UW News

August 9, 2023

In the Field: UW team to spend six weeks visiting deep-ocean observatory

UW News

ship by dock in morning sun

The R/V Thompson at the dock in Newport, Oregon, at the end of the NSF-funded Regional Cabled Array cruise in 2021.University of Washington

The University of Washington’s large research vessel, the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, will embark Aug. 13 from Newport, Oregon. A team of dozens of UW students, researchers and engineers will visit sites hosting a unique, National Science Foundation-funded, underwater observatory.

Follow along on the expedition website Aug. 11 – Sept. 20

For almost six weeks the team will send a remotely operated vehicle, ROV Jason, to recover and deploy more than 100 instruments as far as 2 miles below the ocean’s surface, all connected to a cable that supplies power and internet connectivity. Team members will work around the clock to make the most of precious ship time and complete their tasks in the calmer summer conditions.

Deborah Kelley, a UW professor of oceanography, is the principal investigator and chief scientist for two of the expedition’s four legs. Kelley has been involved with the cabled observatory since its inception more than a decade ago. UW News asked her about this summer’s cruise as part of a new series, “In the Field,” highlighting UW field research.

Where are you going, and when?

Deborah Kelley: We’re visiting all the main sites on the Regional Cabled Array, a submarine fiber-optic cabled observatory off the coast of Oregon spanning depths of 260 feet (80 meters) to 1.8 miles (2.9 kilometers). We’ll visit the Cascadia margin, hosting some of the most biologically productive waters in the ocean, and a highly dynamic methane seep site where methane is crystallized like ice, and issues as gas from the seafloor.

red-covered column with deep blue background

Red scale worms, sulfide worms with branching crowns, and tubeworms with beautiful red plumes thrive on the outside of the 52-foot (16 meter) tall hydrothermal structure called El Guapo, seen in 2018. Gas and fluid emanating from the seafloor helps support these deep-ocean lifeforms.UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI, V18

We’re also going to work at the base of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, one of the few places with seismometers on both the subducting oceanic plate and the North American continental plate. Then we go to Axial Seamount, the most active underwater volcano off our coast. We’ll work at the base of the seamount, at 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) depth, and also install instruments in the summit caldera.

The entire cruise will be 41 days, loading Aug. 11, leaving shore Aug. 13 and finishing Sept. 20, divided into four legs with crew changes in Newport.

Have you visited this field site before?

DK: We surveyed the seafloor to plan out cable routes and instrument locations before the installation cruise in 2014, so it’s over a decade of visiting these sites every year. Still, we see new things on each expedition.

Our work was disrupted a bit by the pandemic. In 2020, we only had a couple of students with us. Everyone was under really strict quarantine, so logistically it was a nightmare. Last year we were back to having about 25 undergraduates onboard — all team members had to wear masks all the time and get tested twice a day. This year things will be more normal.

I haven’t gone the past two summers because I had to minimize my COVID exposure. This year, I’m going on Legs 1 and 4. I’m so excited — seeing some of the most extreme environments on Earth with the ROV, getting to work again with an amazing team and old friends on the ship, and interacting with UW undergraduate students will renew my spirit for sure.

What do you hope to learn?

DK: This cruise is mostly focused on maintaining this national facility — the biggest and most advanced underwater observatory in the U.S. Our job is to make sure that all the infrastructure is functioning, and keep the instruments running so that anyone in the world can explore our data.

We’re going to swap out over 100 instruments from the seafloor and water column, including an HD camera and a coupled microbial DNA and fluid sampler at Axial Seamount hot springs, and three instrumented vertical profiler robots that move up and down in the water.

