Gaining access to the deep sea

The oceans are the world’s largest ecosystem, but have remained difficult to access for scientific research. The Ocean Observatories Initiative, a new collaborative research effort, is working to change that.


The oceans are the world's largest ecosystem but have remained difficult to access for scientific research.

Now the Ocean Observatories Initiative is working to change that.

This new research collaboration among universities and institutions has built an innovative underwater observatory to usher in an era of scientific discovery of our oceans.

I recently went into the lab at the University of Washington in Seattle to learn more.

While humans have explored land and space, the deep sea poses some of the greatest exploration challenges of the day.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ocean Observatories Initiative was created to advance oceanographic research, and to explore this mysterious dark frontier.

So, this is a bit like mission control, you know, in Houston.

Instead of going to space, you're going...



As a part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative, John Delaney and his colleagues at the University of Washington have developed a method of observing the ocean floor that could signal a real turning point for the field of oceanography.

So, turning the level around.

I was very frustrated by the fact that we would be in the submersible, Alvin, on the seafloor, two miles down, looking out the window, and we would be there for five hours, and then we'd have to come back up to the surface.

So the idea was, if we had a permanent presence there, a way of being there continuously without being there, that was the major step forward.

This team at the University of Washington has designed and constructed a Cabled Array, a network of fiber-optic cables placed on the seafloor that gathers data such as temperature levels and seafloor pressure, and that sends information back to the lab.

We're learning how to use, basically, a system that has 140 sensors on it.

We have five senses, and we keep track of touch, taste, feel, and smell.

We're doing that offshore in a way that's never been done before by people in the United States.

By using these data points, and even photographic snapshots of the ocean floor, scientists are able to observe otherwise inaccessible underwater substances and occurrences.

You can track changes over time.

You can say, 'On January 1, let's have it 200 meters below every year or every month or every week.'

The ability to design these systems to do both things, to track powerful transient events that take place that we never are able to follow because we don't have ships out there all the time.

We can also program them so that they make careful measurements year after year after year after year that are comparable.

All right. Ready?

So, this is probably one of the most common types of oceanographic sensors.

It's called a CTD, for 'conductivity, temperature, and depth.'

So, by measuring pressure, you can determine the depth.

And the temperature and the conductivity will give you the salinity of the water.


The first time we even had a seismometer on the seafloor, we powered it from the vessel to test it.

Within about the first 30 minutes -- this is about 3:00 in the morning on the vessel -- we started seeing earthquake activity.

So that was very exciting and very satisfying, to know that the system was working, and it was recording.

By using the Cabled Array to observe underwater volcanoes, not only do these scientists get a window into the dynamic ecosystems around these volcanoes' hydrothermal vents, but also a possible source for predicting earthquakes on land.

If we begin to understand the rhythms of underwater volcanoes or the rhythms of subduction-zone dynamics, we will begin to get better insights into what the precursor events are that allow us to begin to anticipate changes that are taking place.

70% of the volcanism on the planet occurs underwater.

I grew up by Mount Rainier, so I was always aware of volcanoes.

But it never occurred to me that underwater was where it was happening.

Deborah Kelley, a chief scientist on the team studying underwater volcanoes, says they could provide clues about how life began on Earth.

One of the most profound discoveries ever made was hydrothermal vents, because until that time, the basic knowledge of our planet was that life was driven by the sun.

And so when they found these vents in the absence of sunlight -- it looks like an oasis of life on the seafloor -- it really transformed our understanding of how life is on our planet, and now most people think that's where life started.

Getting to know the smallest organisms thriving on the vents may translate into better pharmaceuticals, and perhaps even potential tools to combat climate change.

So, these organisms live in perpetual darkness.

No oxygen.

They use CO2.

Carbon dioxide, methane.

If you bring them up and stress them out, they produce different kinds of antibodies.

As our bodies become more resistant to tetracycline or penicillin, that maybe we could start getting medicines from the sea through these microbes.

And then the other part is, many of these cells have doubling times of an hour.

So, you can imagine a system where they take in carbon dioxide, which is -- you know, it's impacting our atmosphere and the oceans -- ocean acidification.

So people are looking at some of these microbes to see if you could -- could you sequester carbon dioxide using a microbial model.

While the potential applications of the data gathered from this Cable Array are wide-ranging, it's the interconnectedness of the data that Delaney says makes this project particularly effective.

If you only studied one part of the human body, that's the part you would understand, but you might not understand how it works for the entire human body.

So at some level, you have to understand the entire system.

And that's what the ocean is.

It's our life-support system on the planet.

We need to understand all the pieces.

The data that these scientists are gathering is being shared with other scientists in the field, and with the public.

Now we're looking at an international laboratory where anybody could have access to this data and it doesn't cost them.

Whole new sets of people can see what we're doing and play in that same world.

While the full impact of this project has yet to be realized, many argue that it indicates a watershed moment in the field of oceanographic research.

It's exactly what research is about, is posing a major question, and then figuring out how you can get to the point where you can manage or understand the system better and better.

And that only comes from being present in the ocean.

We've got to be there in the ocean 24/7/365 for generations.

That's the key.