UVic Torch -- Spring 2009
Autumn 2009,
Volume 30, Number 2

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The Barkley Canyon node drops to the ocean floor, 650 metres below.
By Peigi McGillivray


NEPTUNE Canada’s web-linked tools are ready to probe the ocean depths.

This summer, a remote-controlled submersible robot searched out five undersea power outlets along an 800-km loop of fibre-optic cable off the west coast of Vancouver Island and connected more than 400 instruments and sensors — bringing the world’s first regional cabled ocean observatory to life.

“We’re on the front end of a revolution in ocean science,” says Chris Barnes, program director of NEPTUNE Canada. “People everywhere will be able to ‘surf the seafloor’ on the Internet, and scientists will be able to run deep-water experiments from labs and universities anywhere in the world.”

The observatory reaches into some pretty hostile environments, or as science director Mairi Best puts it, “where things are happening. And those just happen to be really dangerous, unsafe places like volcanoes an earthquake zones, whale migration paths, and super-heated hydrothermal vents. Everything has to be close enough to observe events but far enough away to be safe.”

Over the course of the summer, the Alcatel-Lucent cable ship Lodbrog transported the massive, 13-tonne nodes, lowering them to the cable loop that was installed two years ago.

Using methods developed for installing the first transatlantic telegraph lines, it secured the cable and brought it to the surface, where it was hooked up to the massive steel node. Slowly, each node was lowered to its place on the seabed, up to 2.7 km below. “We used the ROPOS submersible to make sure the cable doesn’t get tangled or twisted on its way down,” says Best, “It takes up to four hours to place the deepest node.”

The lead engineer says the design of the thick, steel nodes was based in part on what they saw as they initially installed NEPTUNE’s cable. “There were long gouges in the sea floor that had been left by trawlers scraping the bottom with their nets,” says Peter Phibbs, “We designed our nodes to be ‘trawler resistant’, as well as strong enough to withstand corrosion from sea water and the crushing deep-water pressure. I expect them to last up to five years without bringing them up for maintenance.”

The final step in creating the undersea lab was to connect hundreds of individual instruments and sensors to the nodes. The NEPTUNE Canada team used the ROPOS submersible, one of the world’s most capable scientific submersibles to connect each one.

The research potential of the undersea laboratory is unprecedented, projects include analyzing single grains of sediment to chart evolution of gas hydrates, observing ecosystems in action, recording seismic and volcanic activity, studying the effects of climate change and learning how whales hunt squid in deep water.

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