Eager to open `Davy Jones' Lab'

SUN JOURNAL

Oceanography: Scientists hope to build a worldwide network of sensors to study the least explored part of the planet without getting wet.

March 14, 2002|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,SUN STAFF

It sounds like a scene from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: an undersea observatory where scientists keep continual watch on the mysteries of the ocean, dispatching minisubs and plugging their equipment into outlets in the ocean bed like so many toasters.

But wiring the ocean floor with a latticework of power and communications cables to establish a permanent human presence in the most remote, hostile part of the planet is very near to reality.

Undersea earthquakes and volcanoes, the cycles of global-warming gases, the strange creatures of super-hot hydrothermal vents, the hidden migrations of blue whales and important fisheries - these are the kinds of phenomena scientists aim to study constantly, but remotely, in what's being called "Davy Jones' Laboratory."

Within the next few years, Project Neptune will see 2,000 miles of fiber-optic power and data cables laid in an ocean floor network off the Pacific Northwest coast.

The fixed sensors and robotic submarines deployed there would cover nearly 150,000 square miles of sea floor, focused on the dynamic Juan de Fuca tectonic plate.

That small part of Earth's crust is slowly pushing beneath the North American plate, which could give rise to new quakes and volcanic eruptions like that of Mount St. Helens. Its hidden geology and biology may hold clues to the origins of life on Earth - and perhaps elsewhere in the universe.

Today's oceanographers are no Captain Nemos, seeking to inhabit the ocean floor. Space-age technology can give them a superior long-term picture of the deep sea through autonomous vehicles, meters and cameras transmitting information to their computer monitors in shore-based laboratories.

"I don't see any need at all for that," said Alan D. Chave of schemes to populate the sea floor with manned outposts, long a theme of science fiction. "Why, when we can get much more data, more efficiently, this way?"

Chave, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, dreamed a decade ago of something like Project Neptune, which is being developed by a U.S.-Canadian partnership of research organizations.

About $12 million has been committed to the $200 million project; the National Science Foundation is close to major funding that could have Neptune operating by 2006.

Neptune aims to revolutionize the way scientists study oceans, by far the greatest part of our planet and the least explored.

"We've always been like tourists to the deep ocean, going out in a ship and visiting for a month or so," said Chave, senior scientist with the Applied Ocean Physics department of Woods Hole. "We come back with snapshots and study them afterward, but we're not there all the time to observe when important changes are happening.

"You have to have a full-time presence, a long-term presence of decades there to understand the system."

Neptune's grid of titanium hubs and 100-kilowatt cables will be prepared for the long haul, able to withstand nearly 40 years of corrosive sea water, pressures at more than 2 miles deep, and severe turbulence.

Robotic submarines will dock at the gridwork's nodes, recharging their batteries and departing on new missions with orders instantly received via computer.

"We want Neptune to be a kind of Hubble Telescope of inner space," explained John R. Delaney, the University of Washington oceanographer who's another originator of the project. "It's the dawning of a totally new era in science."

Outer space exploration could benefit from discoveries of the sea floor project.

Discovery six years ago of primitive microbial creatures emerging from volcanic eruptions on the seabed has led to scientific speculation that life on Earth may have begun in the fiery rocks under the ocean floor.

These ancient microbes exist on chemicals and volcanic gases - unlike plants, they don't need sunlight and photosynthesis to grow - and survive the superheated springs that gush from the seabed. If they represent the origin of earthly life, then the same potential may exist elsewhere in the universe.

With recent spacecraft images from Jupiter's moon Europa indicating that a deep liquid ocean lies beneath the frozen surface, the attention of astrobiologists is turning to that sphere.

"If submarine volcanoes support life on Earth, perhaps they can support, or have supported, life on Europa," Delaney told a congressional committee.

Learning to work in extreme, harsh environments on Earth can help in planning the tools and methods for exploration of distant planets, points out Patricia Beauchamp of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Despite advances in manned submersible exploration vehicles, such as Woods Hole's Alvin and the Japanese Shinkai, many marine scientists believe that the future of ocean discovery will depend more on development of remote systems.

For more than a dozen years, researchers have been seeding the oceans with moored buoys and free floats to record water and weather data and transmit them to ship and shore via satellite.

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