The scientific scope of the observatory is incredibly interdisciplinary: It covers all types of oceanography, from geology to marine biology. The instruments provide unparalleled information on ocean heat waves, ocean acidification, earthquake activity, and tsunami waves.

orange crab on underwater lava

A spider crab, about 3 feet wide, walks across slabs of glass-covered lava at the summit of Axial Seamount, an underwater volcano, photographed in 2020.UW/NSF-OOI/WHOI: V20

The infrastructure at Axial Seamount forms the most advanced volcanic observatory in the world’s oceans. The seismic activity’s been picking up there, and the seafloor is still inflating, so there will be an eruption upcoming, it’s already past the level where it was when it previously erupted.

Satellite instruments can detect ocean temperature at the surface, but a satellite doesn’t see down into the water column.  And sea-going oceanographers are lucky if they get to go out to sea once a year. But this observatory has three moorings with profilers hosting nine instruments each that go up and down nine times a day, from 600 feet depth to just below the surface, and have made more than 40,000 vertical profiles so far.

Who will be participating in this field campaign?

team members on deck

Deborah Kelley (second from right) and team members on leg 2 of the 2018 expedition.

DK: Over the four legs we have 144 science berths, and they’re all full, including students, the science team, engineers and the team that operates the remotely operated vehicle.

This year’s students and guests include 25 undergraduates from the UW, Bellevue College and Queens College in New York. The students are from all disciplines: neuroscience, computer science, oceanography, biology, engineering and Earth sciences. Three students from past years will also join the technical team and act as ambassadors.

We have several add-on science programs. One is led by a former UW Oceanography graduate student, Rika Anderson, who is now a faculty member at Carleton College. She received a five-year award to look at changes in microbial DNA and viruses in and near the hydrothermal vents, and will bring a postdoc and student with her.

This year a children’s National Book Award finalist, Victoria Jamieson, will join us on the first leg to collect material for a new book.

We’ll also have a 19-year-old filmmaker from the U.K., Leo Richards, who produces short films for his Natural World Facts YouTube and other channels. He’ll be joining us on legs 1, 2 and 3 to document the Regional Cabled Array and the amazing environments and life there.

What’s one thing you really enjoy about doing field work — especially something that might not occur to most people?

DK: I’m still amazed every time I see the seafloor. Even places where you don’t think there’s much life, animals thrive. The incredible life around hydrothermal vents can flourish in high-temperature fluids devoid of oxygen, but enriched in toxic metals, carbon dioxide and hydrogen. One of my favorite animals that lives its entire life in near-freezing waters and in complete darkness is the “dumbo” octopus.

octopus on underwater ledge

A deep-sea Grenelodone octopus lounges on a ledge at the summit of Axial Seamount, an underwater volcano off the coast of Oregon. In the near-freezing waters at a depth of almost 1 mile, these are slow-moving creatures.UW/NSF-OOI/CSSF, V’14

Over 70% of the world’s volcanism is in the oceans. I just never get tired of looking at these systems, and the lava flows that occur around them. We see fossilized rivers of glass-covered lava, and amazing underwater hot springs.

I love the science, and I love the engineering, but I really am passionate about taking students out to sea with us. A lot of them say it changes their life. That’s a gift, to be part of.

Is there any way for people to follow your efforts (blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc.?)

DK: We’ll be posting updates on the VISIONS’23 expedition page. We’ll have a daily cruise blog, student blogs, and a new “featured image” every day or so. We’ll also be streaming live video whenever the remotely operated vehicle is in the water, and during deck operations and transits between sites.

This year we won’t be creating our own social media channels, but you can find updates on the X, Facebook and Instagram feeds of the larger NSF Ocean Observatories Initiative, which includes observatories in other locations.

Anything you’d like to add? 

DK: We just updated the Regional Cabled Array gallery, and I’m really proud of it. It’s got phenomenal images, and we refreshed the biological catalog. Here’s an example of the “weird fish” we always see, that looks really prehistoric, and it’s very rarely photographed. So. if people want to explore, our technology, the seafloor and deep-ocean environments off our coast, and the life found there, they should check out the gallery of images from past cruises (and from this one, as the cruise continues).


For more information, contact Kelley at dskelley@uw.edu.