there are bold, new ways
03:03
of studying oceans
03:06
that we have not used well yet.
03:08
And the last is that these bold, new ways
03:11
that we are exploring
03:13
as a community
03:15
will transform the way we look at our planet, our oceans,
03:17
and eventually how we manage
03:20
probably the entire planet, for what it's worth.
03:22
So what scientists do when they begin
03:27
is to start with the system.
03:29
They define what the system is.
03:31
The system isn't Chesapeake Bay.
03:33
It's not the Kuril arc. It's not even the entire Pacific.
03:35
It's the whole planet,
03:38
the entire planet, continents and oceans together.
03:40
That's the system.
03:43
And basically, our challenge
03:45
is to optimize the benefits
03:47
and mitigate the risks
03:50
of living on a planet that's driven by only two processes,
03:52
two sources of energy,
03:55
one of which is solar,
03:57
that drives the winds, the waves,
03:59
the clouds, the storms and photosynthesis.
04:01
The second one is internal energy.
04:04
And these two war against one another
04:06
almost continuously.
04:08
Mountain ranges, plate tectonics,
04:10
moves the continents around, forms ore deposits.
04:12
Volcanoes erupt.
04:15
That's the planet that we live on.
04:17
It's immensely complex.
04:19
Now I don't expect all of you to see all the details here,
04:21
but what I want you to see is
04:23
this is about 10 percent
04:25
of the processes that operate within
04:28
the oceans almost continuously,
04:30
and have for the last 4 billion years.
04:32
This is a system that's been around a very long time.
04:35
And these have all co-evolved.
04:38
What do I mean by that?
04:40
They interact with one another constantly.
04:42
All of them interact with one another.
04:45
So the complexity of this system that we're looking at,
04:48
the one driven by the sun --
04:51
upper portion, mostly --
04:53
and the lower portion is partly driven
04:55
by the input from heat below
04:57
and by other processes.
04:59
This is very, very important
05:01
because this is the system, this is the crucible,
05:03
out of which life on the planet came,
05:05
and it's now time for us to understand it.
05:08
We must understand it.
05:11
That's one of the themes that Sylvia reminds us about:
05:14
understand this ocean of ours,
05:16
this basic life support system,
05:19
the dominant life support system on the planet.
05:22
Look at this complexity here.
05:26
This is only one variable.
05:28
If you can see the complexity,
05:30
you can see how
05:32
tiny, little eddies
05:34
and large eddies and the motion --
05:37
this is just sea surface temperature,
05:39
but it's immensely complicated.
05:41
Now a layer in,
05:43
the other two or three hundred processes
05:45
that are all interacting,
05:47
partly as a function of temperature, partly as a function of all the other factors,
05:49
and you've got a really complicated system.
05:52
That's our challenge, is to understand,
05:54
understand this system in new and phenomenal ways.
05:57
And there's an urgency to this.
06:00
Part of the urgency comes from the fact
06:03
that, of order, a billion people on the planet currently
06:05
are undernourished or starving.
06:08
And part of the issue
06:11
is for Cody --
06:13
who's here,
06:16
16 years old --
06:18
and I have permission to relay this number.
06:20
When he, 40 years from now,
06:23
is the age of Nancy Brown,
06:26
there are going to be
06:28
another two and a half billion people on the planet.
06:31
We can't solve all the problems
06:35
by looking only at the oceans,
06:38
but if we don't understand
06:40
the fundamental life support system of this planet
06:42
much more thoroughly than we do now,
06:44
then the stresses that we will face,
06:46
and that Cody will face,
06:48
and even Nancy, who's going to live till she's 98,
06:50
will have really problems coping.
06:53
All right, let's talk about another perspective
06:58
on the importance of the oceans.
07:00
Look at this diagram, which is showing
07:03
warm waters in red,
07:06
cool waters in blue,
07:08
and on the continents, what you're seeing in bright green,
07:10
is the growth of vegetation,
07:13
and in olive green, the dieback of vegetation.
07:15
And in the lower left hand corner there's a clock ticking away
07:17
from 1982 to 1998
07:20
and then cycling again.
07:22
What you'll see is that the rhythms
07:25
of growth, of vegetation --
07:27
a subset of which is food on the continents --
07:30
is directly tied to the rhythms
07:32
of the sea surface temperatures.
07:34
The oceans control,
07:37
or at least significantly influence,
07:39
correlate with,
07:42
the growth patterns and the drought patterns
07:44
and the rain patterns on the continents.
