2.8 PUBLIC OUTREACH
2.8a NeMO 2000 Website and Public Outreach
http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/eoi/nemo/- Jeff Goodrich, Mike Goodrich, Susan Merle, Andra Bobbitt
The goal of the outreach portion of NeMO was to create an educational web site used by secondary students, teachers, and the general public. The web site offered daily updates on the cruise and allowed interested individuals to follow progress of the scientific expedition at Axial Volcano. The updates included a daily science report written by Bill Chadwick and a weekly science summary written by Chief Scientist Bob Embley. The web site featured a daily interview by "Teacher At Sea" participant Jeff Goodrich that highlighted an individual from the science party, the ROPOS team, or the ship's crew and a daily "Teacher At Sea Log also written by Jeff.
Susan Merle coordinated the updates and included relevant digital images. They were sent from the ship to HMSC and were added to the web site on a daily basis by Andra Bobbitt. The updated information and pictures were also included in daily presentations for the general public at HMSC, twice daily, by the teacher on shore, Mike Goodrich. Feedback and questions from the public were sent to the ship and answered by the scientific staff. The questions were primarily from HMSC presentation audiences and family members of science and ROPOS personnel.
2.8b Diary at Sea Reported Daily in Newspapers Around the Country - Robert S. Boyd, Knight Ridder Newspapers
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ We sailed this afternoon, 32 scientists and engineers, 26 officers and crew, one robotic submarine and one science writer, heading west into the Pacific Ocean to study the wonders at the bottom of the sea.
The BROWN, a modern research vessel owned by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), left its dock at the Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., at 12:30 pm Thursday.
Almost as long as a football field, painted sparkling white, the BROWN seems like a mighty safe platform to ride on. Before leaving, however, we were instructed on what to do in case of fire or collision, a man overboard or _ God forbid _ we have to abandon ship. First time sailors, like me, anxiously exchanged tips about how best to avoid sea sickness.
We are headed for the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a seam in the ocean floor 250 miles west of Portland Oregon, where two huge slices of our planet’s crust are slowly pulling apart. Molten lava from the interior of the Earth periodically bursts through, forming a huge undersea mountain range. Similar ridges criss-cross the entire globe like the lacings on a baseball.
Most of our 20 days at sea will be spent over the Axial Volcano, a hot spot on the ridge that erupted in January, 1998, spewing lava and a hot chemical soup onto the ridge. NOAA scientists placed a camera and other instruments inside the crater of the volcano last September to monitor its rumblings and belchings for a month.
This summer a permanent robotic observation post called NeMO (for New Millennium Observatory) will be established in the crater. The project is in line with President Clinton’s call earlier this month for an increased effort to explore and understand the ocean.
``Over 95 percent of the underwater world is still unknown and unseen,’’ the president said. The voyage of the BROWN and the NeMO observatory will push back the frontiers of ignorance at little further.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ We arrived our at first ocean science site on a sparkling bright Friday morning after a 22-hour cruise across the Northeastern Pacific _ and dove right into science operations.
This high-tech research vessel is floating in calm blue seas over the South Cleft, a crack in the Juan de Fuca ridge 265 miles west of Newport, Ore. Hot fluids, stoked with hydrogen and sulfur, bubble up here from the interior of the Earth, nourishing colonies of exotic organisms around so-called ``hydrothermal vents.’’
The first task was to turn on acoustic locator beacons previously left on the sea floor. Together with satellite data beamed to the ship’s Global Positioning System, the BROWN’s computers can hold its position within an accuracy of six feet, without human intervention, according to Capt. Roger Parsons, the skipper of the ship.
The next job was to launch the our submarine, named ROPOS (the initials stand for Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science), a Canadian built robot for exploring the ocean bottom.
Painted bright yellow and red and crammed with scientific instruments, the 9-foot long ROPOS was carefully lowered off the stern of the ship in a steel ``cage’’ which serves as its underwater base.
On reaching the bottom, 1.3 miles below our feet, the little sub can trundle a hundred yards in any direction, guided by a pilot and navigator in the ship’s control room. If the robot’s camera spies an interesting target beyond its range, it can haul the cage along behind it to take a closer look.
ROPOS’s main activity at this site is to deploy 11 ``extensometers’’ – an array of electronic recorders that stretches, like a picket fence, for about a mile along this volcanically active ridge. The extensometers shoot electronic signals back and forth to each other, measuring the time each round-trip takes. This way scientists can trace the movements along the ridge when they return to South Cleft next year, an important clue to what’s going on in Earth’s basement.
