Scientists Lead Sea Expedition From Land
PROVIDENCE, R.I — The ship with all the gadgets and underwater rovers is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but for the first time, the team of scientists directing the expedition is not on board. They’re sitting inside a room thousands of miles away.
The scientists and technicians are at universities in Rhode Island, Washington and New Hampshire, watching 52-inch plasma television screens as an unmanned submersible pokes around the Lost City hydrothermal vents – a forest of limestone chimneys on the ocean floor.
Wearing headsets, the expedition’s leaders stationed at the University of Washington tell engineers on the ship where to send the robotic vehicle and its high-definition video cameras, and what to explore next.
“We’re treated like the chief scientist on the ship that makes the decision about it. It’s just that we’re not there,” said Deborah Kelley, a geology professor at the University of Washington and one of the expedition’s leaders.
The technology that’s allowing this to happen is the brainchild of Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who found the Titanic and is director of an archaeological oceanography program at the University of Rhode Island.
Through fiber-optic cables, satellite feeds, and a special, high-speed Internet connection, images transmitted by the roving submersible’s cameras about a half-mile underwater at Lost City are being transmitted within 1.5 seconds – essentially live – to the three “control” rooms.
The underwater probes operate around the clock, to maximize the amount of research on the trip, scheduled to last until Aug. 1. The scientists in Seattle are working in six-hour shifts to keep a constant lookout for any finds.
The entire expedition is being shown live at 24 museums, science centers and aquariums and at 50 Boys and Girls Clubs nationwide.
The technology means ships can go out longer and do more exploring of the oceans, since the scientists no longer need to be on board. Ballard said he sees research vessels on the ocean for most of the year – mapping, probing and yielding more discoveries that could hasten knowledge of the oceans, which cover about 70 percent of Earth but which scientists concede they still know little about.
“No scientist will sit on (a ship) for that long, reading a book and eating popcorn for the whole time, no way,” Ballard said.
While the expedition’s leaders are in Seattle, the University of Rhode Island is producing the shows, and the University of New Hampshire is taking data from the ship and producing topographical maps of the sea floor, Ballard said.
Other scientists can keep tabs on the expedition through a link on the Internet2 network. That’s important, the Lost City leaders said, because it means they can call upon specialists on a moment’s notice to comment on something that has just been discovered.
“So, I’m able to network experts on demand, when I need them,” Ballard said.
Lost City is located at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a north-south underwater mountain chain that splits nearly the entire Atlantic Ocean. The site yields dramatic video because some of its limestone chimneys created by crystallized fluids are 200 feet tall.
Hydrothermal vents were first discovered by Ballard in 1977 near the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific. Lost City, discovered five years ago, shows that small animals, such as the tiny, translucent snails found around the chimneys, can survive in the extreme environment of the ocean floor.
Life is sustained there by the heat and gases emitted by the vents – a process that scientists believe is similar to what happened on Earth in its earliest days. That’s one reason they’re now exploring and mapping the site in such detail.
“That’s one reason we think this could happen on other planets,” said Jeffrey Karson, a geology professor at Duke University. “It’s that simple.”