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

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 An Ocean at our Fingertips - Photograph by Don Pierce Continued
Feeling pressured: One of the main challenges for NEPTUNE’s engineers is the immense hydrostatic pressure at which the equipment will operate. These three Styrofoam heads illustrate the problem. The one on the left is normal size. The one in the middle spent about a minute at 800 metres below the surface of the Pacific. The smallest spent 12 hours at 2500 metres. Fritz Stahr of the University of Washington shrank them during a research cruise over the Juan de Fuca Ridge.
Photography by DON PIERCE

3. WHAT'S DRIVING THE TECHNICAL PUZZLE, AND THE FINANCIAL investment, is immensely valuable scientific data on climate, earthquakes and marine life. “We’re not just talking about finding a few new species,” says Barnes.

Researchers—not just at the university but also at neighbouring federal research labs—eagerly wait for NEPTUNE’s measurements and what they’ll say about long-term climate cycles like El Niño or climate change.

“I think NEPTUNE was originally designed very much as an earth sciences project,” says Ken Denman, who holds a joint appointment at UVic and the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. “But if you’ve got an array out there, taking real-time measurements, that’s the kind of data that’s interesting and valuable for climate change studies.”

NEPTUNE sensors will run along the potentially catastrophic earthquake zone at the edge of the Juan de Fuca plate. For west coast residents, having an electronic ear on the ocean floor may provide some comfort.

“One, we can understand the tectonics of the whole plate, and two, we can place instruments very close to where the earthquake is rupturing. If it ruptures, you will know it in the fraction of a millisecond that it takes the signal to travel to shore,” says Barnes. This should provide between 30 and 60 seconds’ advance notice—not enough time to reinvest in a better foundation for a home, but long enough to shut down public utilities and prevent much of the fire damage associated with major quakes.

NEPTUNE’s long list of scientific goals includes tracking marine mammals underwater, investigating recently discovered methane hydrate deposits off BC’s coast, and learning how tectonic plates form and evolve.

If NEPTUNE is going to change the types of questions that researchers can ask about the deep ocean, it may also change who can ask the questions. Graduate students, for example, will gain access to an unprecedented wealth of deep ocean data.

“This is a real step forward for ocean science,” says Kristin Rohr, a member of the university’s Centre for Earth and Ocean Research. In the past, she explains, the cost of going to sea—over $10,000 a day for ship time—has limited the number of young scientists who can collect data and get established in the field. “This will bring in young people, new ideas.” She pauses. “It’s very cool.”

Since its inception, NEPTUNE has been aiming to bring the ocean not just to scientists, but to the public as well. Education experts have already begun designing NEPTUNE Web sites, classroom curricula and museum exhibits. There are tentative plans to build a VENUS/NEPTUNE interpretive centre in Victoria. In the US, there’s even talk of a NEPTUNE TV channel.

4. NEPTUNE IS THE BRAINCHILD OF JOHN DELANEY, an imaginative geologist at the University of Washington. Delaney’s specialty is underwater volcanoes, and he’s been building support for the idea of real-time monitoring in the deep ocean since 1991. Canadian colleagues were involved since the early planning stages. “I vividly remember the conversation,” says Delaney of an early meeting with Rick Thomson of the federal Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney. “The sun was low in the sky, the cafeteria was closing and we were having a cup of coffee.” During their conversation Thomson, a coastal oceanographer, suggested expanding the capabilities of the network and attaching instruments to monitor salmon populations.

“It was at that point, right then,” says Delaney, “that I realized, wow, this could be many, many things to many different people.”

“I really liked his initial concept,” recalls Thomson. “As we started to talk, I realized that if these cables are going to the coast, there’s no limit on what you can do. It really struck my imagination.” NEPTUNE’s designers plan to use underwater sonar technology to monitor salmon and other fish populations.

Delaney promotes old-fashioned scientific exploration. “John is sort of like a messiah, an old-time preacher man,” laughs Thomson. “Every time you have a meeting with him, it’s like a revival—he restores your faith in science.”

When the Canadian group joined NEPTUNE, in 2000, the agreement was that they would try to raise a third of the total $300 million cost. Federal and provincial funding realizes the bulk of that goal, but American partners are still waiting on a grant that’s at least two years away. There is general support for NEPTUNE in the American scientific community, and the Canadian funding should provide extra leverage.

Barnes seems relatively unconcerned by the US funding process. “We could say that so far, at least, this northern part (pointing to the area of the Juan de Fuca plate that lies in Canadian waters) has been the most attractive, with sediments on the ridge, and vents. Right here, you can see how these plates slide past each other. We’ve got the gas hydrates here, the sea mounts, the blowholes, and so on. So this is like a little pocket area where everything is beautifully concentrated.”

If the NEPTUNE windfall seems fortuitous, it’s only because the groundwork had been laid years before. We were “pre-adapted,” says Barnes. In the mid-‘90s, he and a colleague in industry, John Madden, formed IPOST (Institute for Pacific Ocean Science and Technology), a BC-based non-profit that worked to build scientific and industrial partnerships in BC’s ocean community. IPOST expressed interest in forming a Neptune Canada partnership, and then used its connections to build support and secure funding for the project.

Another key to Neptune Canada’s success was early support from UVic leadership. President David Turpin says he was convinced to support NEPTUNE by “the outstanding quality of people advocating for it—the leadership that Chris Barnes and Verena Tunnicliffe brought to the project. And second, the concept of the cabled ocean observatory really caught my attention.” The project also enjoyed the early political support of Victoria MP David Anderson.

During an interview, Barnes is interrupted by a call from someone who wants to put him in touch with the American aerospace giant, Raytheon. He’s had two e-mail messages the same morning from other interested companies, and a visit the previous week from a representative of a Portland software company.

“A lot of people are coming here to see us, now,” smiles Barnes, whose hectic travel schedule has eased since the government grants were announced. More and more of his work is focused on campus and on the growing organization that is dedicated to NEPTUNE. The university has formed an Ocean Science Board chaired by Department of Fisheries and Oceans special “Ocean Ambassador” Geoff Holland. The OSB will provide senior oversight and advice on NEPTUNE, VENUS and ocean science projects that involve other universities and agencies. By the end of the summer, NEPTUNE Canada will have appointed 13 core staff members and it will begin awarding design and development contracts.

5. NEPTUNE REPRESENTS A MONUMENTAL PERIOD IN THE LIFE of the university as it seeks to become widely known for the calibre of its marine science research and teaching. Never before has an exploration project of this kind, of this scale, been attempted. It’s daunting and inspiring. For researchers trying to understand the sheer force and delicate subtleties of the ocean, NEPTUNE will be like switching from a magnifying glass to a microscope. On southern Vancouver Island, the project will bring more collaboration among university researchers, their colleagues at federal labs, and the technical expertise of dozens of private companies—with potential dividends reaching well beyond NEPTUNE.

And, for anyone interested in the mysteries of the deep, it means the wildest, most incredible features of life on the ocean floor will be as close as the nearest Web browser. It is a journey into the abyss, with electronic eyes wide open.

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