Friday’s operations were the first of 20 days at sea. ``It’s going to be an exciting, complex cruise,’’ Chief Scientist Bob Embley told a meeting of all hands in the ship’s lounge. Many new instruments, never tested under the extreme pressures of the deep sea, will be placed along the ridge. If this trip is typical, many things, including the weather, can go wrong.
In his talk to the scientists, the captain made clear that safety is his top priority. ``We’ll proceed cautiously,’’ he said, ``There is no data that is worth injury to a person or equipment.’’
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ This was a day of ups and down _ literally as well as figuratively _ for the scientists and engineers aboard this research ship in the North Pacific.
As Chief Scientist Bob Embley warned on the first day of the cruise, many things can go wrong. _ and several did. Fortunately, things turned out well in the end.
The most anxious hours were caused by ROPOS _ the unmanned submarine that is essential for most of the scientific work on the seafloor. While we all bit our nails, the little aquatic robot repeatedly bounced up and down on its cable like a yo-yo on a string.
The day began brightly with calm seas and scattered clouds. . Bosun Bruce Cowden’s crew launched the sub over the stern at noon Friday, an hour ahead of schedule. Dangling on the end of a long cable, it drifted down almost a thousand yards _ nearly half way to the bottom _ when its hydraulic system failed. That’s not unusual on the first day of diving, Embley said, but it was frustrating.
Hauled back on deck for quick repairs, ROPOS was lowered again. Same thing happened, and it had to be dragged up onto the ship for another fix. Back in the water by mid-afternoon, it failed again at the same depth. Up on deck once more, then back down for a third try. Still no joy.
Finally, engineers spent the night taking the hydraulic system apart and reassembling it. This time it worked. At dawn Friday the sub was on the seafloor, ready to go to work.
It first job was to find the ``elevator,’’ a large basket that had lowered six extensometers to the bottom the night before. The 10-foot poles are wrapped with black and white reflecting tape to make them easier to find, so they look like giant candy canes or barber poles..
Alas! When the sub’s camera found the elevator after almost two hours searching, three of the poles had fallen out on the way down and were nowhere to be seen.
Making the best of it, ROPOS grabbed one of the remaining extensometers in its 7-fingered claw and carried it to a marker several hundred yards away that had been placed the year before.
On the way back to the elevator for another load, it had an unexpected bit of luck: There on the lava floor were two candy canes lying beside each other. The sub picked them both up in its two mechanical claws and lugged them back to the elevator.
Then good fortune struck again. Returning from another delivery, ROPOS spotted the third missing extensometer. All six in the water were now accounted for. Five more remained on ship to be deployed Saturday.
When the entire array is in place, the extensometers will start shooting sound waves at each other. By recording the time each round-trip takes, scientists will be able to measure the movement of the huge tectonic ``plates’’ that lie under the world’s oceans.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ Ever try to thread a needle with mittens on? That’s kind of what it’s like to operate a robot submarine in the eternal gloom at the bottom of the sea.
Watching Keith Shepherd and his team of Canadian engineers maneuver ROPOS, their 9 foot-long mechanical pet, across the underwater lava fields on the Juan de Fuca Ridge west of Washington and Oregon, makes it clear how much skill _ and luck _ it takes to do science on the ocean floor.
Tasks that can be completed in minutes in a laboratory on land take twice as long, or more, when more than a mile of seawater is bearing down with a pressure of 3,000 pounds on every square inch, and the temperature is barely above freezing. Equipment carefully tested on shore often fails in these extreme conditions. A metal claw, even with seven fingers, is not as dextrous as a human hand.
Skill and luck combined to make it possible for the sub to find three expensive scientific instruments that fell out of a basket and were lost somewhere on the murky seafloor. It took skill and patience to locate metal markers, not much bigger than a dinner plate, which were placed on the lava flow last year.
Equally remarkable is the ability of the BROWN, our mother ship, to hold its position over the submarine within an accuracy of about six feet. This is made possible by a computerized navigation system which coordinates information relayed from a global positioning satellite overhead and acoustic signals from the ocean bottom.
When it’s time to move the ship to another location, a navigator in the control room, like Susan Merle, picks up a telephone and calls the duty officer on the bridge.
A typical request goes like this: ``Hello Bridge. Please move northwest to Benchmark 8, 180 meters, bearing 280, speed one knot. Thank you. ’’ Then the computer does the rest.
Besides the navigator, there is always a pilot, like Shepherd, working in the control room. Facing a wall of monitors, the pilot guides the sub with a joystick as if it were a giant video game. Views from robot’s two cameras are projected on the wall, so its masters can steer it properly and control its long, jointed arms.
