UVic Torch -- Autumn 2008
Autumn 2008,
Volume 29, Number 2

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By GRANT KERR
Photography by
STEFAN PUETZ/ZEFA/CORBIS


VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada, the underwater observatories, will generate enough information to sink a ship. Project teams are prepared for the outpouring.

Good research and fine wine have a lot in common: depth, legs and complexity that lead to a strong finish. Oceanographer Richard Dewey enjoys both. The former is what he lives for on the job, the latter is a treat that he enjoys in his off hours. As the associate director of research for the VENUS ocean observatory, Dewey’s job is to help fellow scientists collect data from the depths of the Saanich Inlet, Strait of Georgia and the Fraser Delta. And there’s a lot of information to digest.

Traditionally, a scientist “is used to going out on a ship and collecting a sample, like [it was] a glass of wine, and then studying this glass of wine. He swirls it around and sips it and thinks about it and sips it again because he’s only got one glass,” Dewey says. Now, with the incessant gush of data, it’s “like trying to drink wine through a fire hose. It’s rich but it’s almost overwhelming. You can get awfully drunk.”

VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea) and its larger cousin NEPTUNE Canada (North-East Pacific Time-series Undersea Networked Experiments) offer new paths to marine science by letting researchers conduct experiments and observations from remote locations.

Since VENUS arrived, with the activation of its first fibre optic cable on the floor of Saanich Inlet in February 2006, there has been a steady flow of information from instruments recording everything from water temperature, pressure, and oxygen levels to currents, sounds and salinity. They’ve sent half a billion measurements (and counting) back to the University of Victoria.

VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada—UVic is leading both projects—will share a data management and archiving system (DMAS) to handle the information they gather. DMAS, with a staff of 15, has to have capacity and longevity since the projects will be taking the pulse of the Pacific Ocean over a 25-year period.

Some of the 40 scientists who have signed on with Dewey and VENUS won’t be looking at the data for years. “There are climate researchers that want to see long-term trends. They have said, ‘Come tell us when you have five to ten years of data,’” Dewey says.

With the observatories constantly collecting vast amounts of data, one of the main challenges lies in organizing, storing, and making that data web-accessible to the scientific community.

It’s a massive task that involves scientists like Dewey and a technical team that handles all the inflowing information. So they’re essentially designing a “data warehouse. Not only can you shop, you can bring your own stuff,” Dewey says. “It’s a virtual laboratory where [scientists] can share information.”

NEPTUNE Canada’s project director, Chris Barnes, is particularly interested in the long-term evidence scientists will gather about man-made climate change. Barnes says, “we ain’t seen nothing yet” where climate change is concerned. “What scientists can do is provide better information in a more digestible format.”

The NEPTUNE Canada observatory consists of an 800-km ring of cable along the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate that extends from the west coast of Vancouver Island at Port Alberni to depths of 2,600 metres. When activated next year, it will increase the incoming data exponentially. VENUS brings in about 1,000 gigabytes, or a terabyte, of information a year. By 2010, NEPTUNE Canada, together with VENUS, will generate 50 terabytes annually—roughly equal to an iPod filled with 12.5 million songs.

As impressive as that sounds, “It’s small compared to high-energy physics,” says Benoit Pirenne, associate director of DMAS. He should know, having spent 18 years in the IT department of the European Southern Observatory headquarters in Munich.

While Dewey helps recruit and works with the scientists, fulfilling their research wishlists with instruments and information flow, Pirenne, who developed DMAS, is in charge of managing that firehose of data and the network that collects them. How fast will it be? About 5,000 times faster than a high-speed Internet connection.

Data accuracy, abundance and accessibility—they’re all keys to the success of VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada when, as Barnes notes, “we are putting the power of the Internet into the deep ocean.”

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