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Virtually There

 The National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology and NOAA’s Undersea Research Program team up to answer some profoundly deep questions.

by Taylor Sisk

Few among us are afforded the opportunity to behold an erstwhile unseen world. Traveling in the deep-sea submersible Alvin (Figure 1) on an October 2000 dive in the Gulf of Mexico, Ian MacDonald of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University and Andy Shephard of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington describe just such an event. At a depth of 9,200 feet, Alvin encounters a sheer limestone cliff at the westernmost end of the Florida platform. It begins to climb the cliff. The scientists write:

[N]early 2,000 feet above the starting point, a broad ledge appeared. On the underside of the ledge, sheltered from falling sediments and nourished by organic particulates, a bright garden of corals, sponges, and sea-whips hung suspended, bright with tiny shrimp…. This incredibly exhilarating dive had to end just as a sense of where to find life in this harsh, incredibly remote habitat was developing. And in a way, that’s where deep-sea science is now. The expedition was very successful – some questions were answered, but even more were asked.

The deep submersible Alvin surfaces

Figure 1. The deep submersible Alvin has conducted over 3700 scientific dives in its 38 years of service and taken over 11,000 scientists to the deep. The Alvin can carry two scientists and one pilot to approximately 4500 m deep in the ocean. © WHOI

Certainly nothing an oceanographer encounters in his or her work can surpass the sheer exhilaration of being there. Equally integral to successful research, though, is the ability to stay home and take in the long view.

"Quite honestly, if I can avoid getting in the water myself, I’ll avoid it,” says oceanographer Vernon Asper, whose current research is conducted in one of the oceans’ most forbidding environments, the Antarctic.

On October 1, 2002, NOAA announced a grant to the University of Mississippi to forward the development of the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology (NIUST). NIUST was established the previous year in coordination with the Universities of Mississippi and Southern Mississippi with a mandate to work in cooperation with NOAA’s Undersea Research Program (NURP) to "promote, conduct and lead integrated, multidisciplinary undersea research commensurate with the directives” of NURP.

Primary among the above objectives were the development of an ocean biotechnology center, which includes a national repository of biochemical/molecular products of marine organism for use by the biotechnology research sector (Figure 2), the development of technologies for the operation and deployment of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) (Figure 3), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), and establishing and enhancing remote seafloor observatories.

A deep-sea diver observes a coral reef formation

Technicians prepare to launch the ROV Kraken from shipboard

Figure 2 (left). Scientists at the National Institute for Undersea Science and Technology specialize in collecting and analyzing biochemical and molecular products from marine organisms such as coral reefs. Organisms that exhibit exceptional potential within the first year screening will be subject to additional chemical, molecular, and/or culture work in efforts to achieve either commercially-viable products, pharmaceutical products, or other biotechnological services.

Figure 3 (right). The Kraken is a remotely operated vehicle operated by the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut, one of six regional NURP Centers.

The latter two of these initiatives are among Asper’s areas of expertise.

Working from home
Among the many recent revolutionary technological advancements in ocean research, perhaps the most remarkable are these: (1) The means to go where man has never before gone, and (2) viable resources that allow man to stay put.

As regards the former, first consider developments in "technical diving,” by which biologists, geologists, archaeologists and others may now directly interact with the subjects of their research at depths up to 300 feet. Submersibles, of course, carry researchers much farther still, to the bottom of the ocean, 10,000 feet or more, where answers are revealed and new mysteries unfold.

Vernon Asper is dean of the College of Marine Sciences at the University of Southern Mississippi – which along with the National Center for Natural Products Research and the Center for Marine Resources and Environmental Technology, both at the University of Mississippi, comprises NIUST. He’s experienced the thrill of taking in the deep, but knows well the value of stepping back.

"The most exciting thing to me in undersea technology today,” says Asper, "is that we have technology that enables us to be in the ocean virtually, anytime we want to be there. We’ve got observatories that we’re putting in the ocean right now that are attached to land by cables, or sometimes by buoys and satellite links, that allow us as scientists to be measuring and monitoring and watching what’s going on in the ocean all the time.

"Let’s step back about thirty years. Before we had satellites we would go out in the ocean in ships and we would take one sample on a nice day in June. And we would take that sample home, and we would say, ‘That’s what the ocean looks like. Not just right there, but in that area; not just on that day, but all year long.’

"Well, nothing could be farther from the truth. Now we’ve got satellites, and we can see that, first of all, in the wintertime it’s much different than it is in the summertime. Second, any sample you take in one little area, if you’d moved ten miles away you’d have gotten a completely different answer.

"Satellites have effectively forced us to sample the ocean a bit more rigorously and a bit more carefully. They force us to go out in bad weather. So we have to do things we don’t really enjoy doing because the data force us to be honest, to be collecting a complete and comprehensive picture of what’s going on in the ocean.

"You don’t especially want to do it because it’s hard work and when the weather’s bad and the ship is rolling on the wind and you’ve got a 500-pound piece of equipment and you’re trying to get it over the side and into the water without hurting anybody or it, and then when it’s in the water and the ship is moving up and down, and the cable is pulling tight and slapping you, it’s dangerous for everyone and for the equipment.”

Technicians ready this AUV for deployment under ice

Figure 4. The Odyssey, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) being deployed under ice in Lake Winnepasauke, New Hampshire.

Got cable
AUV technology is getting cheaper and better. AUVs are mobile and adaptable, and thus remain critical to research in remote, extreme environments (Figure 4), such as the Antarctic. "AUVs are on the rise, and we’re going to be using them a lot,” says Asper.

And in conjunction with their development, NIUST and NURP continue to advocate for the development of a network of permanent seafloor observatories.

"With an observatory, we can put a piece of equipment out there underwater, run cable back to shore and tie it into the Internet. Then I can sit at my computer anywhere in the world and I can watch what’s going on there, I can be getting data. If it looks interesting, I can take extra data or I can take samples, I can take pictures or I can stimulate the environment, whatever I want to do because though I’m not physically there, in terms of a virtual presence, I’m there.”

Of NIUST’s partnership with NURP, Asper says: "Everybody understands that monitoring, long-term observation is key to understanding. If you don’t monitor long term, you’re going to miss the really important things. That’s why NURP is a good fit for us. NURP pioneered some of the early work. They did LEO-15, the very first cabled observatory (Figure 5). They have precedent; they started it. That’s why I like being a part of what they’re doing.”

The LEO logo, the Longterm Ecosystem Observatory

Figure 5. LEO-15 is a longterm ecosystem observatory located at 15 m underwater at an inner-shelf site off Tuckerton, New Jersey and is designed to help increase our understanding of episodic events (such as storms, upwelling and hypoxia) that are poorly studied by conventional methods.

In tandem, NIUST and NURP are addressing that growing list of questions to which MacDonald and Shephard alluded. It’s exciting work – virtually the same as being there.


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Updated: April 1, 2005