UW News

September 19, 2014

Join expedition online: UW students help install cabled deep-sea observatory

UW News

students on boat

This summer and fall UW students had a unique experience off the coast of Washington and Oregon helping scientists and engineers complete construction of the world’s largest deep-ocean observatory.

More on the 2014 expedition

Tune in to the livestream video though Sept. 28

Follow on Twitter at @VisionsOps

Read the UW student blogs and see cruise photos

The sixth leg is now under way, and will finish around Sept. 29. Throughout the 83-day expedition, groups of UW students have each spent two weeks or more working aboard the UW’s large research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson.

Around 45 students, mostly undergraduates, are participating. Most are taking the Ocean 411: Seagoing Research and Discovery course, which has them working with scientists, engineers – and a specialized robot called ROPOS that installs cables, power and communication hubs, and instruments on  the ocean floor as part of the observatory construction phase.

By the time the expedition wraps up the team will have installed tethered robots that zoom up and down 9,000-foot-tall cables while measuring chemical and biological properties throughout the ocean depths, lain thousands of feet of extension cables and installed 150 instruments on the ocean floor and in the water off Oregon and Washington.

students watching screen

UW students Krista Nunnally, Gina Hansen and Don Setiawan watch operations in the robot control room.Mitch Elend / UW

Students were crucial to the mission during four-hour shifts in the robot control room logging operations that continue day and night. They record any interesting events and images that appear on the robot’s still cameras and livestream video, which is also streaming online.

“It was really nice being a part of the actual science part of the cruise,” said Charles Garcia, a UW senior in oceanography. Students are also part of the daily updates from the research team and discussions about how to deal with weather and other factors.

“Being exposed to real fieldwork is something I wouldn’t have got otherwise,” Garcia said. “It’s pretty hectic on a ship and people work in an ever-changing environment.”

Deploying Deep Profiler

Engineers attach a pod that will zoom up and down along the yellow cable in water at the base of the Axial undersea volcano.Ed McNichol / Mumbian Enterprises, Inc.

Garcia transferred from Olympic College on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula to be part of constructing this observatory, he said. He signed up for the summer cruise as soon as applications opened. Other highlights for him were seeing deep-sea creatures and the poetry night on each leg’s last night.

The installation work provides a peek into views the network will provide. A routine dive to recover equipment “quickly turned into one of the best dives I have ever seen,” wrote Claire Knox, a senior in oceanography, in an Aug. 21 blog post. Tiny squid changing color, a sablefish attacking a hagfish, cat sharks, decorator crabs and soft corals all appeared. Finally, “as the [robot] zoomed just above the seafloor, we saw an odd shape in the distance. It looked like a mound of rough sand however when we moved closer we realized it was an octopus. It slowly became increasingly red, ballooned with extra water, and finally jetted off into the distance.”

octopus near instrument

An octopus hanging out near the base of the Axial underwater volcano, about 8,500 feet below the surface.NSF-OOI/UW/CSSF

Chief scientist and co-instructor for the class Deborah Kelley recently got back to Seattle after six weeks at sea.

“The students put in really long hours,” Kelley said. “But they were all surprised at how fast two and half weeks flew by.”

Many students are in the UW’s College of the Environment majoring in oceanography, fisheries and Earth science, but several are from the UW’s College of Engineering. They range from students who had just completed their first year to a few graduate students.

people working on boat

The entire crew helps hand spool about 800 feet of extension cable onto the big orange drum.Mitch Elend / UW

“It was a nice mix,” Kelley said. “The engineering students spanned everything from students who are interested in corrosion, to mechanical engineers to chemists.” Students from different disciplines helped one another, just as in the science and engineering research teams, she said. Oceanography students might teach about the biology, and computer science students would help with programming or data visualizations.

This summer’s work completes initial installation of an ocean observatory that will bring power and high-bandwidth Internet to the deep ocean, providing a real-time, virtual eye on the deep sea and the ability to directly interact with the ocean 24/7. Still aboard the ship is principal investigator and co-instructor John Delaney, a UW professor of oceanography and chief scientist on all legs of the cruise.

Each student also worked on a project, many related to public outreach. Some created multimedia information pages about the technology, complete with interviews with the creators and video of it being deployed. Others described the seafloor animals observed during the installation, which will be available as a biological catalog for the study sites.

Some students created mini-documentaries, including one about the extreme environment at a deep-sea volcano. Another explains a thermal probe that’s inserted into deep-ocean vents spewing fluid more caustic than battery acid and hotter than boiling water.

people deploying instrument from ship

This instrument was designed to free fall 8,500 feet to the seafloor, and did so successfully.Ed McNichol, Mumbian Enterprises, Ltd.

The Tommy Thompson, as the UW ship is commonly known, is an educational vessel where the crew members teach students about the ship’s operations. Students also help out, when safe, with deck work such as hauling equipment and spooling cables.

“People will always go to sea,” Kelley said. “I think it’s important for anybody who wants to be an oceanographer to go to sea and see what it’s like.”

For scientists and the public, the new observatory will soon provide real-time data on offshore earthquakes, mysterious deep-ocean ecosystems, and many more observations on processes such as ocean currents, warming temperatures and ocean acidification.

For UW students, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be part of its installation.

The observatory is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and managed by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. It is scheduled to begin operating in early 2015.