As the effects of human impact and climate change intensify at unprecedented rates, science is at a crossroad. Increasingly, scientists are seeking ways to connect their work with global networks of research and technology that hold the promise of broader, more consistent and standardized data and, ultimately, a better understanding of the changing biosphere. Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Barbara Block is at the forefront of this movement.

At the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston on Feb. 17, Block discussed her work to enable live feeds of ocean animal movements relayed by a series of floating WiFi hotspots. Her talk, “Building a Wired Ocean With Electronic Tagged Animals and Mobile Gliders,” was part of a symposium called “Networks of Discovery: Delivering Unsurpassed Insight Into Changing Global Ecosystems.”

“We can send an exploration to Mars, but we don’t understand some of the most basic ocean systems,” Block said as she showed time-lapse computer-generated graphics representing the migrations of sharks and elephant seals off the California coast.

Sharing expertise, techniques and data management skills with biologists, engineers, computer scientists and educators from Australia to Canada, Block has expanded a network of ocean biologging as part of the Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators (GTOPP) project. GTOPP builds on the Tagging of Pacific Predators program, part of the global Census of Marine Life, a decade-long study that invested $25 million in electronic tagging, enabling marine scientists from five nations to map ocean hot spots.

These multidisciplinary collaborations have led to custom-designed technology such as miniature sensors for animal telemetry tags, combined with acoustic receiver-carrying mobile glider platforms and instrumented buoys that allow us for the first time to observe the movements and behavior of ocean animals.

Block’s work to revolutionize the study of the ocean is a promising component of a larger effort to establish a global network of instruments to more comprehensively study the biosphere.

By enabling much more complex understanding and forecasts, Block’s research holds key insights for building better fisheries models, tracking climate change and protecting vital marine ecosystems. As an example, Block pointed to the California Current, a corridor of food abundance that attracts predators in predictable seasonal patterns. “We now know that we have a neighborhood in the northeast Pacific,” Block said. “It is one of the most pristine places remaining with top apex predators in the world.”

Read more about Block's work.