Nine public school teachers leave Monday morning to visit the site of one of the Northwest’s most dynamic geological features to study the life forms that may pervade much of the Earth’s crust.
The University of Washington’s major research vessel, the 274-foot Thomas G. Thompson, will carry researchers and the science teachers 200 miles off the Washington coast to study the unusual life flourishing along the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The ridge a mile below the ocean surface is the site of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and fields of hydrothermal vents. The vents spew forth water that has percolated deep in the earth’s crust, picking up minerals and being heated to as much as 660 degrees F.
Deprived of sunlight and surrounded by toxic fluids intolerable to most other life, unusual microorganisms thrive at the sea floor and appear to live throughout much of the Earth’s crust. Some scientists hypothesize that these microorganisms — which are the size of a pin hole or smaller — are so numerous that the amount of life below the earth’s surface may rival the mass of plants and animals above it.
The intriguing environment along volcanic rifts like the one off the coast of Washington is the kind of dramatic element that can attract young students in biology, oceanography, geology and the scientific process, according to Professor John Delaney and oceanographer Veronique Robigou, both with the UW School of Oceanography. The two are organizing the experience for the teachers in cooperation with UW’s Office of Educational Outreach, which will award college credits to the participants. The expedition leaves Seattle Aug. 12 and returns Aug. 27.
The teachers will work side by side with Delaney, Robigou and other scientists from the United States and Canada to study how the underwater volcanoes and vent fields sustain life near the sea floor. Among other things, they will be deploying a tethered robot to the seafloor that will send live video to the ship while it collects samples of superheated water, rocks and life.
The robot, referred to as ROPOS (Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Sciences), and its supporting equipment arrives in Seattle this week from its home in Canada. The teachers have the opportunity to be on board the Thompson and see the vehicle in action thanks to the cooperation of Kim Juniper, a Canadian who is the lead biologist for the science party, and the UW School of Oceanography, which is helping pay for ship time.
As part of the program, the teachers have agreed to design curriculum projects or teaching activities to use in their own classes and to share with teachers at their schools and districts.
The requirement is a way to multiply the experiences of nine teachers and reach several thousand students, Delaney and Robigou say. This is a pilot project for what the two hope will be an annual expedition for public school teachers on the UW vessel.
“It’s an exciting time because the vent fields off Washington’s coast are in for increased scrutiny in the next decade. National Science Foundation support is making it possible to establish long-term observatories to examine how volcanoes can support life without sunlight,” Delaney said. “We think it makes sense for school teachers and students to have access to the science as it unfolds.”