Science
12:24 pm
Wed August 24, 2011

Undersea cable laid for 'transformative' ocean observatory

This spring there was a big volcanic eruption in the Pacific Northwest. If you missed it, you're not alone. It happened under the ocean off the northern Oregon coast.

However, all this week a University of Washington research ship has been streaming live video via satellite of lava flows in the undersea crater. In a couple years, 24/7 video coverage of the ocean floor will be made possible by a new underwater fiber optic cable.

"This is big deal," says UW oceanography professor John Delaney. "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."

Wiring the ocean

Delaney is describing his baby ... a very expensive and ambitious high-tech baby. He is one of the driving forces 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 twenty years.

"I think I was complaining to a friend in a bar, probably in San Francisco."

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," Delaney recalls. "That was a long time ago."

Laying cable

Now the vision is becoming reality. A commercial-cable laying ship has just finished spooling out 560 miles of fiber optic cable. One strand starts from Pacific City, Ore., goes out to the edge of the continental shelf and then loops down toward Newport. Another line heads far out to sea to an underwater volcano.

Scientists plan to attach dozens and dozens of instruments to the cables. 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, like hard-to-find blue whales.

Delaney says the undersea network is designed to funnel a fire hose of open source, real time data to the internet around the clock.

"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," he says. "They'll be able to watch over our shoulders electronically as we discover things, as we make mistakes."

Spying on the volcano

One of the cool things to eavesdrop on might be an undersea volcano called the Axial Seamount. It is 300 miles out in the ocean due west of Astoria. Delaney is out there right now with co-chief scientist Debbie Kelley. They're scouting hydrothermal vents to wire up.

"Many people now think the volcanoes on the seafloor are where life originated on the planet," Kelley explains. "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."

This summer, Oregon State University scientists and engineers are also on the water, testing instrument packages and buoys that will connect in part to the fiber optic network.

OSU Professor 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, which we honestly have never had before," he says.

The OSU and UW pieces fall under the umbrella of a larger project with locations in other oceans. It's called the Ocean Observatories Initiative. U.S. taxpayers are paying for the whole thing through the National Science Foundation.

Construction of the regional underwater cable network is budgeted for $153 million. It'll be in full service in 2014.

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