07:46
So people in Kansas, in a wheat field in Kansas,
07:48
need to understand that the oceans
07:51
are central to them as well.
07:53
Another complexity: this is the age of the oceans.
07:55
I'm going to layer in on top of this
07:58
the tectonic plates.
08:00
The age of the ocean, the tectonic plates,
08:03
gives rise to a totally new phenomenon
08:06
that we have heard about
08:08
in this conference.
08:10
And I share with you some very high-definition video
08:12
that we collected in real time.
08:15
Seconds after this video was taken,
08:18
people in Beijing,
08:21
people in Sydney, people in Amsterdam,
08:23
people in Washington D.C. were watching this.
08:25
Now you've heard of hydrothermal vents,
08:28
but the other discovery
08:30
is that deep below the sea floor,
08:32
there is vast reservoir of microbial activity,
08:35
which we have only just discovered
08:38
and we have almost no way to study.
08:40
Some people have estimated
08:43
that the biomass
08:45
tied up in these microbes
08:47
living in the pours and the cracks
08:49
of the sea floor and below
08:51
rival the total amount of living biomass
08:54
at the surface of the planet.
08:56
It's an astonishing insight,
08:58
and we have only found out about this recently.
09:00
This is very, very exciting.
09:02
It may be the next rainforest,
09:05
in terms of pharmaceuticals.
09:08
We know little or nothing about it.
09:10
Well, Marcel Proust has this wonderful saying
09:14
that, "The real voyage of discovery
09:17
consists not so much in seeking new territory,
09:19
but possibly in having new sets of eyes,"
09:22
new ways of seeing things,
09:25
a new mindset.
09:27
And many of you remember
09:29
the early stages of oceanography,
09:31
when we had to use what we had at our fingertips.
09:33
And it wasn't easy. It wasn't easy in those days.
09:36
Some of you remember this, I'm sure.
09:39
And now, we have an entire suite of tools
09:44
that are really pretty powerful --
09:47
ships, satellites, moorings.
09:49
But they don't quite cut it. They don't quite give us what we need.
09:53
And the program that I wanted to talk to you about
09:56
just a little bit here,
09:58
was funded, and it involves autonomous vehicles
10:00
like the one running across the base of this image.
10:03
Modeling: on the right hand side,
10:06
there's a very complex computational model.
10:09
On the left hand side, there's a new type of mooring,
10:12
which I'll show you in just a second.
10:14
And on the basis
10:16
of several points,
10:18
the oceans are complex, and they're central to the life on earth.
10:20
They are changing rapidly, but not predictably.
10:23
And the models that we need to predict the future
10:26
do not have enough data to refine them.
10:28
The computational power
10:30
is amazing.
10:32
But without data, those models
10:34
will never ever be predicted.
10:36
And that's what we really need.
10:38
For a variety of reasons they're dangerous,
10:40
but we feel that OOI,
10:42
this Ocean Observatory Initiative,
10:44
which the National Science Foundation
10:46
has begun to fund,
10:48
has the potential to really transform things.
10:50
And the goal of the program is to
10:52
launch an era of scientific discovery
10:54
and understanding
10:56
across and within the ocean basins,
10:58
utilizing widely accessible,
11:00
interactive telepresence.
11:03
It's a new world.
11:06
We will be present throughout
11:08
the volume of the ocean, at will,
11:10
communicating in real time.
11:13
And this is what the system involves,
11:15
a number of sites in the southern hemisphere,
11:17
shown in those circles.
11:20
And in the northern hemisphere there are four sites.
11:22
I won't talk a lot about most of them right here,
11:24
but the one on the west coast, that's in the box,
11:27
is called the regional scale nodes.
11:29
It was once called Neptune.
11:32
And let me show you what's behind it.
11:34
Fiber: next-generation way of communicating.
11:37
You can see the copper tips on these things.
11:40
You can transmit power,
11:43
but the bandwidth is in those tiny, little threads
11:45
smaller than the hair on your head in diameter.
11:48
And this particular set here
11:51
can transmit something of the order of
11:54
three to five terabits per second.
11:56
This is phenomenal bandwidth.
11:59
And this is what the planet looks like.
12:01
We are already laced up
12:03
as if we're in a fiber optic corset, if you like.
12:05
This is what it looks like.
12:08
And the cables go really continent to continent.
12:10
It's a very powerful system,
12:13
and most of our communications consist of it.
12:15
So this is the system that I'm talking about,
12:17
off the west coast. It's coincident with the tectonic plate,
12:19
the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate.
