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Published on August 17th, 2012 | by Andrew

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Solar-Powered Wave Glider Latest Step in Stanford Research Team’s Effort to Build a Pacific Ocean Wi-Fi Hotspot Network for Biodiversity

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August 17th, 2012 by  

Being scalable and modular is one of the big advantages of employing solar and wind energy technology to produce power. From consumer electronics to utility-scale power plants, solar, wind and other renewable power systems are driving our transition out of the fossil fuel era.

Adding to the environmental, social and economic benefits, scientists are helping drive innovation by employing renewable, clean energy technology in new ways, ways that are helping to measure, monitor and analyze human impacts and the state of the natural environment to a degree never before possible.

Besides being a driving force in determining climate, the world ocean provides habitat for an uncounted number of plant and animal species, as well as nutrition and sustenance for billions of people. Concerns have been growing about our use of the oceans and the sustainability of marine biodiversity and fish stocks in the face of increasingly intense industrial fishing, marine pollution and changing ocean chemistry due to a changing climate, however.

Marine scientists and volunteers have been working to increase our knowledge and understanding of the complex ocean environment and the state of the world oceans, and they’re pushing the limits of new clean technology in doing so. This week, an ocean science research team led by Stanford University Marine Sciences Prof. Barbara Block and team deployed a self-propelled, solar-powered, unmanned Wave Glider near the San Francisco coast.

Wi-Fi Hotspots for Marine Species in “The Blue Serengeti”

Equipped with a bevy of custom-designed and -built instruments, launching the Wave Glider is a big step forward toward realizing Prof. Block’s dream of our being able to create what amounts to a health monitoring system that spans the world ocean. It’s “part of a new network including data receivers on fixed buoys that will pick up signals from acoustic tags on marine animals, such as Great White sharks, passing within 1,000 feet,” according to a Stanford University, Hopkins Marine Station press release. The data received will be transmitted to Prof. Block’s shore-based research team.

“Deployment of the Wave Glider is the culmination of years of long, hard work. The long-lasting, relatively inexpensive acoustic tags and the local array of both fixed and mobile ocean transmitters will fine-tune 12 years of insights gleaned from satellite-connected tags used to follow thousands of animals throughout their entire Pacific journeys,” the press release from Monterey Bay states.

The solar-powered Wave Glider launched off the San Francisco coast is the first of what Prof. Block and her team hope will grow into an interconnected network of “ocean Wi-Fi hotspots” when combined with similar devices installed on stationary, moored buoys. The data gleaned from such new, innovative scientific devices is already contributing significantly to our knowledge and understanding of the world ocean and Prof. Block’s “Blue Serengeti Initiative.”

Dr. Block led the global scientific effort that resulted in the publication of the “International Census of Marine Life (2000-2010).” Following on from the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) project, the Wave Glider launch builds on these efforts.

“My mission is to protect ocean biodiversity and the open sea,” Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences, Biology at Stanford, explained. “Our goal is to use revolutionary technology that increases our capacity to observe our oceans and census populations, improve fisheries management models, and monitor animal responses to climate change.”

Bringing Marine Life, and Science, to the Broad Public

Scientific research and researchers at times seem divorced from the public and the lives of everyday people. New information and communications technology is helping change that. “Importantly,” according to Hopkins Marine’s press release, “the public can now follow the tracking of animals in real-time on a smartphone and tablet computer app.”

“People realize this is important, but it’s hard for them to connect on a visceral, personal level to the incredible biodiversity in their own backyard,” Dr. Randall Kochevar, one of the Stanford University developers of the app, said. “Through this app, we’re able to put the Blue Serengeti right in their hands. They can follow individual sharks and learn about their lives and feeding habits.”

A new Apple mobile iOS app created by Dr. Block and colleagues with developers from TOPP, EarthNC and Gaia GPS is available free of charge at the Apple app store. It providers users “with a direct, personal connection between the public and wild marine animals to raise public awareness of the ocean wilderness temming with life just off North America’s West Coast.”

A collaboration among 75 scientists from five countries, TOPP made use of an array of electronic tags to follow the migrations of more than 4,300 individual marine animals, including sharks, tuna, whales, seals, seabirds, and turtles, Hopkins Marine recounts.

The TOPP project and Wave Glider are profiled in a special on the Discovery Channel entitled, “The Great White Highway.” Narrated by long-time actor, ocean environmental advocate and Oceana board member Ted Danson, the program aired Thursday night, Aug. 16, on Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week.”

Spanning a decade (more than 300,000 days) of tracking and monitoring these marine animals, the TOPP team demonstrated that the West Coast of North America is an important hotspot for animals ranging throughout the Pacific,” Hopkins Marine states. Included among the diversity of marine species tracked were “bluefin tuna, white and mako sharks, sooty shearwaters and leatherback sea turtles, elephant seals and blue whales on a seasonal basis that reaches a peak in later summer and early fall.”

Websites and Mobile Apps for the World Ocean

Dr. Block and her research team are now busy wiring up their ocean Wi-Fi hotspot network. The effort includes deploying acoustic detection buoys in key locations known to be areas where Great White sharks have been found to congregate during the time they spend close to shore, a region the Hopkins marine research team has dubbed the “White Shark Cafe.” The mobile app receives detection data from these buoys and notifies users when a shark passes within 1,000 feet or so of the device.

Customizable, interactive maps enable users to explore Pacific Ocean regions frequented by northern California white sharks in real-time. A media gallery includes photos, videos, historical tracking data, and 3D interactive models.

Dr. Block and team are also working to obtain United Nations World Heritage Site status for regions of Pacific where the California Current flows. She likens the importance of these oceanic regions to “the vast African Serengeti plains because of its vital diversity and abundance of life.” “This place is one of the last wild places left on Earth” she was quoted as saying.

Photo Credit: The Discovery Channel, “Shark Week”

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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.



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