Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute
Celebrating our 20th Anniversary

The Monterey Bay Time Series

Celebrating 20 years


This graph shows how the sea-surface temperature has varied over the last 19 years at MBARI's M1 mooring.

In the world of academic science, getting a five-year grant for a research project is considered a major coup. Longer-term grants are almost unheard of. National agencies sometimes support monitoring projects lasting a decade or more, but even these are subject to the whim of Congressional funding. This is why oceanographer Francisco Chavez considers himself lucky to be part of an ocean monitoring project that has collected data continuously for almost 20 years.

In 1989, MBARI had only been in existence for two years when we installed our first oceanographic monitoring buoys in the outer waters of Monterey Bay. One buoy (M1) was located near the mouth of Monterey Bay, about mid-way between Santa Cruz and the Monterey Peninsula. The second buoy (M2) was located about 35 miles offshore, where it would be influenced by water from the California Current. Wind and water-temperature data from these buoys were augmented by data collected by research vessels every two to three weeks.

As of Fall 2007, MBARI had expanded this monitoring network to include four different monitoring buoys located from eight to 100 kilometers (five to 60 miles) offshore. The 19 years of data from M1 and M2, combined with data from MBARI's routine research cruises, are known as the "Monterey Time Series." These data have been used in dozens, if not hundreds of scientific research projects.

MBARI mooring map
This map shows the locations of MBARI's moorings in and around Monterey Bay as of fall 2007.

Each buoy carries literally dozens of different scientific instruments measuring everything from winds and currents to chlorophyll in microscopic algae and the concentrations of nutrients that feed these algae. Hanging down from the buoys are additional instruments that measure conditions as much as 300 meters (1,000 feet) below the ocean surface. Data from all these instruments are sent back to shore by radio so that scientists from around the world can monitor changes in the ocean as they occur.

MBARI's monitoring buoys, like our ROVs, have been continually improved over the years as engineers have added new instruments to measure the physical, chemical, and biological properties of seawater. However, these instruments are not cheap to maintain, and must be cleaned and refurbished monthly, and swapped out every six months.

Mooring maintenance crew
Keeping MBARI's oceanographic moorings working is a year-round job, often involving maintenance at sea.
Photo: Debbie Meyer (c) 2003 MBARI

Surprisingly, given the turbulent conditions of the open ocean, there have been relatively few significant disruptions of data from the buoys. The only major casualty was in February 1998 (an "El Nino year"), when the outer buoy, "M2," broke loose from its mooring during a severe storm. A new and improved version was built and installed the following July.

MBARI's long-term commitment to maintaining these buoys has paid off. Scientists have used the resulting long-term data in studies that have shed light on subjects from marine mammal feeding to long-term climate cycles and global warming. In 2001, Chavez' Biological Ocean Group published a comprehensive summary of seasonal and interannual changes in conditions at the M1 mooring. The group also used the data to show how unusual ocean conditions were during the 1997 El Niño year.

In 2003, Chavez combined data from the Monterey moorings with data from other instruments across the Pacific to publish a ground-breaking paper showing how ocean conditions across the Pacific shift back and forth every 25 years or so, leading to changes in ocean currents as well as changes in commercial fish catches and other effects on marine wildlife. This paper became one of the most cited scientific papers of the year when it was released.

Reflecting on the need for more long-term monitoring projects such as the Monterey Time Series, Chavez said this about his research on long-term climate cycles, "During the peer-review process for this paper, one reviewer called it imaginative. And it is. If we had the ocean wired with a network of instruments and ocean observatories, then we would need less imagination and could understand this a lot better."

Launching the CIMT mooring
MBARI's newest monitoring mooring, also known as M0, was deployed in the inner part of Monterey Bay in 2004.
Photo: Lionel Pawlowski (c) 2005 MBARI

On June 3, 2004, MBARI collaborated with the University of California, Santa Cruz, to install a new oceanographic monitoring buoy (the M0 mooring, part of the Center for Integrated Marine Technology program) inside Monterey Bay, within a few miles of shore. The new mooring was located about eight kilometers offshore of the Pajaro River, in about 75 meters of water. "We used satellite images to choose an area where the phytoplankton blooms reach maximum levels," Chavez explains.

With continual upgrades and maintenance, the MBARI moorings in Monterey Bay are state-of-the-art systems for the collection of live oceanographic data. They are currently being supplemented with data from underwater submarines (autonomous underwater vehicles) that travel across the bay every few weeks, collecting some of the same information that was formerly acquired by humans on research vessels. With continued support from MBARI, the Monterey Time Series will only grow in value over the next 20 years.

MBARI contributors to the Monterey Bay Time Series include: George Badger,Clark Brecht, Peter Brewer, Dave Brocker, Mark Brown, Kurt Buck, Francisco Chavez, , Paul Coenen, Dan Davis, Jon Erikson, Gernot Friederich, Steve Haddock, Kent Headley, Bob Herlien, Ken Johnson, Mike Kelley, Mike McCann, Reiko Michisaki, Eric Nelson, Craig Okuda, Tom O'Reilly, Tim Pennington, Kim Reisenbichler, Erich Rienecker, Bruce Robison, John Ryan, Brian Schlining, Rich Schramm, Farley Shane, Kang Tao, Tom Tengdin, Hans Thomas, Duane Thompson, Gary Thurmond, Carolyn Todd, Peter Walz, Dave Wright, Marilyn Yuen.

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