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.

Project Neptune will allow scientists to study the dynamic processes that drive plate tectonics, and the rest of us have been invited along for the ride. The data, including images, will be available to anyone via the Internet once the project is operational in four or five years.

Delaney says he wants it to be like a public "oceanarium."

"Oceans are the most fascinating feature of our solar system," he says. "We want everyone with a home computer to be able to access what we're studying and eventually involve schoolchildren in our robotic operations, allowing them to experience firsthand the mysteries of the deep."

Texans Discovering What Drilling Is Doing

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of Texas, scientists want to know more than just what the ocean is like. They want to know what we're doing to it.

So a consortium of universities, led by Texas A&M, is using a 10-foot-tall, 1-ton robotic device to study the deeper regions of the Gulf of Mexico before oil drilling begins there.

"Oil companies have been drilling on the continental shelf of the Gulf for the past 50 years," says Gilbert T. Rowe, a Texas A&M oceanography professor and head of the project. But technology now makes it possible to drill in deeper water and there is great concern over the environmental impact of exploration and production at greater depths, he says.

The scientists will use the "lander," which is naturally buoyant and drops weights to descend to the ocean bottom, to study marine life and its environment at depths of up to 9,000 feet.

"There are a lot of bizarre fauna down there," Rowe says. "For example, there are creatures that act like buzzards, cleaning up the ecosystem. One question is how they find dead carcasses in such a clean, dark, cold, featureless landscape."

Spreading Censors Explored

At the other end of North America, the spanking new Coast Guard icebreaker will have one primary target on its list. Scientists aboard the Healy will study the Gakkel Ridge, more than 3 miles below the surface. The Gakkel Ridge is one of many "spreading centers" around the world where chunks of the seafloor are spreading apart, allowing new ocean bottom to form as magma flows up through the ridge.

But what makes the Gakkel Ridge so fascinating to scientists is it spreads at about a twentieth of the pace of other spreading centers. And unlike other ridges, which bubble with heat as molten rock spews onto the ocean floor, Gakkel is sort of like a "big crack in the Earth," according to Henry Dick of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who first came up with the idea of studying the ridge 15 years ago.

That means there may be all sorts of life down there that is very different from life near other spreading centers.

The Healy will be working jointly with a German icebreaker Polarstern, and the ships will work in tandem along 500 miles of the ridge. First the ships will have to break the ice, then they will drop a rather crude-looking device dubbed unofficially as a "bed of nails." The device will be attached to a long cable, so it can be hauled back up with, researchers hope, chunks of rock from the ridge attached.

And when it's all over, the mysteries of the deep should be a little less mysterious.