12:22
And it's going to deliver abundant power
12:24
and unprecedented bandwidth
12:26
across this entire volume --
12:28
in the overlying ocean,
12:30
on the sea floor and below the sea floor.
12:32
Bandwidth and power
12:34
and a wide variety of processes
12:36
that will be operating.
12:38
This is what one of those primary nodes looks like,
12:40
and it's like a sub station with power and bandwidth
12:42
that can spread out over an area the size of Seattle.
12:45
And the kind of science that can be done
12:49
will be determined by a variety of scientists who want to be involved
12:51
and can bring the instrumentation to the table.
12:54
They will bring it and link it in.
12:57
It'll be, in a sense, like having time on a telescope,
12:59
except you'll have your own port.
13:02
Climate change, ocean acidification,
13:05
dissolved oxygen,
13:07
carbon cycle, coastal upwelling,
13:09
fishing dynamics --
13:11
the full spectrum of
13:13
earth science and ocean science
13:15
simultaneously in the same volume.
13:17
So anyone coming along later
13:19
simply accesses the database
13:21
and can draw down the information they need
13:24
about anything that has taken place.
13:26
And this is just the first of these.
13:28
In conjunction with our Canadian colleagues, we've set this up.
13:31
Now I want to take you into the caldera.
13:34
On the left hand side there
13:36
is a large volcano called Axial Seamount.
13:38
And we're going to go down into the Axial Seamount
13:41
using animation.
13:43
Here's what this system is going to look like
13:45
that we are funded to build at this point.
13:47
Very powerful.
13:50
That's an elevator that's constantly moving up and down,
13:52
but it can be controlled by the folks on land
13:54
who are responsible for it.
13:57
Or they can transfer control
13:59
to someone in India or China
14:01
who can take over for a while,
14:03
because it's all going to be directly connected
14:05
through the Internet.
14:07
There will be massive amounts of data flowing ashore,
14:09
all available to anyone who has any interest in using it.
14:12
This is going to be much more powerful
14:15
than having a single ship
14:17
in a single location,
14:19
then move to a new location.
14:21
We're flying across the caldera floor.
14:23
There is a number of robotic systems.
14:27
There's cameras that can be turned on and off at your will,
14:29
if those are your experiments.
14:32
The kinds of systems that will be down there,
14:34
the kinds of instruments that will be on the sea floor,
14:36
consist of -- if you can read them there --
14:39
there's cameras, there's pressure sensors,
14:41
fluorometers, there's seismometers.
14:43
It's a full spectrum of tools.
14:45
Now, that mound right there
14:47
actually looks like this.
14:49
This is what it actually looks like.
14:51
And this is the kind of activity
14:54
that we can see with high-definition video,
14:56
because the bandwidth of these cables
14:58
is so huge
15:01
that we could have five to 10
15:03
stereo HD systems
15:05
running continuously
15:07
and, again, directed through robotic techniques from land.
15:09
Very, very powerful.
15:14
And these are the things that we're funded to do today.
15:17
So what can we actually do tomorrow?
15:19
We're about to ride the wave
15:21
of technological opportunity.
15:23
There are emerging technologies throughout
15:26
the field around oceanography,
15:29
which we will incorporate into oceanography,
15:31
and through that convergence,
15:33
we will transform oceanography into something even more magical.
15:35
Robotics systems are just incredible these days,
15:39
absolutely incredible.
15:42
And we will be bringing robotics of all sorts
15:44
into the ocean.
15:46
Nanotechnology: this is a small generator.
15:49
It's smaller than a postage stamp,
15:51
and it can generate power just by being
15:53
attached to your shirt as you move.
15:55
Just as you move, it generates power.
15:57
There are many kinds of things that can be used in the ocean, continuously.
16:00
Imaging: Many of you know a good deal more about this type of thing than I,
16:05
but stereo imaging at four times the definition
16:08
that we have in HD
16:11
will be routine within five years.
16:13
And this is the magic one.
16:15
As a result of the human genome process,
16:17
we are in a situation where
16:19
events that take place in the ocean --
16:21
like an erupting volcano, or something of that sort --
16:24
can actually be sampled.
16:26
We pump the fluid through one of these systems,
16:28
and we press the button,
16:31
and it's analyzed for the genomic character.
16:33
And that's transmitted back to land immediately.
16:35
So in the volume of the ocean,
16:38
we will know, not just the physics and the chemistry,
16:40
but the base of the food chain
16:43
will be transparent to us
16:45
with data on a continuous basis.