We humans aren’t the only critters fascinated by the little sub. At one point, a curious spider crab, measuring at least a foot from toe to toe, crawled fearlessly on its eight skinny legs up the robot arm, but soon got bored and wandered away.
Don’t worry, Mr. Crab. We’re leaving this area tomorrow and heading north.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ It was like Christmas morning on NOAA’s high-tech oceanographic research ship Monday. Your kids might not be enchanted with what Santa brought them from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, but the scientists were delighted.
After completing its duties on the seafloor Sunday night, the little robot submarine ROPOS was hauled up by its 1.3 mile-long cable and boosted onto the deck. While Canadian engineers checked out its mechanical systems, eager researchers rushed to open the sub’s storage boxes and claim their goodies,
``Look at that, wow!’’ one scientist exclaimed as she picked over this morning’s catch. Among the treasures in the boxes were several clusters of tube worms, strange-looking creatures found only near hydrothermal vents. These vents are like pores in the Earth’s crust that deliver hot, mineral- rich fluids from the interior.
When the scalding liquid hits cold sea water _ about two degrees (F) above freezing _ it emits a dense black cloud and sometimes builds a tower of minerals known as a ``black smoker.’’
One of the chimneys that ROPOS visited Monday stood 38 feet tall _ almost as high as a four-story building. Smokers tend to be very fragile, so it was easy for the sub to knock off a slab with its robot arm and bring it up to the surface for study.
Another prize was a chunk of wood that was left at this site last year. It was still there Monday but covered with orange bacteria. Microbes thrive in the chemical soup around a hot vent, and grow happily inside and outside of smokers and tube worms.
Before calling it a day Sunday, ROPOS finished deploying and testing the 11 ``extensometers’’ that will tell researchers how far and how fast the giant tectonic plates that make up the ocean floor are moving apart.
This was the first of many dives to the bottom of the ocean that Chief Scientist Bob Embley has planned for the next two weeks aboard the BROWN. Monday’s dive was in the South Cleft, a crack in the ocean crust due west of Portland, Oregon.
Santa’s next stop is the Axial Volcano, west of Seattle, where a much richer haul of scientific treats await.
* * * More tomorrow * * *
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ Today’s special feature was a rendez-vous at sea and an exchange of personnel with the ATLANTIS, a similar research ship exploring the Pacific Ocean bottom.
While the two ships hovered a quarter mile apart -- like a pair of anxious nannies -- a lifeboat ferried two oceanographic students across the 5 to 7 foot waves from the BROWN and brought back three scientists from the ATLANTIS.
This exercise in cooperation masks a friendly rivalry between the BROWN, which belongs to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the ATLANTIS, which works for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).in Woods Hole, Mass.
The BROWN’s chief research tool is ROPOS, an unmanned robotic submarine built and operated by Canada. ATLANTIS is the mother-ship for Alvin, an American-made mini-sub that carries three people – a pilot and two scientists – to the seafloor.
Alvin, which discovered the sunken Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean, is more famous than ROPOS. But scientists on the BROWN insist they can accomplish more with their little robot than a manned vehicle can.
One BROWN patriot wrote in the cruise log: ``ROPOS is strong, Alvin is weak.’’
Because of its precious human cargo, Alvin has to proceed with extreme caution It can dive only once a day, and its working time on the bottom is limited to 5 or 6 hours per trip.
``ROPOS can do much more than Alvin,’’ said Craig Moyer, a biologist from Western Washington University who has spent many years studying microbial life in the deep sea.. ``It can stay down longer, go more places, take more chances.’’
Ironically, the same argument goes on about research in space – another challenging scientific frontier like the oceans. Many astronomers deplore the enormous cost of putting humans on space shuttles or the $65 billion International Space Station now under construction. They contend that unmanned vehicles, like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Pathfinder and the spacecraft Galileo now orbiting Jupiter can produce more science at lower cost, without risking human lives.
Before the rendez-vous with ATLANTIS, the BROWN enjoyed a highly productive dive to several sites in the crater of the Axial Volcano, 260 miles west of Seattle. Chief Scientist Bob Embley said he had rarely seen a dive where things went so smoothly and every objective was achieved.
There was even another of those lucky breaks that the BROWN has been experiencing on this cruise. Two tubes that were supposed to collect samples of ocean larvae fell out of the ``elevator’’ basket that was carrying them 1.3 miles down to the bottom and were presumed lost.
But when ROPOS touched down -- lo and behold -- there were both larval tubes, just waiting to be picked up. One tube had popped its lid, without waiting for orders from above, and was busily collecting samples of seawater on its own. Naturally, Anna Metaxas, a biologist from Canada’s Dalhousie University who runs the larva project, was ecstatic.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ You might think it rude to tell somebody to go to Hell. On this ship, it’s perfectly okay.
