Global visualization lab creates world of opportunities for scientists
Matt Oliver describes the wealth of data that can be viewed in the Global Visualization Lab, including ocean temperature, represented here by a rainbow of colors. Oliver stands behind a yellow glider, used to collect information underwater.


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8:10 a.m., Dec. 17, 2009----A new University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment (CEOE) project is giving scientists a totally new perspective of the world.

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CEOE's Global Visualization Lab uses Google Earth to view real-time data streams on everything from ocean temperature and currents to the movement of ships in Delaware Bay -- all at once.

The data come from a wide variety of sources -- including satellites, autonomous underwater vehicles, and floating buoys -- and are pulled into Google Earth via KML files, special file types that let you see geographic data.

When viewed on the lab's four black 55-inch Vizio flat panel TVs and navigated with a 3-D mouse, the Google Earth globe and any data illustrated on it are seen with such high resolution and great detail that viewing the image feels more like a high-flying helicopter ride.

Not only is it incredibly impressive to see in action, the technology represents a new way for oceanographers to see a wide variety of real-time data all in one spot and in a standardized format that anyone with Google Earth and the right KML files can use.

The technology provides a completely new sense of the ocean, said the lab's creator, Matt Oliver, assistant professor of oceanography.

“Oftentimes you're out on a boat and you wonder what it is that you're missing. When you're out there you feel so small,” Oliver said. “This technology really allows you to see the large scales of the ocean unfold in front of you.”

Oliver is part of a larger cooperative effort between multiple universities and institutions working on the visualization project, including the Mid-Atlantic Regional Coastal Ocean Observing System, Rutgers University, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. The endeavor is funded by the Office of Naval Research, NASA, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Delaware Sea Grant, among others.

Leveraging several organizations' resources has helped illustrate another strength of the lab: It allows the data-gathering technologies to not just work parallel to each other; for the first time, they can actually work together. That has positive implications for how data is collected and viewed, Oliver said.

In their first test of the system, Oliver and his collaborators used satellites, underwater vehicles, and other devices to study winter algal blooms in the mid-Atlantic over a two-week period in November. As the data came in, computer models automatically analyzed it, created forecasts, and reported directly to the autonomous underwater vehicles to tell them where to sample next.

The approach allowed the scientists to analyze the data on the fly, which helped optimize their sampling patterns.

Other applications for the technology are expected to be far and wide. Scientists could use it to study the health of coral reefs, the amount of chlorophyll in the ocean, the movement of electronically tagged wildlife, the interaction of the coastal and open ocean, or even to plan research sampling sites virtually. Oliver is using it for a NASA project studying how climate change has affected habitats on the West Antarctic Peninsula.

Further extending the technology's usefulness will be the increased availability of KML files that allow researchers to see new types of geographic data. Collaborating with Oliver on that effort are graduate students Matt Grossi and Erick Geiger. Geiger's project, for example, is to map the salinity of Delaware Bay. The team also is working on a file that will allow them to view real-time tracks of electronically tagged penguins.

Adding another level of sophistication to the project, CEOE is purchasing two real-time satellite receiving stations. The stations will let researchers download data from passing satellites that have captured geographic information on Newfoundland all the way to Cuba as seen from space.

With the additions, UD will become one of only a few institutions on the East Coast with receiving stations, Oliver said. The stations also will enhance UD's remote sensing capabilities and increase the data Oliver and his team can integrate into the lab.

“They are going to make Delaware one of the most looked-at places on the planet,” he said.

For more about CEOE or Delaware Sea Grant, visit the Web sites.

Article and photo by Elizabeth Boyle