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The Big Picture

(Credit: David Fierstein © 2001 MBARI)

The U.S. Integrated Ocean Observation System for monitoring and protecting our Coastal, Marine, and Great Lakes Environments

Fishermen check tide charts. Surfers look for wave reports. Beachgoers tune in to local weather forecasts to see if the sun will shine. Lifeguards and beach managers survey water quality reports. And Coast Guard officers watch for storm warnings. Life on the coast—whether you’re there to catch dinner, surf the waves, relax, or even save a life—is about keeping an eye on the ever-changing conditions.

Today, a major effort is underway to modernize and coordinate the many different ways people observe and study the ocean. That effort is the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS.

“The United States is facing increasing needs for oceanographic data—for our safety and health, to better predict weather and climate, and for better managing our marine resources,” says Dr. Mary G. Altalo, Director of Ocean.US, the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observations.

The idea behind IOOS is to create a comprehensive, organized network of ocean and coastal observations—from satellites, buoys, and research vessels to coastal radar and basic, old-fashioned water sampling—that will vastly improve our ability to collect and share information with those who need it. The benefits to society will be huge.

A Commitment to the Oceans

The concept for establishing such a network has been around for more than a decade, part of an even larger international partnership led by the United Nations to create a Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). IOOS really began picking up steam in 2004, when both the U.S. Congress and White House issued comprehensive reports outlining actions needed for sustaining the many vital resources the oceans and Great Lakes provide the nation.

Both reports call for stepping up the nation’s commitment to adding an integrated ocean observation system into the larger Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS):

Working together, our nations will develop and link observation technologies for tracking weather and climate changes in every corner of the world, which will allow us to make more informed decisions affecting our environment and economies. Our cooperation will enable us to develop the capability to predict droughts, prepare for weather emergencies, plan and protect crops, manage coastal areas and fisheries, and monitor air quality.

President George W. Bush
Statement on Earth Observation Summit (July 31, 2001),
as quoted in the U.S. Ocean Action Plan (2004)

Casting a Wide Net

The potential benefits of coordinating new and existing ocean observation programs and putting new technologies online as they emerge will pay benefits to a host of communities and industries. IOOS will advance goals in seven important areas:

To get an idea of how IOOS will work, take the example of environmental protection. “As the major federal regulatory agency involved in environmental protection, the U.S. EPA has a wealth of experience designing and implementing monitoring programs to learn how to keep our oceans and coasts safe and healthy. As part of IOOS, EPA is partners with more than nine other federal agencies, all utilizing and enhancing those programs,” says Dr. Brian Melzian, an Oceanographer leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to develop and coordinate IOOS.

According to Dr. Melzian, the program would link an array of technologies and observation efforts; satellites, aircraft, ships, deep sea observation platforms, buoys, and coastal radar would all be employed to collect information.

This air force and flotilla of observation technologies, in turn, would funnel a wealth of data—from sea surface conditions (wind, waves, temperature, salinity), to biological information (the species and abundance of fish, plankton, and pathogens), and even the chemical composition of water (dissolved oxygen and contaminants)—to a centralized data depository. This data would then be available to those who could use it.

While that system may at first seem unwieldy, a similar system was developed to great success over a century and a half ago: the National Weather Service (NWS). IOOS will work a lot like NWS. Observations made across broad areas, using many different technologies, will be made available to those who can use, study, and interpret them. Once translated—perhaps by a favorite television meteorologist—that information helps people make important decisions, from whether to pack an umbrella to when to head for higher ground.

The U.S. EPA will continue to work in partnership with other federal and state agencies, academia, industry, and nongovernmental organizations as it continues to develop and implement IOOS to the benefit of the country and the international community.

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