What are ocean observatories

What are ocean observatories

Constituting the largest habitat on Earth, the open ocean and deep sea play a crucial role in the functioning of our planet. Processes operating there relate to resource availability, climate change, habitat destruction, and geo-hazards all of which affect human society directly.

The global oceans cover 70% of the surface of the globe, consist of over 90% of the living space, and are the core momentum of our planet’s physical, chemical, and biological cycles. When compared to the terrestrial habitat in which we live, the seas and oceans that dominate the surface of our planet are relatively unexplored and poorly understood. We lack an in-depth understanding of the critical role that our oceans play within the broader Earth and climate systems, and of the factors that threaten our marine environments with potentially serious consequences for our health and well-being. We also overlook a full appreciation of the intrinsic benefits afforded to European citizens from the seas that surround our continent and of the enormous opportunities for European societies and economies to further develop marine products and services.

The oceans are complex dynamic systems across scales of time and space, including processes from episodic catastrophic events to slow trends difficult to discern from the overlying variability of short-term processes. The high resolution, long-time-series collection of multiple variables across a breadth of environments represents the only approach capable of shedding light on the complexity of these systems.


cabled observatory layout


The nodes of the EMSO networks are automated laboratories that host multiple sensors, capable of continuously measuring various parameters such as water temperature, acidity, direction and intensity of currents, seabed movements, and so on. They can be connected to land stations by a cable or work autonomously via satellite.

See the “Nodes” section for a list of the EMSO nodes locations


Ocean observatories are high technology platforms providing power and communication connections for sensors to allow a sustained interactive presence in the Ocean. Sensor systems can either be attached to a cable, which provides power and enables data transfer, or they can operate as independent, stand- sensor platforms, in some cases with surface buoys and satellite links. The first generation of subsea observatories are now operating and they provide a strong foundation for further EMSO implementation. The power distribution and real time data rates benefit cabled observatories while stand-alone observatories based on batteries provide greater spatial flexibility. In the medium-term, renewable energy technologies will augment power and communications to stand alone observatories from the sea surface.



Cabled infrastructures (CIs) are installations which support instruments deployed on, below, and/or above the seabed, continuously acquiring oceanographic and geophysical time series. Two way real-time data delivery and control through electro-optic connectors and cables extend from the seafloor to land. These cabled systems are fixed submarine laboratories that will continuously produce data, allow interactive experiments, and provide event detection and response capability. A generic package of sensors connected to land via the cabled network will be standardized for measuring key chemical and physical parameters (for example the temperature, salinity, concentration of oxygen, turbidity, passive acoustics, pressure/depth, and currents). These "submarine observatories" may also be used as points for the installation of specific experiments defined by the user, for specific applications of interest.

Stand-alone observatories (SAOs) are autonomous installations of instruments, sensors and command modules operating in the long-term on and beneath the seafloor, in the water column and/or at the sea surface. They support the operation of a number of instrument packages related to various disciplines and scientific questions. They are characterized by a stand-alone configuration for power and data, and a limited capacity of connection from the surface, including capability of bidirectional communication, transfer status parameters and a limited quantity of real-time or near real-time data. SAO‘s can provide long-term ocean measurements from almost any location in the ocean. They can be located in very remote ocean areas far from land, with limited daily feedback, where the cost of laying a fibre optical cable would be prohibitive. They can be built and deployed for a fraction of the cost of a cabled observatory system while generic sensor packages deployed on the seafloor or along the water column can significantly extend their spatial coverage. A major advantage of standalone observatories is that they can be easily transported and assembled at any given location and thus can also be used efficiently in short-term studies (2-3 years). They can also be moved to new locations in response to specific events (e.g. a submarine volcanic eruption or an environmental catastrophe like a shipping accident) or rapidly changing environmental conditions (e.g., ice-edge variability).


The observatories’ supporting infrastructure includes equipment and marine operations support systems, necessary for optimal management and maintenance of the ocean observing network and the management and use of infrastructure, as well as the execution of research and services. Vehicles such as ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) and AUVs (Autonomous Underwater Vehicles) are now indispensable tools to be used at different depths for sampling and manipulation of structures on the seabed.

Services to which users have access include: land based equipment for testing in simulated environment conditions; networkable multidisciplinary research laboratories for the analysis of the marine environment such as the analysis of water samples, sediment and biota;  networkable test sites dedicated to marine monitoring systems and research for the development of advanced technologies - components, sensors, new materials and techniques; data centres dedicated to data collection, management, discovery, access, transmission, storage, analysis/products, modelling, sharing and, together with private partners, commercialization of data products.

Data can be exploited in an open access manner by scientists and public bodies for the purposes of monitoring risk (e.g., tsunami or toxic algal blooms) or to assess state of health through chemical and biological sensors. For both cabled and stand alone observatories, data can be transmitted in real time either through fibre-optic cables or through cable and acoustic networks that are connected to satellite-linked buoys, back to shore data centres and the Internet. 

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Via di Vigna Murata, 605, 00143, Rome, Italy
email: interim.office@emso-eu.org
Tel. +39 06 51860428 
Fax +39 06 51860338


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