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Undersea Cable Could Revolutionize Oceanography

Experts say Ocean observatory will be transformative

The commercial cable-laying ship, Dependable, installs backbone cables off the Oregon coast for the regional ocean observatory.
The commercial cable-laying ship, Dependable, installs backbone cables off the Oregon coast for the regional ocean observatory.

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Tom Banse

This past April, there was a big volcanic eruption in America’s Pacific Northwest. If you missed it, you're not alone.

It happened under the ocean off the northern Oregon coast. Since then, several research ships have sent unmanned submersibles down into the undersea crater to videotape lava flows and spewing vents.  

In a few years, you should be able to watch such events live on the Internet 24/7. Thanks to a new underwater fiber optic cable, a new worldwide ocean observatory now under construction could revolutionize our understanding of the deep sea environment.  

Bringing the ocean to you

"This is a big deal. Suddenly the ocean is going to be accessible to people. We can't take them all out there deep in the ocean, but we can bring the ocean to them," says University of Washington oceanography John Delaney of  his very expensive and ambitious high-tech baby.  

Delaney is a driving force behind an effort to wire the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon and Washington coasts for science. Delaney says the vision for this cable and instrument array dates back 20 years.  

Delaney recalls bemoaning the expense and difficulty of gathering data in the deep ocean. Then the conversation turned to new undersea fiber optic cables.

"Bingo! We said, 'Let's do something about this,'" he says. "That was a long time ago."

Undersea network

Now the vision is becoming a reality. A commercial cable-laying ship has just finished spooling out 900 kilometers of fiber optic cable. One strand starts from Pacific City, Oregon, goes out to the edge of the continental shelf and then loops down toward Newport, Oregon.  

Another line heads far out to sea to an underwater volcano. Separately, scientists on the U.S. East Coast are anchoring test buoys for another advanced instrument network. This array off New England, south of Cape Cod, will be connected to shore by satellite and wireless links.

Scientists plan to attach dozens of instruments to the cables and buoys. Seismometers could give us a better idea about the offshore earthquake threat. Other sensors will track fish migration, ocean acidification, weather trends, and dissolved oxygen, just to name a few. Underwater microphones could capture whale calls.

Real-time Internet data

Delaney says the undersea network is designed to funnel a fire hose of open source, real-time data to the Internet, 24/7.

"So people that are interested - and I'm hoping it will be a growing number of people - will have the ability to tap into what we're doing. They'll be able to watch over our shoulders electronically as we discover things, as we make mistakes," he says with a laugh.

One of the cool things to eavesdrop on might be an undersea volcano called the Axial Seamount. It is 480 kilometers out in the ocean due west of Astoria, Oregon. In August, Delaney steamed out there with co-chief scientist Debbie Kelley. They scouted hydrothermal vents to wire up.

"Many people now think the volcanoes on the seafloor are where life originated on the planet," says Kelley. "One of the things we're going to see later on the dive are these vents called snowblower vents, which is where there is warm water issuing out of the seafloor at about 30 degrees Centigrade. With it, it is entraining novel microorganisms."

Monitoring ocean trends

This summer, Oregon State University scientists and engineers are also on the water. They’re testing instrument packages and buoys that will connect in part to the fiber optic network. OSU's Bob Collier says it's fair to say the data array will revolutionize oceanography.

"With this cable we really are able to provide a whole new way of looking at the ocean," says Collier, "which we honestly have never had before."

The West Coast instrument network falls under the umbrella of a larger project with locations in other oceans. It's called the Ocean Observatories Initiative. In addition to the buoy network under development along the U.S. East Coast, four additional sensor packages will be set up on moorings in the far northern and southern oceans.

They'll be in the Gulf of Alaska, near Greenland, in the Argentine basin in the south Atlantic, and southwest of Chile in the Pacific. Those remote, high-latitude instruments are designed to monitor ocean trends on a planetary scale.

U.S. taxpayers are footing the entire $400 million construction bill on the project through the National Science Foundation. The global network is supposed to be in full service in 2014.


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