Exploring the Vast Unknowns of the Sea

Despite the fact that most of the Earth is covered with water, we probably know less about the oceans than we do about the surface of the moon.

This vast region, which harbors some of the most exotic life forms on the planet, has been long neglected, but that's changing.

Scientists are turning to high technology to probe the mysterious land beneath the seas, and within a few years the textbooks will have to be rewritten. We'll see critters that we've never seen before and learn more about the dynamic forces that drive the planet.

Wiring an Entire Tectonic Plate

Many projects that are now in advanced planning stages couldn't have been done just a few years ago. Consider this:

Scientists from a wide range of research institutions are planning to "wire" an entire tectonic plate off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. The Juan de Fuca Plate is smaller than most tectonic plates, the huge chunks of the Earth's crust that move slowly about the planet. But its subduction under the North American continental plate causes earthquakes and volcanoes along much of the Pacific Northwest.

An undersea robot that operates somewhat like the lunar lander that carried astronauts to the surface of the moon is being used to study the impact of oil drilling operations on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.

The U.S. Coast Guard's newest icebreaker is on its maiden voyage, and its first challenge is a dandy. The 420-foot Healy will follow the famed Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean while attempting to collect rock samples from the ocean floor.

These and other research projects, including the 10-year, $1 billion international effort to inventory the critters that live in the world's oceans, called the Census of Marine Life, and the effort to study the entire Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain range where new crust is being formed, are ambitious projects that will take years to complete.

Indeed, the scientists behind the plans to study the Juan de Fuca Plate believe the sophisticated network of sensors and fiber optic cables they will be laying off the Pacific Northwest will still be in use 30 or 40 years from now. Project Neptune is expected to cost about $200 million.

Determing How Organisms Survive

About 2,000 miles of fiber optic cables will be strung across the 80,000-square-mile Juan de Fuca Plate, according to John Delaney, a University of Washington oceanographer who heads a consortium of Neptune participants from the university, Monterey Bay Research Institute, NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, Canada's Institute for Pacific Ocean Science and Technology, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The cables will provide electric power and communications to sensors spread all over the plate, which is bigger than the state of Washington, as well as about 70,000 square miles of ocean bottom surrounding the plate. Tiny subs will zip back and forth between about 30 sites more than a mile under the surface where experiments can be conducted.

The experiments will seek to determine how some organisms survive without sunlight under intense pressures, and even in environments that would poison nearly all other forms of life. This part of the project got a boost recently with a $5 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles.

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