UVic Torch -- Spring 2004
Spring 2004,
Volume 26, Number 1

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An Ocean at Our Fingertips - PHOTOGRAPHY BY VINCE KLASSEN An Ocean at Our Fingertips
Photography by VINCE KLASSEN

The oceans span 70 per cent of the planet, their depths contain virtually all of Earth's life-supporting area, and all along the ocean floor 90 per cent of the planet's earthquakes occur. Yet we know more about the planet Mars than we know about the hostile environment of the deep sea.

THE NEPTUNE OCEAN OBSERVATORY will fill part of the oceanographic void. Three thousand kilometres of anchored fibre-optic cable, interactive instruments, and a small band of underwater rovers will bring the Internet to the sea, and the sea to anywhere there’s a computer and a Web connection.

The plan is bold: weave power and data wires across the Juan de Fuca plate—from Vancouver Island to Oregon, at depths of 3,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific. Network nodes along the fibre-optic web will support multiple sensors, video cameras, and underwater robots. Scientists at computer screens—far from the bone-crushing pressures, near-freezing temperatures, and eternal darkness of the deep ocean—will conduct experiments and collect data at speeds of 10 gigabytes, every second, for three decades.

At the centre of this emerging era of ocean discovery is the University of Victoria. In October, the governments of Canada and BC authorized funding of $62.4 million dollars—easily the largest research grant in the university’s history—for UVic’s development and management of NEPTUNE Canada and its consortium of 12 Canadian universities. The project, a joint venture with several top US marine research institutions led by the University of Washington, has a projected budget of $300 million. Equipment should be in place by 2007 and operational by 2008.

Now comes the incredible logistical, technical, and scientific challenge of building an underwater laboratory.

1. ON CAMPUS, NEPTUNE (it stands for “North-East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments”) is setting up shop in the university’s new Technology Enterprise Facility. Project leader Chris Barnes is a geologist who specializes in studying the earliest remnants of animal life, hundreds of millions of years old. But lately he’s been cast in another role: as a leader of this multi-million dollar ocean exploration.

Barnes—colleagues admire his “boundless energy”—is highly regarded for his research and track record in assembling science infrastructure. He arrived at UVic in 1989 to create and direct the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, stepping down two years ago to take on NEPTUNE. He’s since been travelling almost non-stop, building support for an opportunity he says is too good to pass up.

“NEPTUNE is going to revolutionize the way that we do ocean science,” says Barnes. “We’ve been wanting, forever, to look at the deep ocean, but we’ve only been able to look at little bits. Now, all of a sudden, we’re looking at being able to see it all.”

The deep sea has largely eluded standard oceanographic instruments. Satellites can only penetrate the top micrometres of the ocean’s surface. Oceanographic research cruises are intermittent and, in the stormy north Pacific, generally limited to summer months. So marine biologists like UVic’s Verena Tunnicliffe, who researches hydrothermal vent communities, may venture out to them one summer only to return the next year to find things completely—and inexplicably—changed. NEPTUNE’s systems will help scientists find out how and why these and other environmental changes occur, as they occur.

Tunnicliffe leads project VENUS (Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea), a smaller, mid-depth version of NEPTUNE that will focus on the waters around southern Vancouver Island and Georgia Strait. VENUS will also be a test bed for NEPTUNE technology. Tunnicliffe sees the two projects challenging traditional research methods, to get into a sort of dialogue with their subject: “Instead of it being one-way, we will now be able to interrogate the ocean.”

2. NEPTUNE'S remotely operated vehicles—like submersible Mars rovers—will perform experiments on demand. After docking at stations along the fibre-optic array, they’ll deliver and receive data almost instantly.

“It’s a revolution in technology. We can bring power and the Internet into the deep ocean,” says Barnes. NEPTUNE’s power cables will carry thousands of times the energy available to standard, battery-powered oceanographic instruments. “If we can supply lots of power, then not only can we use existing instruments, but we can develop new ones.”

NEPTUNE’s feasibility study described it as a “project with no blueprint.”

“That’s about right,” says Peter Phibbs, associate director of engineering and operations at NEPTUNE Canada. A telecommunications veteran, Phibbs has placed cable on the ocean floor from New York to Brazil. But NEPTUNE poses distinct challenges.

“The way the telecom companies do it is to survey first, look for any sort of bump or a crack or anything ugly on the seabed, and avoid it like the plague,” explains Phibbs. “NEPTUNE’s kind of interested in the bumps.” Robots will be designed to lay cable along rough topography near underwater volcanoes or the hydrothermal black smokers so abundant on the Juan de Fuca plate.

At every stage, NEPTUNE technical staff will have to modify existing technologies to make them more reliable, or develop new ones.

Phibbs’ US counterpart is Bruce Howe, with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Lab. Howe is working with engineers at UW to develop electronic components for the system.

“Oceanographers have been putting instruments into the water for many years,” says Howe, “but everything is sealed up. It’s all fixed. There are no changes to the underwater system. Here, we’re doing something radically different. We’re violating the protective cocoon. Manufacturers of connectors haven’t done much in this depth of water.”

NEPTUNE’s gear, down as far as 3,000 metres from the surface, will be subjected to crushing water pressures. The weight of the water can cause instruments to implode. “We’re proposing,” says Howe, “to take them to pretty much the limit of what they’re going to do.”

Recently a glitch was found in the nodes UW researchers have developed to route network power and data. Each node dissipates up to 300 watts of heat. “That may not sound like much, but underwater it’s a huge amount,” says Howe. “And it turns out it’s not easy to get that heat out of the pressure case and into the water.” The solution is to coat the instruments in a highly conductive new fluid called fluorinert.

Talk to the techies and one word, reliability, comes up again and again. At each step engineers must balance the expense of buying highly reliable components against the projected cost of maintaining them for 30 years.

“Underwater, nothing is easy,” says Phibbs. “Each piece is complicated and challenging. But it’s all doable.”

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