Hell is the name scientists have given to one of the many gaps in the Earth’s crust – known as hydrothermal vents -- where scalding hot fluids from the interior of our planet gush onto the sea floor.
A thermometer on our inquisitive little submarine ROPOS recorded temperatures of about 600 degrees Fahrenheit in the liquid that Hell vent was spitting up this morning in the crater of the Axial Volcano, a mile underwater and 250 miles west of Seattle.
Leigh Evans, a NOAA biochemist , calls the fiery brew ``volcano juice.’’ A quixotic entry in today’s cruise log reads: ``Hell looks very beautiful.’’
To an untrained eye, a hydrothermal vent is hardly a thing of beauty. But to an ocean scientist, it’s better than gold. That’s because these vents provide a priceless window into what’s going on in the Earth’s basement.
By analyzing the fluids, the minerals they deposit and the microbes that flourish there, researchers learn a great deal about the physics, chemistry and biology of the vast subterranean domain below the seafloor. In the last 20 years, more than 100 such vent fields have been discovered beneath the world’s oceans.
This is the third year that scientists have visited the Axial Volcano, which last erupted in January, 1998, slathering the seafloor with a fresh bed of lava 12 to 18 feet thick and activating dozens of hydrothermal vents.
Many vents, besides Hell, have been given colorful names, such as Inferno, Tombstone, Mushroom, Old Worms, The Pit, Castle, Bag City and Joystick.
Our little robot submarine was kept busy day and night scurrying from vent to vent, taking pictures, recording temperatures and collecting samples. The samples were loaded into bottles or boxes and hoisted back up to the ship, either on ROPOS or in a large green basket known as the ``elevator.’’
Scientists were particularly interested in clusters of tube worms, a peculiar animal that makes its home inside a hollow tube next to a hydrothermal vent. Several worms were spotted wriggling frantically when they were caught in the glare of the sub’s bright lights.
Their agitated reaction was understandable. How would you like it if some alien monster burst into your backyard, brandishing huge steel claws and blinding you with its spotlights? Then you might really think you’re in hell.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ In the old Beatles song, life sounded pretty good in the Octopus’s Garden down in the sea. But out here at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, reality is grim. It’s eat or be eaten.
During last night’s dive, our little yellow submarine saw several octopuses that had apparently feasted on tiny clams, leaving the empty shells scattered about the seafloor.
The tube worms that camp by the thousands around hot water vents in the crater of the Axial Volcano make tasty snacks for crabs and predatory worms. Critters captured in sample jars by the BROWN’s scientists gobble each other up if they are left alone too long.
Even when no enemies are around, the tube worms seem to enjoy scuffling with each other. And if they escape being eaten, the worms are vulnerable to being crushed by lava, as happened when the underwater volcano erupted two years ago.
After observing the drama of life and death on the seafloor for most of the night, the sub brought up a trove of samples for the biologists eagerly waiting on deck. They rushed their prizes into the laboratory or refrigerator to be preserved for future study.
A bottom pressure recorder was placed in the middle of the crater to trace the rise and fall of the seafloor – really the roof over a reservoir of molten magma -- over the coming year.
Then it was the geologists’ turn to take advantage of the sub as it explored the southern end of the Axial caldera. Today’s dive was a return to the outer edge of the lava bed created by the 1998 eruption to see what changes have occurred since it was last inspected a year ago.
The key feature was still there – a spectacular fissure or crack in the surface, about three feet wide, 10 or so feet deep and hundreds of feet long, that looked like a miniature Grand Canyon.
The fissure was created by molten rock, or magma, forcing itself up from the innards of the Earth at a mid-ocean ridge. It’s one of the ``windows’’ into the inside of our planet that this cruise was designed to study.
Most of the dive was spent making a detailed sonar survey of the thick bed of lava covering the southern rift zone, which looks quite different from the northern end of the crater.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ This NOAA research vessel is like a floating university. Experts in different academic specialties do their own thing, of course, but they brush elbows in the ship’s laboratories, swap ideas across the dinner table, coordinate sample collection strategy at daily science ``faculty’’ meetings.
Senior scientists train graduate student assistants working for advanced degrees. There is gossip about colleagues, anxiety about grants, pressure to publish results.
The boundaries blur between ``hard’’ sciences like chemistry and geology on the one hand, and squishy studies of living organisms on the other. The tight confines of the ship – a little smaller than a football field – force a productive intellectual intimacy and cross-fertilization amid the vastness of the ocean.