16:47
Grid computing: the power of grid computers
16:50
is going to be just amazing here.
16:52
We will soon be using grid computing
16:54
to do pretty much everything, like adjust the data
16:56
and everything
16:59
that goes with the data.
17:01
The power generation will come from the ocean itself.
17:03
And the next generation fiber
17:06
will be simply magic.
17:08
It's far beyond what we currently have.
17:10
So the presence of the power
17:13
and the bandwidth in the environment
17:15
will allow all of these new technologies
17:17
to converge in a manner that is just unprecedented.
17:19
So within five to seven years,
17:22
I see us having
17:24
a capacity to be completely present
17:26
throughout the ocean
17:28
and have all of that connected to the Internet,
17:30
so we can reach many, many folks.
17:32
Delivering the power and the bandwidth into the ocean
17:35
will dramatically accelerate adaptation.
17:38
Here's an example.
17:41
When earthquakes take place, massive amounts
17:43
of these new microbes we've never seen before
17:45
come out of the sea floor.
17:47
We have a way of addressing that,
17:49
a new way of addressing that.
17:51
We've determined from the earthquake activity that you're seeing here
17:54
that the top of that volcano is erupting,
17:57
so we deploy the troops.
18:00
What are the troops? The troops are the autonomous vehicles, of course.
18:02
And they fly into the erupting volcano.
18:05
They sample the fluids coming out of the sea floor
18:08
during an eruption,
18:10
which have the microbes that have never been
18:12
to the surface of the planet before.
18:14
They eject it to the surface where it floats,
18:16
and it is picked up
18:18
by an autonomous airplane,
18:20
and it's brought back to the laboratory
18:23
within 24 hours of the eruption.
18:26
This is doable. All the pieces are there.
18:28
A laboratory: many of you heard what happened
18:34
on 9/7.
18:36
Some doctors in New York City removed
18:38
the gallbladder of a woman in France.
18:40
We could do work on the sea floor that would be stunning,
18:44
and it would be on live TV,
18:46
if we have interesting things to show.
18:48
So we can bring an entirely new telepresence
18:51
to the world, throughout the ocean.
18:54
This -- I've shown you sea floor --
18:57
but so the goal here is real time interaction
18:59
with the oceans from anywhere on earth.
19:01
It's going to be amazing.
19:06
And as I go here,
19:09
I just want to show you what we can bring into classrooms,
19:11
and indeed, what we can bring into your pocket.
19:14
Many of you don't think of this yet,
19:20
but the ocean will be in your pocket.
19:22
It won't be long. It won't be long.
19:24
So let me leave you then
19:28
with a few words
19:31
from another poet, if you'll forgive me.
19:33
In 1943,
19:39
T.S. Eliot wrote the "Four Quartets."
19:41
He won the Nobel Prize for literature
19:43
in 1948.
19:45
In "Little Gidding" he says --
19:48
speaking I think for the human race,
19:50
but certainly for the TED Conference and Sylvia --
19:52
"We shall not cease from exploration,
19:56
and the end of all our exploring
19:59
will be to arrive where we started
20:01
and know the place for the first time,
20:03
arrive through the unknown remembered gate
20:06
where the last of earth left to discover
20:09
is that which was the beginning.
20:12
At the source of the longest river
20:15
the voice of a hidden waterfall
20:18
not known because not looked for,
20:21
but heard, half heard
20:25
in the stillness beneath the waves of the sea."
20:29
Thank you.
20:33
(Applause)
20:35

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John Delaney - Oceanographer
John Delaney leads the team that is building a cabled network of deep-ocean sensors that will study, over time and space, the way the ocean's complex processes interact. By networking the ocean to gather data, he's helping to revolutionize ocean science.

Why you should listen

John Delaney studies the physical, chemical and biological interactions found in the mid-ocean ridge system, specifically on the deep-sea volcanoes along the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the northeast Pacific Ocean. It's a complex, changeable world (that's also quite hard to get to). As part of the NSF's Ocean Observatories Initiative, Delaney is spearheading a bold new plan to gather unprecedented amounts of oceanic data.

Starting this year, Delaney and his team at the University of Washington are implanting robotic sensor arrays along the Juan de Fuca Ridge and other ocean sites, on the ocean floor and throughout the water column, all linked to the Internet via submarine electro-optical cables. The system will document and measure once-inaccessible phenomena such as erupting volcanoes, migration patterns, submarine slumps, undersea earthquakes and storms -- and it will feed that data into ever-richer computer models of ocean behavior.

The original video is available on TED.com
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