A New Age in Ocean Exploration

Technology like Google Maps and Google Earth make it seem like the entire world is at our finger tips. So, you might not believe me when I tell you that Earth is largely unexplored, but its true. The vast majority of the sea floor has never been seen by human beings. This is in stark contrast to Mars and the moon for which we have far more detailed maps because of satellite technology that is unable to "see" through water. However, emerging technology is making this distant deep sea world much more accessible. I'll start with a story to show you what I'm talking about... 

Live streaming video of my experiment at the bottom of the Pacific

Live streaming video of my experiment at the bottom of the Pacific

Just the other day I was sitting in my office on the east coast, interacting with a research expedition that was at sea studying hydrothermal vents in the eastern pacific.  They were visiting a site where I had deployed an experiment two years before, which I was really hoping they would be able to collect with the robotic submersible (ROV) ROPOS they were working with. I got an email from my collaborator at sea that morning saying that this was the day! I went to the website where the expedition was live streaming both cruise updates and video footage from the submersible on the sea floor (connected to the ship via cables and then sent out to the Internet through satellite connections) in real time. I was able to keep an eye on what the sub was doing all day long. When the time came and I saw (with much relief) that the team had located my experiment, I noticed lots of microbial growth on my samplers and wondered if they might be clogged, which would have changed the experimental conditions. I called in to a satellite phone, and while I was looking at my experiments I was able to request that the team on board make specific temperature measurements that would tell me how my samplers were functioning. It was a short phone call because folks at sea are very busy and satellite phone time is expensive, but I was able to listen to the audio from the ship's control room that intermittently accompanied video from the sea floor when the folks on board had something to narrate, and I could hear the temperature measurements. I grabbed my notebook from the cruise two years before and was able to see that the temperature had decreased significantly in the two years since my experiment. The cool thing is that I would not have known I needed those measurements if I had not had eyes on the sea floor, but there I was in my office on land far from my study site.

This summer there were 5 different expeditions that I know of in different locations on different ships that were streaming live video from sea. You watched archived video footage from the group that collected my samplers here, but they won't be live streaming again until next summer.  When I first went to sea to do research in the summer of 2010 I was aware of any ships live streaming from the sea floor, so technology is definitely changing how we study this largely unexplored world. However, streaming video from sea is just the beginning. The same expedition that collected my samplers was deploying cameras and seismic sensors that will soon be connected to a network of fiber optic cables that have been laid in order to transmit power to specific sites of interest on the seafloor and relay data back, to land in real time, from the depths. So, soon I'll be able to watch live video from my site even when a research ship is nowhere near. These first sensors in certain locations are just the beginning. It's hard to imagine how deep sea research will change when we can plug instruments into a power source on the sea floor and no longer rely on batteries with limited lifespan to power our instruments, when we can have eyes on our sites year round as opposed to the sampling season when ships can safely access our sites, when we can gather a continuous stream of data rather than a few snapshots when we are lucky enough to get out to sea, and perhaps most importantly when all that data is publicly available to scientists who might not be able to get out to sea, to teachers for use in classrooms, and to curious folks everywhere.

We are entering a new age in deep sea exploration, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it.