Greg Ulses, VP for Ocean Observing at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

Learn about the world’s largest ocean observatory and the importance of ocean observing systems – such as AUVs – in facing ocean challenges

Interview by Viktoria Pashtriku

Today we are interviewing Greg Ulses, the Vice President for Ocean Observing at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership (COL) and Program Manager for the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI).

He shares with us what it is like maintaining one of the world’s largest ocean observatories, the importance of ocean observing systems – such as AUVs – in facing ocean challenges and how transitioning between the Navy to COL has been.

Viktoria Pashtriku: For starters, can you give us a little background on the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, its mission and your role there?

Greg Ulses: The Consortium for Ocean Leadership is made up of around 100 members which consist of leading oceanographic research institutes, aquariums and a number of ocean science and technology companies and industry organizations. On their collective behalf, the Consortium pursues several primary missions, which include working to develop sound ocean policy, facilitating ocean research and education efforts, and working together to get our academic and industrial efforts operating more effectively.

Another prime COL mission is that we run a number of national-level oceanographic research, education and science projects. One of which is the Ocean Observatories Initiative. The Consortium for Ocean Leadership is the broad organization that manages the Ocean Observatories Initiative. I am, personally, dual-hatted: I am the Program Manager for the Ocean Observatories Initiative and the Vice-President for Ocean Observing at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

Greg Ulses (Top: An autonomous underwater vehicle used by OOI. Source: Veronique LaCapra, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

VP: Can you explain the Ocean Observatories Initiative and why it was developed?

GU: The Ocean Observatories Initiative is a National Science Foundation funded program that essentially is the world’s largest ocean observatory. It consists of over 900 instruments that are set up on seven arrays throughout the world. The observatory was built over the course of the last seven years and this is its first year of full operation. We built it in order to have a long-term global observatory that is focused on collecting data to answer a set of main scientific themes. That data collection then connects via an associated cyber infrastructure and makes it available online, to anyone, for free!

VP: Can you tell us about these main scientific themes?

GU: OOI is focused on six main scientific themes. The first main scientific theme is Ocean-Atmosphere Exchange. We’ve got a variety of instruments that are focused on collecting data on air-sea exchange of energy and mass. The next scientific themes are Climate Variability, Ocean Circulation and Ecosystems. One of the great things about OOI is that the system is designed to be in the water and collect continuous data streams for as long as 25 years. This is going to allow unprecedented temporal and spatial data sets to be collected. It can really help us look at long-term processes such as weather patterns and climate change over time, which will help us understand how climate variability is affected. The third scientific theme is Turbulent Mixing and Biophysical Interactions. We have a lot of instruments looking at the transferring of materials from the surface to the deep ocean.

Then there is the focus on Coastal Ocean Dynamics and Ecosystems. OOI has several arrays, both coastal and global. The coastal arrays can be used to help understand coastal resources.

The next two scientific themes are actually pretty interesting. We have a cabled array set up over some elements of the plate boundary off of the Washington coast. Some of the instrumentation packages there are effectively set up as a volcanic observatory on the actual seamount. This main theme allows us to look at Fluid-Rock Interactions and the Sub-Seafloor Biosphere. That same cabled array is also designed to capture information regarding Plate-scale Geodynamics, which is our last main scientific theme. All the data we are collecting, specializing in these main themes, is very fascinating and is helping us understand our ocean much better.

VP: You mentioned that this was the first year of full operation. What have been some of the biggest challenges that you have found?

GU: Although this is our first year of full operation, some of the instruments have been operating for a while now. But 2016 is the first year that the system has fully transitioned from construction, which took about seven years, into full on operations. This means that all of the instruments are inserted and working. The National Science Foundation has committed to keeping OOI running for at least the next 25 years.

In respect to running the whole program, I think I would put the challenges into two main buckets. One of them is the overall challenge of keeping all the machinery running. The ocean is a particularly harsh environment and we’ve got over 900 instruments facing that harsh environment. This requires a lot of work to maintain everything.

“I recently wrapped up over 25 years in the Navy. In the Navy I was a naval oceanographer, which I think in many ways helped facilitate my transition into this job…I was very excited about it from the get-go.”

VP: What is the process of maintaining so many instruments like?

GU: The entire observatory – all arrays, associated moorings, instruments and systems – are actually designed specifically to be pulled out of the water periodically, replaced and refurbished. The logistics behind that process is actually an amazing challenge. We take advantage of the NSF funded research fleet and take those ships out during the year: twice every year to the three coastal arrays, and once every year to the more remote global arrays.

During these cruises, we pull all of the moorings and instruments out of the water and drop in an entirely new set of moorings and instrument packages. The moorings we pull out are then taken back to the shore, disassembled and put through several months of refurbishments.

As I think you can imagine, the continuous logistic cycle of keeping all of those plates spinning and keeping all of those instruments operating – they are always in some state of either in the water and operating, or just coming out of the water, or getting refurbished, or getting bench tested in preparation for going back in the water – is quite a challenging one.

VP: That does sound like a big challenge! Who performs this procedure at OOI?

GU: All of that work is primarily done by what we call our implementing organizations. Three universities, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Oregon State University and the University of Washington are our marine implementing organizations. Over the past seven years they have designed, built and deployed all of the elements of this observatory. They are also responsible for all of the maintenance that I have described. Simply put, the logistics involved in all of that maintenance is a remarkable challenge and there are a lot of folks working very hard to make sure that the instruments stay in the water and are working. So I would say that’s one fundamental challenge.

