[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.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
Figure 4. The Odyssey, an autonomous underwater
vehicle (AUV) being deployed under ice in Lake Winnepasauke,
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
And in conjunction with their development, NIUST and
NURP continue to advocate for the development of a network of permanent
"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.”
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.