Norway has been given a floating ocean laboratory

The OceanLab will contribute to research on underwater robotics, aquaculture, autonomous shipping and environmental research.

Norway has been given a floating ocean laboratory

Marine research: just off the small island of Munkholmen, outside  the city Trondheim, the first of two observation buoys is now installed to collect data from 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.

SINTEF researcher Emlyn Davies says:

“It is probably an understatement to call this a buoy. A floating laboratory would probably be a better description.”

He is a marine scientist and has helped to develop some of the equipment that will be undertaking continuous measurements of marine environmental data.  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 second buoy, which has a diameter of about two metres, will be located outside Ingdalen in the municipality of Orkland. 

Both buoys are part of OceanLab, which will host one of the world’s most advanced array of data collection platforms for marine research. 

According to Davies, OceanLab is a new and state-of-the-art national research infrastructure that is being established in Trondheim. It is a collaborative venture between SINTEF and NTNU, funded by the Research Council of Norway. OceanLab will contribute to research on underwater robotics, aquaculture, autonomous shipping and environmental research. The observation buoys are particularly important for increasing understanding of the environment in the fjord. 

The data collected will be made available in real time on a digital platform for anyone who is interested. 

Davies says:

“As we gradually develop new ways of utilising 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. One 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.”

The buoy off Munkholmen 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. 

Davies says:

“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.”

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. 

The position of the buoy at Munkholmen has been calculated by using a 3D model developed by SINTEF called SINMOD. This model system connects and simulates physical and biological processes in the ocean. According to SINMOD the selected point is representative of much of the fjord. 

Davies says:

“Even if the data is only collected in one place, what is happening in Trondheim Fjord may be representative of ocean conditions elsewhere in the world. For example, if the sediment darkens the water and has an impact on nature, then that knowledge is transferable to other coastal areas.”

The two buoys will also facilitate the development of sensor technology. 

Davies says:

“They will serve as a platform that can support faster technology development and prototyping of new sensors, as well as comparisons of different sensors that measure the same thing in different ways. Here we can test new technology while it is being developed.”

Testing this type of technology is often both costly and time-consuming, but here the researchers and tech companies will only be a few hundred meters away. 

Davies says:

“We can get here in minutes, plug in what we want to test and obtain the data very quickly.”

SINTEF Ocean has acquired the buoy from the British company Hydrosphere, which has supplied the buoy in accordance with a design developed by Mobilis in France. They have developed the buoy specifically for OceanLab. 

John Caskey of Hydrosphere says:

“This is the largest buoy we have developed so far. It has four chambers for sensors and measuring equipment and it has also been adapted for power generation using solar cells, wind cells and spare fuel cells so that it is self-sufficient in electricity – even in winter."