This afternoon, for example, a complicated gadget nicknamed ``The Beast’’ was to be lowered to the seafloor on our robotic submarine to collect samples from hydrothermal vents, where hot fluids gush up from below the crater of an underwater volcano.
Some of the fluid will be analyzed by chemists David Butterfield and Kevin Roe from the University of Washington to see how venting affects the chemistry of the water. They study how volcanic activity transfers massive amounts of heat, hydrogen, sulfur and other substances from inside the Earth into the oceans, with important implications for the creatures that dwell in the sea.
Other jars of liquid from the vent fluid sampler will go to microbiologists like Craig Moyer of the University of Western Washington and Julie Huber of the University of Washington. They work with microscopic bacteria that flourish around hot vents and may represent some of the most archaic forms of life on our planet.
Still other researchers like Verena Tunnicliffe and Jean Marcus of the University of Victoria, Canada, study the life cycles of diverse communities of larger sea creatures like crabs, clams and exotic tube worms. One of the unsolved mysteries is how these little societies spread from hot vent to hot vent across miles of cold, inhospitable sea.
All these separate disciplines and more are brought together under the guidance of the cruise’s Chief Scientist, Robert Embley, a marine geologist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, who has been exploring these waters for some 20 years.
Unfortunately, as the work at sea goes on, this little academic community is facing a crisis: the ship’s supply of coffee is running low, with no way to replenish it for another 11 days. Now that’s a problem all the brain-power aboard ship cannot solve.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ It was a long, grueling but productive day Saturday for the scientists aboard this NOAA research ship.
For some 20 hours, their little submarine prowled across the ocean floor, taking pictures, collecting samples, picking up old instruments and putting down new ones to be retrieved next year.
The goal is to provide a long-term record of what happens after an underwater volcano erupts, as the Axial Volcano here did in January, 1998.
The sub ROPOS started work last night at the northern end of the crater at a site called Magnesia. Two years ago it was venting hot fluids at a furious rate. Last year it was still gushing, but more slowly. This year it’s quiet, a sign that the heat coming up from the innards of the Earth has cooled at that spot.
Slowly the sub worked its way south, to sites with exotic names like Oldworms, Snail and Cloud. The vents here were still pumping out warm water, about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s about half what it was a year ago, but still far hotter than the surrounding bottom water, which is only a few degrees above freezing.
Colonies of worms, snails, limpets and crabs clustered around the vents. With its mechanical claw, the sub picked up traps that have been collecting microscopic bacteria.
The last stop for this dive was at a site called Castle, because of the fantastic looking chimneys and towers created when the mineral-rich water from below hits the cold seawater.
The sub lingered over one little chimney, almost pure white, which was belching a steady stream of fluid at a scorching 525 degrees. This site hasn’t cooled at all, according to Chief Scientist Bob Embley, because it’s located over a hot spot under the ocean crust, where a reservoir of molten rock awaits the time of its next eruption.
Finally it was time for the sub to come up on deck and weary scientists to head to bed.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ From the bridge of this ship the gray-blue sea stretches in every direction to the horizon. Wind-whipped waves streaked with white foam toss restlessly. It’s a world that seems to have no limits.
But below decks, it’s a cozy little realm in the narrow confines of the BROWN -- a little smaller than a football field – where 59 people carry out their daily chores: the crew that sails the ship, the engineers who operate the robot submarine, and the scientists struggling to understand what’s happening on the ocean bottom a mile beneath our feet.
Halfway through this cruise, life here settles into its own routine.
Meals, of course, are essential and plentiful, served cafeteria-style by Chief Steward Pablito Santo and his staff. Breakfast hours are 7 to 8, lunch 11 to 12, and dinner 4:30 to 5:30. A typical day’s menu:
Breakfast: eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, hash browns, waffles, toast, muffins, bagels.
Lunch: soup, curried chicken, bbq beef, corn dogs, rotini pasta, shrimp tempura, arroz con pollo, salad.
Dinner: corned beef and cabbage, red fish, pork kebabs, lamb chops, scallops and oysters, pasta tetrazzini, salad.
A high point in the day’s rhythm is mail call. No letters are delivered at sea, of course, but e-mail comes via satellite at 10 am and 6 pm. Communication with loved ones ashore is cumbersome but always welcome.
The BROWN’s crew works a standard maritime shift – four hours on, eight hours off. The sub’s engineers put in 12-hour shifts. For the scientists, working hours are a blur.
The pace depends on what the sub is doing on the seafloor and what treasures it brings up to the surface once or twice a day. Biologist Julie Huber was awake for 36 hours straight the other day.
