Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An ocean project that outshines YouTube's 'skateboarding bulldog'

Richard Thomson, an oceanographer, says the Neptune Canada project will aid in understanding tsunamis, knowledge that may someday save lives. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 23, 2009


YouTube offers a panoply of distractions, from the “dramatic chipmunk” (17.8 million views), to Tillman the skateboarding bulldog (9.8 million), to a wedding procession turned into a boogie fest (35.3 million).

Hilarious? Sure. Entertaining? Depends on your standards. Never before seen? Nah.

If you want to see something incredible, forget the viral videos and check out Neptune Canada’s YouTube channel. You can groove to the soundless beauty of a sea cucumber undulating on the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Vancouver Island.

And if you think movie director James Cameron has the chops when it comes to conjuring alien life forms, then check out a pink Scotoplanes (alias “sea pig”) lumbering along the seabed. A coterie of acolytes zip about like spacecraft hovering around the death star.

Humans have scaled the tallest mountains and flown to the moon, but we are only now beginning to explore the vast surface of our planet. The reason? Most of it is under water. Deep water.

The “sea pig slow dance” was captured by a camera several weeks ago in the middle of an abyssal plain at a depth of 2,660 metres. This is the site of Ocean Drilling Program 1027, part of the world’s largest ocean observatory, the North East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments (Neptune), a project based at the University of Victoria.

An loop of powered fibre-optic cable has been placed along the ocean floor from where sensitive devices will take constant measurements. The cable loops about 800-kilometres along the seabed, long enough to stretch from Toronto to Ottawa, though considerably wetter.

Scientists from around the globe will conduct deep-sea experiments, while all the data compiled from the observatory is being made available to the public on the Internet.

In the past, ships have lowered instruments into the ocean, taking snapshots of conditions. Now, scientists will benefit from having a constant stream of data. It is the difference between a scrapbook of black-and-white photographs and a high-definition movie.

Scientists say the observatory will vastly increase our knowledge about the ocean, as well as of our planet.

“It’s so bloody difficult to get down there,” said Richard Thomson, an oceanographer with the Institute of Ocean Sciences, outside Victoria. “And once you are down there it is difficult to see what you’re doing. You’re myopic.”

The site where the sea pig was caught on candid camera also includes a broadband seismometer and pressure recorders, which monitor changes caused by earthquakes, plate strain, and hydrothermal convection. With the tide gauges maintained by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, scientists such as Mr. Thomson will be able to track and study the spreading and buildup of waves.

“We’re going to be better prepared for tsunamis,” he said.

That information could be of life-saving importance, especially for such communities as Port Alberni, which is at the end of a channel known to increase the impact of surging waves.

On Sept. 29, a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck south of the Samoan Islands, generating a tsunami that inundated the low-lying parts of the South Pacific islands.

Eleven hours later, Neptune’s pressure recorders near Ocean Drilling Program 1027 in the Cascadia Basin began recording the leading waves as the tsunami continued its transoceanic spread. Four waves crested at about 10-minute intervals with a maximum height of five centimetres.

As those waves neared the shore, crossing the continental shelf and pushing into bays, the tsunami waves amplified to 8 cm at Victoria and 18 cm at Port Alberni.

Waves from the event rebounded around the Pacific for days afterward.

Unfortunately, one part of the tsunami measuring system could not be deployed on the ocean floor this summer because of an approaching storm, so some valuable data was missed. Nonetheless, scientists can now use the numbers from the Samoan tsunami to refine models for predicting tsunami hazards along this coast.

Mr. Thomson is also keen to learn more about the zooplankton found at undersea thermal vents.

“Where the hell do they come from? What’s their source?

“We know nothing about how long they live. A week? Two weeks? A year? If they do, how do they do it?”

With Neptune’s unblinking eye and constant recording in real-time, those and many, many other questions will be answered in coming years.

With the information available to all on the Internet, we can look over the shoulders of the scientists to see for ourselves.


Anonymous said...

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Anna Schafer said...

Mr. Thomson is also keen to learn more about the zooplankton found at undersea thermal vents.