Government grants $41.7 million to UVic’s ocean observation network

The NEPTUNE Canada and VENUS undersea observatory projects recently received a $41.7 million grant from the B.C. government and the federal government’s Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).  The UVic-run projects are the North-East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments Canada and the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea, respectively. Both provide continuous live-streaming data to researchers, educators and policy-makers around the world through sensor technology and the internet.

The NEPTUNE Canada offshore cabled network covers 800 kilometres over the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, while its coastal counterpart, the 50-kilometre VENUS network, monitors Saanich Inlet and the Strait of Georgia. The NEPTUNE Canada and VENUS projects are regional-scale systems, making them the first of their kind and the largest in the world.

“The Strait of Georgia is one of the most active water bodies in the world in terms of commerce and use, for example. So it’s very important to understand the oceanography there,” says Kate Moran, President and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada (OCN), the non-profit organization based at UVic that manages the two projects. “And then NEPTUNE is off the west coast of Vancouver Island — it goes all the way up to [the Endeavour mid-ocean ridge, 300 kilometres offshore] and covers a wide range of environments in the ocean.”

The significant financial support will ensure that the 800 active researchers and more than 9 000 users will be able to continue to access the online database that stores images and video in real-time. NEPTUNE Canada and VENUS allow researchers to study several science themes, including marine ecosystems, earthquakes, tsunamis and the effects of human activity and climate change, all of which are recorded with underwater microphones, sensors and cameras. Moran notes the importance of maintaining a broad information base on our oceans.

“We study the life in the ocean and how it can change as the ocean changes with climate change. For example, the oceans are becoming more depleted in oxygen, and they’re also becoming more acidic, so we’re trying to understand how that might affect the food web and all of the life in the oceans.”

Other major deductions can be made from the knowledge storehouse, such as more accurate measurements of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as the impact of ferry traffic and the stability of gas hydrates (methane stored in oceans that may become unstable and pose risks if released into the atmosphere). Ocean observation not only benefits scientific research, but also offers insight for government decision-makers, educators and the public.

It was for this reason that the Major Science Initiative, through the CFI, contributed to the UVic-based projects. The CFI grant is designated for subsidizing operations costs of “big science” innovation. The Initiative has $185 million available for different projects across Canada (to be allocated from 2012–2017) and chose to allocate a total of $32.8 million to NEPTUNE Canada and VENUS. The remaining $8.9 million of funding was provided by the B.C. government. Previously, system construction costs of $150 million were covered by the CFI, the B.C. government and several industry partners over the 10 years it took to complete the oceanic infrastructure.

NEPTUNE Canada is part of a larger, $250-million bi-national project with the United States, and although it is based at UVic, NEPTUNE Canada is a consortium of 12 Canadian universities. VENUS and NEPTUNE Canada have been operational since 2006 and 2009, respectively. Since then, the networks have functioned with the help of 70 staff members on campus, as well as volunteers, co-op students and UVic alumni. Their efforts, along with the hundreds of associated researchers and database users, have facilitated research across marine studies and led to dozens of publications across the globe.

Continued support for the projects means that ONC can more easily expand the scope of its work. The VENUS project plans to add more coastline radars to the two existing antennas that have gathered data on surface currents and waves since their installations in fall 2011 and August 2012. Also on the horizon for ONC is a new tsunami array that will more accurately predict the height of hazardous waves.

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