UW leads ambitious effort to monitor the ocean

UW scientists wiring the ocean floor to monitor ocean events in real time,

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By Theodoric Meyer
Seattle Times staff reporter

About 200 miles off the Oregon coast, a ship out of Portland dredged up an inch-thick cable from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Workers wired the cable to what is essentially a mammoth yellow electrical outlet and lowered it back into the sea.

The outlet, which scientists refer to as a node, was the last of seven laid on the ocean floor this summer. Their installation is the latest step in an ambitious, $239 million effort led by the University of Washington to wire the northern Pacific.

Once the rest of the equipment is lowered into the sea by 2014, scientists around the world will be able to watch high-definition video and monitor incoming data streaming in real time from deep below the ocean's surface, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The network scientists are building is massive. It includes more than 500 miles of cables looping out from the shore at Pacific City, Ore.

One cable runs along the sea floor for 200 miles before reaching a node that sits atop an active underwater volcano.

The whole setup, together with a network off the coast of Vancouver Island and others elsewhere, is poised to revolutionize the ways in which scientists study the ocean, said John Delaney, a professor of oceanography at the UW who is leading the team.

"This is a big deal," he said. "For the first time, we will be able to look at the ocean from the inside," instead of watching it from above via satellite or using manned or robotic submersibles a few times each year.

Delaney has been working to build the network for more than two decades, ever since he and Alan Chave, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, hit upon the idea over drinks in 1991. When finished, the network will give scientists new ways to study everything from earthquakes to ocean acidification.

But first they have to build it — a formidable task entrusted to a team of about 25 UW engineers.

Consider the challenge: One of the two cables that snake out into the ocean runs across the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, sinking to a depth of nearly two miles before rising to the node on top of an underwater volcano called the Axial Seamount. The water is frigid — about 2 degrees Celsius — but temperatures in the volcano's vents can rise above 420 degrees Celsius. (For comparison, a typical home oven doesn't get much hotter than 250 degrees Celsius.)

Dana Manalang, a systems engineer at the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory who has been working on the project for nearly three years, compared the conditions inside the vents to battery acid. "They're challenging environments for engineering," she said. The UW engineers must account for expansion and contraction of their materials due to the pressure underwater and the fluctuating temperatures on the volcano. And, lurking in the back of their minds is the possibility that the nodes and instruments on the volcano could be buried in an instant by lava flows if the Axial Seamount were to erupt — which could happen tomorrow or in a decade.

"We could lose $3 million worth of equipment in a heartbeat," said Gerald "Skip" Denny, a senior engineer at the UW.

The volcano last erupted in 2011, he said, but new vents open all the time.

When the ship lowered the most recent giant yellow outlet into the sea last month, the crew had to be careful not to drop it into one of the giant lava tubes near the caldera. That node, like the others, will be wired to several smaller nodes next summer.

Robotic submersibles must plot routes for the cables carefully to navigate the volcano's ridges and avoid shards of obsidian, which could slice through the cables.

But the scientists and engineers are betting that the data coming back will be worth the challenge.

The "pocket-size" Juan de Fuca Plate, as Delaney called it, is small enough that it gives scientists the opportunity to monitor the subduction zone on one side, where it slides under the North American Plate, and the area on the other side near the Axial Seamount, where new sea floor is being created.

And the data from the network's 32 types of instruments — from the live high-definition video to seismograph readings that might help detect the next big earthquake — will be available online almost instantaneously.

"There is no proprietary data," said Deborah Kelley, a UW oceanographer and a lead scientist on the project.

"Everything's open to whoever wants to see it."