A popular hangout is the control room, where Team Leader Keith Shepherd and his assistants maneuver the sub and manipulate its mechanical arms. Eerie underwater scenes play on video screens, while a scientist on duty logs each event, minute by minute, and a navigator tracks the sub’s position, meter by meter.
It’s not all work, of course. A ferocious ping-pong tournament rages in one of the laboratories. The ship’s lounge is stocked with a huge stack of movies. The library holds hundreds of paperbacks as well as nautical reference books. The library is also the setting for daily conferences led by Chief Scientist Bob Embley, where details of the next days’ dives are thrashed out. Scrabble and computer games help pass idle hours.
Outside: the endless sea. Inside: work, eat, work, sleep and work again.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ They call it Marker 33. Okay, so it’s not a very glamorous name, but it’s the Grand Central Station of the seafloor in this corner of the Pacific Ocean, 250 miles west of Astoria, Ore.
It’s a little white signboard implanted two years ago a mile below the surface at the hottest spot in the little valley known as the caldera of the Axial Volcano.
Thanks to its central location, Marker 33 has become the most popular stopping point for the research submarine ROPOS that has been cruising this site since the volcano blew up in January, 1998. The place was visited 10 times in 1998 and 1999, and seven times already on this year’s cruise, with another week yet to go.
The neighborhood has become so crowded that the sub’s drivers have to be extremely careful not to knock over or squash any of the many scientific instruments clustered nearby.
They include temperature recorders, fluid samplers, traps for bacteria, tubes to catch larvae from bottom-dwelling animals, and a time lapse camera to maintain a constant watch on the hydrothermal vent that was the reason this site was picked.
The caldera is studded with 69 other markers. Some are numbered but many have picturesque names like Oldworms, Cloud, Snow, Hell, Inferno, Castle, Bag City, Virgin Mound and Joystick. They guide the sub around the valley like street signs in a small city.
The plain old Marker 33 is the crossroads of it all. For those who want to know precisely where it is, the latitude is 45.93327 North, and the longitude 129.98225 West.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ Gazing out at the serene summertime Pacific, it blows your mind to think of it. But a mile below the keel of this ship, Nature is performing one of her most remarkable feats.
Down there in the eternal blackness, Earth, like a giant factory, is constantly churning out fresh ocean crust in an endless cycle of renewal. It takes 200 million years to completely re-do the seafloor.
``This is a fundamental process on Earth that we don’t understand very well, and it’s going on right here underneath us, ’’ says the BROWN’s Chief Scientist Bob Embley..
This place – above the Axial Volcano on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, west of Washington and Oregon – is an ideal site to study the process. The volcano straddles the boundary between two of the dozen or so huge tectonic plates that make up our planet’s crust and support the continents.
The plates are in constant motion, spreading apart about as fast as your fingernails grow. Between them, molten rock from the Earth’s interior surges up, forming an enormous mid-ocean ridge system that encircles the globe like the laces on a baseball.
The ridges form a 45,000 mile-long mountain chain that dwarfs the Rockies, Andes and Himalayas combined. If seen from space, it would be the dominant feature of our planet, were it not entirely covered by water.
Scientists have known since the 1960s that seafloor spreading is the main generator of oceanic crust. But the basic mechanisms were not understood because the ridges are buried in the deep ocean.
A 1993 dive in the three-man submarine Alvin to a nearby eruption provided the first look at brand-new, ``zero-age’’ crust.
Eruptions occur when the molten rock, called magma, that lies several miles below he crust builds up enough pressure to crack through the brittle ocean floor.
That’s what happened here at the Axial Volcano in January, 1998. An eruption, followed by an intense swarm of earthquakes, spewed out a bed of lava 2 to 3 miles long, half a mile wide, and up to 27 feet thick. The earthquakes lasted for 11 days and spread 30 miles from the summit.
Hot fluids gushed through vents in the lava bed, stimulating vigorous growth of bacteria, worms, snails and other animals. The flowing minerals from inside the Earth formed fantastic towers and minarets. One called Castle is 33 feet high and festooned with a row of little chimneys on top.
This fantastic scene won’t last. New material will keep thrusting up at the ridge; the plates will keep spreading until they reach the continents. Then they will dive back down into the interior, be melted and so repeat the grand, 200-million-year cycle of renewal.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ They call it flying. Actually, it’s the robot submarine ROPOS cruising slowly 25 yards above the ocean bottom, making a detailed map of the bumps and hollows on the rumpled floor of the Axial Volcano caldera.
The sub uses an acoustic system called Imagenex, which sends out a tightly focused ``pencil beam’’ of sound waves, sweeping back and forth across the crater. Each sweep, 60 degrees on a side, covers a strip about 75 yards wide. The time is takes for the signal to bounce back traces the pattern of the seafloor with a vertical accuracy of less than 5 inches.
