OceanLab, the Norwegian floating ocean laboratory that will contribute to research on aquaculture

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Off the small island of Munkholmen, outside the city Trondheim in Norway, is already installed the first of two observation buoys to collect data from the fjord, as a part of the new OceanLab that will contribute to research on aquaculture, underwater robotics, autonomous shipping and environmental research.

OceanLab is a new and state-of-the-art national research infrastructure that is a collaborative venture between Stiftelsen for Industriell og Teknisk Forskning (SINTEF, Norwegian for Foundation for Industrial and Technical Research) and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), funded by the Research Council of Norway.

OceanLab/FjordLab is a full-scale field laboratory for research, development and innovation in marine technology and science. Its infrastructure is concentrated around three ocean and fjord areas (hubs):Trondheim Fjord, Hitra/Frøya and Ålesund.

Increasing understanding of the environment in the fjord

The observation buoys of OceanLab are particularly important for increasing understanding of the environment in the fjord. With a diameter of five meters and a yellow colour, the buoy is easy to spot from land. The buoys will be powered primarily by wind and solar, and don’t need to be permanently manned.

“It is probably an understatement to call this a buoy. A floating laboratory would probably be a better description,” says SINTEF researcher Emlyn Davies. The research buoy will be important for testing ocean sensor technology, the education of future marine scientists, and establishing long-term data on the status of the environment in the fjord.

The information from the buoys will be used for increasing environmental understanding and for developing and updating models. Ocean models can forecast things like current conditions and algae blooms, but more knowledge is needed in order to further develop them.

The floating laboratory will also contribute to making local environmental policy more knowledge-based.

The Observatory in the buoys is one of five parts to the OceanLab National Research Infrastructure and is the first step in developments of the full-scale field lab of Ocean Space Centre (Fjordlab).

The data collected will be made available in real time on a digital platform for anyone who is interested. OceanLab/FjordLab is a full-scale field laboratory for research, development and innovation in marine technology and science.

Its infrastructure is concentrated around three ocean and fjord areas (hubs):Trondheim Fjord, Hitra/Frøya and Ålesund.”

More knowledge about the consequences of what we do “As we gradually develop new ways of utilizing resources in the ocean, we also have an increasing need to collect data. This is important in order to develop good ocean models that can predict the impact of developments – something which is also one of the goals of the UN Ocean Decade. This will provide us with more knowledge about the consequences of what we do,” says Davies, a marine scientist and has helped to develop some of the equipment.

“Example of this is the increasing interest in harvesting more of the smallest organisms found in the sea, such as Calanus finmarchius and krill. The data we collect will provide a better understanding of how these affect the environment,” says Davies.

Collecting large amounts of marine research data

The buoy off Munkholmen, in the other hand, will collect data on everything that happens close to it, such as the weather, waves, current and temperature, and it is specially equipped to monitor underwater life.

It will have a range of features, including particle imaging, acoustic communication and a plug-and-play interface for customised sensors. In practice, this means that researchers can add and remove sensors as required.

The floating lab will also have equipment that can take photos of organisms that are invisible to the human eye, such as phytoplankton.

“By looking at the kind of plankton here, what it looks like and how it changes during the course of the season, we will be able to see, for example, how the River Nid affects the ecosystem in the fjord. With climate change we are seeing more extreme weather with heavy rain that carries water from the land and out to the ocean. When sediment enters the fjord it blocks the light. One of the effects is that it prevents algae from growing, which in turn results in a reduction in the food available for organisms and lowers oxygen production. To understand these kinds of changes and their consequences, we need to collect environmental data over the longer-term,” Davies adds.

CytoSub creates on-site images

One of the most advanced instruments on the buoy is called CytoSub. This equipment creates on-site images by lowering an instrument called a flow cytometer, which produces microscope images and fluorescence signatures of particles and plankton right down to nano-level.

The reason is that phytoplankton are critical organisms for ocean ecosystems. Phytoplankton produce about 50 per cent of the world’s oxygen. They also harness energy from sunlight which scientists can measure by using light sensors. The plankton is also a primary source of food that in turn is eaten by larger organisms.

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