High-tech mission explores the ocean floor

September 27, 2013 10:09:42 PM PDT
A researcher with San Francisco's Exploratorium has recently returned from a dramatic deep sea expedition. The mission is part of an ambitious effort to study the bottom of the ocean floor, right on one of its most dangerous spots. The expedition took place off the off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, but the Exploratorium is making the research available right here to the Bay Area.

The Exploratorium's Mary Miller got to go along as a University of Washington research ship took a team of scientists to one of the world's deepest construction sites. Miller explained they are "putting a cabled ocean observatory on the bottom of the ocean, right on an active volcano." Sixty percent of Earth's volcanic eruptions happen under water, deep in the open ocean. The research team lowered a robotic vehicle into one of the hot spots, 300 miles off the Oregon coast.

The mission is part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, a research coalition launching a new era of ocean exploration. Miller was on board to write blogs and do live updates for the Exploratorium, telling the public what was going on. Miller said the team saw octopuses, shrimp and fish living near hydrothermal vents, "which are these amazing underwater features where you get this hot fluid from under the ocean floor and it's feeding microbes and supporting these whole communities of life we didn't even know existed 30 years ago."

The team shot dramatic video of the top of an active volcano that erupted two years ago. Different types of lava flows and parts of a collapsed lava basin were clearly visible.

The National Science Foundation is spending almost a quarter billion dollars to cover the area with a network of sophisticated cameras and instruments. The system is being built by a remotely operated submarine controlled from the ship above. It takes three to four people from the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility to run it, along with a team of scientists and engineers. Miller said they have to make sure "everything is being laid out properly, there are no kinks in the cable, the electricity is flowing. They are testing and monitoring all the time - a mile under the ship! That's what's amazing. "

The team will eventually lay 575 miles of wire and cable to send live pictures and data back to laboratories on land. The system is expected to be fully operational in early 2015. But during this mission scientists tested some of the equipment including seismometers and they worked. Miller was with the team as they were taking data and an earthquake struck. "It was a pretty significant earthquake that was recorded. So that was a really, really happy moment on the ship. Everybody was super excited about that."

Once all the equipment is in place, the scientists are eager to study both the geology of the ocean and the life that depends on it. The Ocean Observatories Initiative actually has six research sites in the oceans around the world, but this is the only one that includes a cable system on the sea floor.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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