After traveling a mile in one direction, the sub reverses course and, like a farm tractor plowing a field, scans the next furrow.
Towed by its mother ship, the BROWN, at a speed of less than one mile per hour, Imagenex can cover only a quarter of a square mile in 12 hours of trawling.
That’s a tiny patch of the vast ocean floor – a postage stamp on a football field. But NOAA geologist William Chadwick who runs the mapping project, says it’s of great value to the scientists who study the mighty forces that shape our planet’s crust.
When a survey run is finished, a computer turns the data into a color map, with red and orange marking the high points, yellow and green the middle levels, and blue and purple the lowest regions. The horizontal resolution is about a yard.
Such colorful maps are taped to walls all over the BROWN, helping people on ship to visualize the complex geography down there a mile below the surface of the Pacific.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ Hooray! Today we accomplished one of the top priority goals of this cruise – the placement of the NeMO Net 2000 camera in the crater of the Axial Volcano..
The camera is designed to provide a constant view of the ocean bottom for the coming year. It will take a picture every four days, digitize it and deliver it, via sound waves, to a buoy bobbing on the surface a mile overhead.
In turn the buoy will relay the photo to an orbiting satellite, which will pass it on to a ground station at the University of Washington in Seattle. Researchers there can send instructions back to the camera by the same route.
NeMO Net 2000 is to be the beginning of a long-term seafloor observatory – hence the name, NeMO, for New Millennium Observatory. Previously scientists have been able to catch only short glimpses of this underwater world, mainly in summertime when the weather is good. Keeping a constant eye on the scene will be of great value.
A dream for the future is an autonomous submarine that could spend full time on the bottom, traveling when and where its masters ordered. Another proposal is an underwater fiber optic cable network linking sensors on the seafloor to laboratories on land.
A prototype camera was deployed on the Axial Volcano last summer. However, it worked for only four weeks because a computer circuit failed. Last year’s pictures were out of focus and blurry, but two test images which the new camera sent up to the ship this morning came in sharp and clear.
The battery-powered camera is located at a site called Bag City in the southeastern corner of the caldera. It faces a hot water vent, where a thicket of tube worms make their living on hydrogen and sulfur belching up from the innards of the Earth.
Chris Meinig, the NOAA engineer handling the camera project, joked that the little worms must have felt they were being invaded by an alien UFO when the camera landed, depositing a large metal contraption, with brilliant lights and one large round eye, in their midst.
The worms must have thought: ``There goes the neighborhood!’’
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ Biologists say the sunless little valley on the summit of the volcano a mile below this ship, is a ``natural laboratory’’ for studying the life styles of one of the world’s strangest societies.
Residents of the crater, which is about 5 miles long and 2 miles wide, make up a complex community whose members depend on each other for their existence. When the volcano gushes fresh lava, wiping out previous life, new colonies take root, grow, age and die around the hot water vents that dot the seafloor.
``We’re trying to understand the whole sequence from initiation to death,’’ says Jean Marcus, a marine biologist at the University of Victoria, Canada. ``We can see what a vent community looks like at all stages of its life cycle.’’
At the bottom of a complex food chain are microscopic bacteria, including some of the most primitive organisms on Earth, which thrive on heat and chemicals from inside our planet.
These microbes provide sustenance to animals higher on the food chain, such as worms, snails, sponges and clams. Worms can be seen scraping the bacteria off the lava and occasionally fighting over the choicest spots. Crabs chew on clams, and big fish swallow little fish.
One of the most unusual living arrangements is a mutual assistance deal between bacteria and tube worms – slender, squishy animals that resemble stalks of rhubarb sheltered in a hard tube. The worms lack mouths or guts for feeding themselves, but they concentrate chemicals in their tubes, where bacteria settle and produce nourishing meals for their hosts.
Larger animals, such as crabs, octopuses and fish get some of their groceries from organic material that trickles down from the surface of the ocean, and some from the smaller creatures living on the bottom.
One of the key questions biologists are seeking to answer is how vent colonies get started and how their occupants move from place to place. The vents are widely separated on the lava, like oases in a vast desert. Some seafloor organisms in the Pacific are almost identical to others in the Atlantic, implying global-scale migration.
The ``stepping-stone’’ theory proposes that the animals emit huge clouds of larvae that drift on the currents from one site to its nearest neighbor, the way trees spread their pollen on land.. Another intriguing possibility is that heat-loving bacteria roam through water-filled cracks and tunnels under the seafloor – taking advantage of the plumbing in the Earth’s basement.