Ocean Observatories Initiative stations (Source: National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative)

VP: What is the second challenge that you’ve encountered during this first year of full operation of the OOI?

GU: The second fundamental challenge is maintaining and keeping operational the cyber infrastructure that is retrieving all of the data, processing it, storing it and making it available to the scientific user community, educational community and anyone else who wants to view or download it. I am certainly comfortable saying that the user interface and portal, the cyber infrastructure, is literally the public face of the whole program. So if the data are not getting out for the users, it doesn’t matter how well all of the hardware is working.

This means that keeping the cyber infrastructure running smoothly is another challenge that we have a hard working group of people running it. Our implement organization, Rutgers University, is the program manager for the cyber-infrastructure; they actually run the data centers and are maintaining and operating the cyber infrastructure that underlies the system.

VP: Let’s switch gears a little bit. I wonder, how important do you believe the role of AUVs, sensors and other ocean observing systems are in facing oceanographic challenges, particularly when you explain how challenging it is to implement and maintain them?

GU: They are a very important element of the observatory. We have both propeller-driven AUVs and ocean gliders. Essentially, we use those vehicles to collect data in the water masses between and beyond our moorings. That’s very important — the moorings are geographically separated and we need the unmanned vehicles to continuously collect data between them in order to create a complete data set that captures the entire water map where the arrays are deployed. So they are critical.

VP: There is such a wide range of types of vehicles and systems to use. How does OOI determine which vehicles are best to use?

GU: Specific environments dictate the use of different kinds of vehicles. For example, ocean gliders are great at collecting data in remote locations over long periods of time. However, they have their limitations because they have no motor or engine.

Sometimes there are some ocean phenomena which require the use of powered AUVs to observe the data. Powered AUVs can move through ocean fronts and other features and get synaptic transits that we are after which are more difficult to get with gliders since they are unpowered.

The unique challenge is that we are operating these vehicles, particularly gliders, on the order of six months to a year. There are not many other organizations that are operating gliders on that kind of time scale. This means we are also gathering a lot of data about the challenges we are finding once you operate a glider beyond a few months time. Eventually, you start to put a lot of wear and tear on that vehicle. So seeing how much the vehicles can handle has been interesting and we are gathering a lot of data on that for other people to learn from us.

“The size and scale of it, the cutting-edge technology, all of this infrastructure and the fact that we are committed to running it for at least 25 years – is really remarkable and I am very excited to be a part of it!”

VP: You mentioned the Navy and I understand that you personally have over 25 years of experience in the Navy and military. I wonder what has the transitioning experience been for you from there to working at OOI?

GU: I’m glad you asked! I recently wrapped up over 25 years in the Navy. In the Navy I was a naval oceanographer, which I think in many ways helped facilitate my transition into this job. I was actually specifically recruited to come in and run this program because of my experience. I was very excited about it from the get go. I had been very interested in trying to transition into a post-Navy job that would allow me to serve in a leadership role in ocean science and development of ocean policy, either in government or in a nonprofit. This program really fit the bill perfectly! What really excited me about it then, and now, is the amazing potential the program has to deliver some great science to the nation and the research community at large for free online.

Now that this thing is really up and running – just the size and scale of it, the cutting-edge technology, all of this infrastructure and the fact that we are committed to running it for at least 25 years – is really remarkable and I am very excited to be a part of it. In my mind, it probably makes the transition out of the Navy easier just to be able to walk into a program that is this exciting! The transition between construction and operations is also a very exciting time to be a part of the program. It all really mirrors some of the aspects of service and being part of something bigger than yourself – which is what motivated me about being in the Navy. And now I can do that here!

A schematic of OOI infrastructure.(Source: National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative)

VP: How important do you think it is for small businesses to get involved in these kinds of initiatives and how can they get involved?

GU: Well, I can probably answer that in two ways, with both my Consortium for Ocean Leadership hat on and my OOI hat on. Let’s do OOI first. For the OOI, the initial round of instrumentation that was put out in the water is already completed. But as part of the lifecycle management, all of these systems over a 25 year lifespan will need to be refreshed. So there will be windows for new proposals to be submitted in order to build and design new equipment and technologies. So I would certainly advise any small businesses to keep an eye on OOI to stay engaged with the program management at the various implementing organizations. They should look out for opportunities in the future to bid on designing new technologies for OOI.

Another thing that I would encourage small businesses to do is consider being a part of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership itself. We have some personnel at the Consortium who are specifically assigned to talk to people who are interested in joining up and being part of that overall academic and industry forum that is trying to shape and develop ocean policy, research, technology and science. Small businesses can use that and be part of that forum. In doing so, they can take advantage of collaborative opportunities that will come out of the membership. Those are the two ways that small businesses can get involved with ocean science and technology initiatives.

VP: Is there any final thing that you would like to add?

GU: I think because Duro has a passion for ocean and STEM education for underrepresented youth, I’d refer you to our Education Portal on the OOI website. One of the primary goals of OOI is to have parts of the system specifically designed to support a STEM education piece for anyone from middle schoolers up to the college level. I think it is a very fascinating feature about OOI that I am very proud of. Take a look at it and see what you think!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *