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To study Earth’s most extreme environment, researchers wire up an undersea volcano

July 7, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Hundreds of miles off the coast of Oregon and Washington, there's an undersea volcano known as Axial Seamount. Two months ago when it began spewing lava, it wasn't a secret to a group of scientists engaged in a groundbreaking research project. Hari Sreenivasan reports on their Cabled Observatory -- a network of sensors, moorings and cameras that offers views of a little-known world.
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GWEN IFILL: For generations, scientists have had to undertake long voyages across the sea to try to better understand the mysteries of volcanic activity and the oceans themselves. But now scientific advances and technology have changed the game.

Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What if a volcano erupted and nobody knew about it? That used to be the case 300 miles off the coast of Oregon and Washington for undersea volcano known as Axial Seamount.

But two months ago, when it started spewing lava, these scientists knew instantly.

You have 25 sensors sitting on the lip of a volcano, and it’s all feeding information back here.

JOHN DELANEY, Oceanographer, University of Washington: That’s right. It’s really exciting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: University of Washington oceanographer John Delaney is the director of a groundbreaking research project called the Cabled Array, also known as the Cabled Observatory, that has, in effect, turned Axial Seamount into the world’s first wired volcano.

JOHN DELANEY: Well, we’re standing in our control room that allows folks that are here on campus at the University of Washington to actually interact with the instruments that might be as much as 400 kilometers, 300 miles offshore.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the day of the eruption, a network of sensors on the volcano started measuring more than 8,000 small earthquakes, and the seafloor dropped seven feet.

DEBBIE KELLEY, University of Washington: We have been waiting our whole lives to have that kind of information come in.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Debbie Kelley was one of those closely watching the eruption data. She’s a chief scientist on the team who studies underwater volcanoes.

This volcanic ridge is like thousands of miles of ridges that circle the Earth beneath the oceans. It’s also a spot where two tectonic plates pull apart, making it an ideal location to study. Kelley says that the Cabled Observatory, which will eventually send back real-time data and images anyone can access, will finally give scientists, and the general public, insight into a complex world they know very little about.

DEBBIE KELLEY: It will let us have new eyes into the ocean. It’s really expensive to go to sea. And now we’re looking at an international laboratory, where anybody could have access to these data and it doesn’t cost them anything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Here’s how it works: An array of sophisticated sensors, moorings and cameras are connected by cables to large hubs called primary nodes.

Those in turn are connected to a fiberoptic Internet and power cable stretching from the volcano 300 miles back to shore.

JOHN DELANEY: The game changer is that fiberoptic cable. Fiberoptic cables became the centerpiece of how we could do science throughout entire volumes of the ocean without actually being there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The $150 million system took six years to design, build, and implement. And it will cost at least several million a year, maybe more, to maintain over its 25-year lifespan.

The Cabled Observatory is part of an even larger National Science Foundation-funded project called the Ocean Observatory Initiative that aims to study the oceans in a more comprehensive way than ever before.

The National Science Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Canada has developed a similar network. The observatory equipment off the West Coast has now been operating, about a mile down, for nearly a year. Deep-sea creatures seem to have adjusted to their new neighbors, but there have been some challenging moments. During an initial voyage to map the system’s main cable, the team discovered a section had actually been laid on top of a boiling hot hydrothermal vent, not an ideal place for a delicate cable, and it was later moved.

Debbie Kelley specializes in those vents and the exotic, largely unstudied life forms that surround them. She says this project will help scientists understand some basic science about an ecosystem that may in fact produce a window into the origins of life on this planet.

DEBBIE KELLEY: Seventy percent of the volcanism on the planet occurs underwater. And so there’s many questions that arise because we’re never there at the right place at the right time.

We think that there’s massive blooms during an eruption where you have billions of microbes streaming out of the seafloor. And this is probably the — the most extreme environment on Earth. And now most people think that’s where life started.

HARI SREENIVASAN: These hardy microbes may hold the key to new chemical compounds or pharmaceutical drugs.

DEBBIE KELLEY: We know so little about these microbes, and it’s clear that they have phenomenally different metabolisms than most people think about. And so there’s interest in perhaps, as our bodies become more resistant to tetracycline or penicillin, that maybe we could start getting medicines from the sea through these microbes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From volcanic eruptions to intense deep-sea pressures and near-freezing temperatures, the observatory equipment has had to operate in a very challenging environment. So, how has it fared?

DANA MANALANG, University of Washington: The system has worked amazingly well, but, as you would expect in this environment, there has been some attrition.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Dana Manalang is a senior engineer in the Applied Physics Laboratory at the university, where much of the Cabled Observatory equipment was designed and built and where fragile sensors are thoroughly tested before being deployed.

While some parts of the system are intended to be traded out every year, other parts, including the main cable, are expected to last for 25 years.

And what’s with all the high-voltage stuff?

Manalang gave us a tour of some of the key components the team is working on before a summer research cruise to make repairs and check on the equipment.

What are these big, huge metal containers?

DANA MANALANG: Well, so, these are big titanium housings. Titanium won’t corrode under the high-salinity conditions in the ocean.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So everything’s got to be sealed super tight?

DANA MANALANG: That’s right. Seawater and electronics don’t mix.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

And she showed us a first-of-its-kind sensor that’s already sending back data from the volcano.

DANA MANALANG: This is a homegrown system for measuring the diffusion of high-temperature fluids out of vents on the volcano. So, there are 24 different temperature sensors on here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of the first priorities for the team this summer is to replace video cameras on the seafloor that stopped working recently. And they are awaiting a new software system, also funded by the National Science Foundation, needed to capture and organize all the data coming in. For now, the information is being archived at the University of Washington.

Despite those few setbacks, John Delaney, who first came up with the idea of a Cabled Observatory more than 20 years ago, says the project is going to fundamentally change our understanding of the oceans.

JOHN DELANEY: As a society, we are dependent on the ocean. And if you want to understand the complexity of all the processes that operate in the ocean, you have got to be in the ocean. You have got to be making the measurements in real time and looking at things that are short-term, long-term.

We can’t do that from land. We can’t do that with just the odd ship time to time. We have got to be there in the ocean 24/7, 365, for generations. That’s the key.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Over the coming years, Delaney and his colleagues hope to expand the Cabled Observatory, and hope that this charts a course for other countries to build their own observatories as well.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Seattle, Washington.

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