Some scientists think that this underwater ``Garden of Eden’’ may be where life got its start on our planet – and may still exist under the surface of Mars or Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ ‘The silver and orange buoy we left bobbing in the blue Pacific waves the other day is only the latest in a cordon of floating sentinels keeping watch on the wonders and perils of the sea.
This one – part of the NemoNet (New Millennium Observatory) system – is designed to monitor volcanic and biologic activity on the ocean bottom. It has already started relaying pictures of exotic creatures clustered around a hot water vent in the crater of a submerged volcano to laboratories on shore.
Three other buoys off the coast of Canada and Alaska look out for tsunamis – those monster tidal waves triggered by underwater volcanic eruptions. A fourth will be added near the tip of the Aleutian Islands, where the most dangerous quakes occur.
The tsunami buoys relay data, via satellite, from sensors on the seafloor that monitor changes in the weight of the water above them -- thousands of pounds per square inch. After allowing for the normal rise and fall of waves and tides, the sensors detect the pressure of an unusually big or long-lasting wave. This information is passed to computers on land, where it is analyzed and fed into NOAA’s tsunami warning system.
Tsunamis have killed thousands of people and caused enormous damage over the years. But this network’s most important job is to avoid false alarms, which can cause expensive and unnecessary evacuations. Hawaii officials, for example, must decide within an hour after an earthquake whether to order an evacuation.
`` You can’t cry wolf too often,’’ said Chris Meinig, a NOAA engineer on board the Ron Brown. ``People won’t pay attention to the real thing.’’
A tsunami alert in 1994 led to the evacuation of Waikiki in Hawaii, costing millions of dollars and disrupting many vacations. The time and place of the warning was accurate, but the wave was too small to be observed on the popular beach..
The largest troop of deep sea sentinels is the TAO (Tropical Atmosphere-Ocean) network.. It consists of almost 80 buoys strung out on both sides of the equator, from east to west across the Pacific, to predict El Nino and La Nina events. These are the multi-year cycles of warmer and cooler Pacific waters that powerfully affect the weather in much of the world.
Attached to the buoys are a set of instruments to measure the water temperature, wind, humidity and rainfall along the equator. Since the first buoy was set out about 10 years ago, the TAO array has vastly improved understanding of the El Nino system and its sometimes disastrous consequences on land.
ABOARD THE RONALD H. BROWN _ Not one, not two but three undersea research vessels are exploring the ocean bottom in this corner of the Pacific Ocean this month.
One sub contains three human beings – a pilot and two scientists crammed in its tiny cabin. Another is a remotely controlled submarine, tethered to a surface ship by a long cable. The third, a robot vehicle guided only by computer, runs around the seafloor on its own.
The first of this trio is Alvin, the famous little submersible that discovered the Titanic. Alvin, which has been poking around the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean for almost 40 years, is now checking out hot vents on the Endeavor Ridge, a center of high scientific interest on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate that makes up the seafloor west of Seattle.
Between dives, Alvin recuperates on the deck of the Atlantis, a research ship operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. The chief scientist on the Atlantis is John Delaney of the University of Washington.
The sub controlled by our ship, the Ron Brown, is the ROPOS (for Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science), working under contract to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Built, owned and operated by a Canadian company, the sub is steered by pilots using an elaborate set of joysticks in a dimly lit control room on a lower deck of the Brown. Commands are sent and data and video pictures received through a mile-long copper and fiber optic cable.
ROPOS is studying the impact of volcanic activity on the geology and biology of the Axial Seamount, a volcano 250 miles west of Oregon, under the leadership of NOAA geophysicist Bob Embley.
The third undersea vehicle is ABE -- Autonomous Benthic Explorer – which in plain English means ``self-guided deep-sea explorer.’’ ABE, an experimental craft designed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may be the wave of the future. Ocean scientists would love to have a fleet of small, autonomous research vessels that could be ``parked’’ on a volcanic ridge, ready to go at a moment’s notice when there is an eruption. Subs attached to surface ships take weeks to get to an eruption site, thereby missing much of the action.
Under the direction of Russ McDuff of the University of Washington, ABE is also patrolling the Endeavor Ridge, plowing back and forth through the hot water plumes, often stuffed with microbes, that rise above vents in the seafloor.
The Juan de Fuca plate is bristling with scientists this summer is because it is the most volcanically active area on the 36,000-mile mid-ocean ridge system that is so close to shore – a little more than one day’s sailing time. Furthermore, the water here is relatively shallow – a mile to a mile and a half deep – so subs don’t waste too much time getting to the bottom and back.
And the summer months, when the weather in the fickle North Pacific is usually cooperative, is the busiest season of the year.