By Chris Adams

The world’s vast oceans are everywhere – and also something of a mystery.

Understanding them is the objective of a group of researchers, funded by the National Science Foundation, that is painstakingly measuring and mapping the oceans.

The Oceans Observatories Initiative is open to reporters and the public: Its data are freely available and its insights will yield benefits for decades to come.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, University of South Florida researcher Kendra Daly explained the effort. A professor in the College of Marine Science, Daly is also part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative’s facilities board.

Fellows were given a tour of the university’s highly rated College of Marine Science. Fellows also heard from researcher Kristen Buck, who talked about her efforts to understand the presence of trace metals in the oceans – elements such as iron, which are essential for life and play a vital role in the food web.

Why is this type of research important? As Daly noted, oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, and provide half of the oxygen people breathe. They regulate climate and influence weather patterns on land. And they support the greatest biodiversity on the planet.

The oceans initiative uses probes and sensors to measure the physical, chemical, geological and biological variables of the ocean, the seafloor and the near-ocean atmosphere. It is studying issues such as ocean acidification, a process linked to the release of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels that is threatening tiny species at the bottom of the food chain.

The effort includes physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists and engineers.