BENTHIC CRAWLER: Meet Wally the Benthic Crawler, an Internet-operated deep-sea crawler (here astride a gas hydrate outcrop in Barkley Canyon). Wally was designed by ocean scientists at Jacobs University Bremen in Germany to measure conditions such as temperature, salinity, methane content and sediment characteristics at seafloor depth.* Image: Photo taken by ROPOS[[http://ropos.com]], which is operated by the Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility.
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Thanks to a new, wired undersea observatory, when it comes to exploring the deep blue sea, there will be no more of this tethered buoy business or taking ships out to upload data from brief time snapshots taken by instruments. The NEPTUNE network set to go online Tuesday will stream data from hundreds of undersea instruments and sensors direct from the Pacific Ocean floor to the Internet 24/7, year-round.
The network is expected to produce 50 terabytes of data annually, all of which will inform scientists about everything from earthquake dynamics to the effects of climate change on the water column, and from deep-sea ecosystems to salmon migration.
"It's revolutionary in that it brings two new components into the ocean environment, which are power and high-bandwidth Internet," says Project Director Chris Barnes, from the project's offices at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. "We're really on the verge of wiring the oceans."
After the Hubble Space Telescope was lofted into orbit, astronomers gained their clearest view of space yet, one freed from the murky atmosphere. "That has transformed how astronomers do their science in the same way that we believe the cabled networks will be changing the way ocean scientists do their science," Barnes explains.
"We happen to have on our coast here just a wealth of processes that characterize many many parts of the world's oceans," Barnes says. NEPTUNE has several larger scientific themes. Its sensors will monitor earthquake dynamics in greater detail, including tsunamis and crustal processes. (Recently NEPTUNE's deep-sea instrument array detected a tsunami generated from the magnitude 8.0 Samoan earthquake on September 29.)
NEPTUNE will also study the extensive gas hydrate deposits that lie along the continental margin. No one knows yet whether these gas hydrates represent either a potential energy source or a source of greenhouse gas emissions that could exacerbate global warming, Barnes says. "There's a real need to understand those processes."
NEPTUNE's network will also examine the effect of deep-sea fishing on benthic communities. Humans fish down to about 1,200 meters but the tendency has been to keep fishing deeper and deeper, Barnes says. "We know so little about how life exists down there."
The "fire hose of information," as Barnes calls it, will be tailored for public and academic consumption, and its initiation marks the culmination of an $8-million, eight-year undertaking.
Slide Show: The Cyber Sea: World's Largest Internet Undersea Science Station Boots Up
*Note (12/9/09): The headline and caption above were edited after publication to reflect greater accuracy.