Oceans of Research Flowing Together SUBTITLE: Scientists Were among the First to Use the Net. Now It's Standard Equipment for Collecting Data and Sharing Them with the World

Article excerpt

When Juli Berwald started her research career a decade ago, oceanography was no discipline for landlubbers. Whether it was an afternoon on Santa Monica Bay or monthlong research expeditions to the South Pacific, collecting data meant going out to sea and dropping bottles, thermometers and probes down into the deep. Times are changing. These days, much of her data come in over the Internet, from automated sampling equipment, satellites and colleagues around the world. Sitting at her desk on the University of Southern California's South-Central L.A. campus, Berwald can summon up water-temperature measurements from the Sargasso Sea, current speeds and directions off Hawaii and the concentration of dissolved nitrate in Monterey Bay, Calif., much of it in real time. For wired oceanographers like Berwald, carpal tunnel syndrome is replacing seasickness as the major job hazard. "It's kind of terrible, actually," she says. "I really don't have to go to sea anymore at all."

Scientists were e-mailing lab results and "Far Side" punch lines back and forth for years before the phrase "you've got mail" entered the lexicon. In the two decades since the debut of Bitnet, one of the predecessors of today's Internet, communicating by computer has worked its way into nearly every facet of scientific endeavor. There are plenty of flashy high-tech applications--Web-controlled robotic lab assistants, telescopes that respond to e-mail commands--but the most significant impact of e- science may be the most basic. The Internet makes it possible to share specialized knowledge and large amounts of data quickly and efficiently with colleagues around the world. The resulting synergy is transforming every discipline of science, from particle physics to phylogeny. The effects are particularly evident in fields like oceanography and marine biology, in which widely dispersed groups of investigators work together and generate vast amounts of data that require specialized interpretation.

"I really have no idea how I would get any of this done without [the Internet]," says Berwald, a postdoctoral researcher. Working with USC oceanography professor Dale Kiefer, she distills years' worth of precise observations--e-mailed to her directly or posted to Web sites by colleagues around the world--into elegant sets of equations that can be used to predict how a particular part of the ocean might respond to changes, such as increased fishing or discharge from a nearby pulp mill.

That sort of work requires vast quantities of pure data, which is where scientists like Michael McPhaden come in. A physical oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, McPhaden oversees the Tropical Atmosphere-Ocean (TAO) project, a network of 70 sampling buoys spread across the equatorial Pacific from Indonesia to the Galapagos Islands. The buoys gather some two megabytes of air and ocean data every day and transmit a condensed version of the information to shore via satellite. The raw datastream is zapped over the Net to McPhaden's lab for processing and also forwarded to researchers and weather forecasters, and posted to the project Web site (www.pmel.noaa.gov/toga-tao/home.html ), often within hours of being collected. The system made the accurate and early prediction of the 1997 El Nino possible and has become an integral part of weather forecasting. …