The deep sea comes to a computer screen near you

Researchers at the University of Victoria get set to launch the world’s most sophisticated ocean observatory

NEPTUNE CanadaCome August, the ocean floor off the coast of British Columbia will be home to roving robots, bright yellow 13-tonne titanium power nodes, 800 km of fibre optic cable and more. By then, Canada will have beat the U.S., China, Japan and Taiwan to the deep sea in the 21st century equivalent to the space race.

Led by the University of Victoria, NEPTUNE promises to be the world’s largest and most advanced ocean observatory. The team of computer scientists, engineers and ocean scientists behind it is currently wrapping up the final installation of the site infrastructure and expects to have a stream of deep-sea data flowing to the surface by the end of the year.

The group has been working on the project since 2003, installing the cables and nodes that provide power to the ocean floor. These will allow scientists to perform experiments and collect data in a way that was never feasible before because of technological restraints. The deep sea tools at their disposal will include seismometers to measure earthquakes, hydrophones to record deep-sea sounds, and “Wally,” the world’s first Internet operated deep-sea crawler. Once the station is up and running, data collection will be remotely managed using computer software.

NEPTUNE will also bring the ocean to the Internet. Data from the publicly-funded project will be as accessible as Google Earth, with real-time video streaming in from the deep sea to your home, school or office. Getting the project up and running, however, was no easy task.

For instance, installing the cable required the use of a 140-metre-long, 10,000-tonne ship. Attached to the ship was a 30-tonne plow, which dug a groove in which the cable was laid. In all, a crew of about about 70 people needed 11 weeks just to wire the ocean floor—and that was just the start. The cables then needed to be connected to nodes, which provide power and allow two-way communications between the deep-sea instruments and the scientists. The six nodes’ frames are made of titanium, each one weighing 13 tonnes and roughly the size of four mini-vans parked together.

But researchers say their efforts will quickly prove to be worthwhile. After all, the ocean observatory has significant applications beyond research. In fact, NEPTUNE is the world’s most sophisticated tsunami and earthquake alert system. “Our data will come at a fraction of a second,” says Chris Barnes, director of the NEPTUNE project, “and will enable all types of preparedness.” By measuring ocean pressure, scientists can be alerted via email, pager, or cell phone of an incoming wave.

“We’re at an era of wiring the oceans just as the same way the first Spuniks went up,” says Barnes.

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