Saturday, November 13, 2010

Okeanos Explorer returns to San Francisco with data trove

From SFChronicle

After 180 days at sea, the NOAA research vessel
Okeanos Explorer has returned to the Bay Area to be refitted in an Alameda dry dock for new expeditions to Indonesia's fabled "Coral Triangle," one of the richest regions of marine biodiversity in the world.

The scientists and technicians aboard, together with Indonesian colleagues, gathered precious ocean data with their highly advanced, remote-controlled shipboard instruments and transmitted their discoveries directly to researchers ashore for the first time in ocean exploration.

"We just drove the ship and they had all the fun," Robert Kamphaus, skipper of the newest vessel in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's research fleet, said when the ship docked briefly at Pier 30 on the Embarcadero last week.

The team deployed the ship's unmanned submarine, a remotely operated vehicle nicknamed "
Little Hercules," to explore Indonesia's little-known ocean bottom.
The vehicle discovered and transmitted images of intensely hot hydrothermal vents fuming on the flanks of a mile-high undersea volcano named
Kawio Barat, where barnacles, worms, colorless shrimp and other strange creatures thrive in the heat around the smoke-filled steam.
In their high-tech control room, researchers aimed the ship's multi-beam sonar to sound the bottom day and night, gathering precise images of unknown seamounts, ridges and flat plains of sediments laid down, possibly, for untold thousands of years.

The ship also towed a small vehicle called a "continuous plankton recorder" 30 feet below the surface across nearly 6,000 miles from the Sulawesi Sea through the Pacific Ocean to gather tiny plant and animal samples that will reveal much about the sea's varied floating life forms and environment.

For the first time in oceanography, all those undersea images and instrument data were shared instantly with scientists at seven specialized exploration command centers throughout the United States, thanks to the satellite-based broadband technology known as "

Even after the ship left Indonesia, sailing on her final leg between Hawaii and California, biologists aboard described passing across a thousand miles of the notorious "
North Pacific garbage patch," a region where ocean currents trap vast quantities of floating detritus from human sources on land, including chunks of plastic and even larger floating junk.

"For a thousand miles of the open ocean we sampled it all," said Miriam Goldstein, an oceanography graduate student from the Scripps Institute in San Diego.
And while most of the garbage patch is made of microscopic plastic particles, invisible from the air, we did pick up pop bottles, a bucket lid and even a floating junked suitcase."

Stephanie Oakes, an oceanographer with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, collected huge quantities of plankton organisms, both in Indonesia and again between Hawaii and the West Coast.

Changes in the density of plankton species and their biology in different areas of the ocean, she said, will provide unique insights into the nature of life on the surface of the ocean as the ship crossed eastward from Indonesia.

Oakes already has examined the collected plankton on board, but she is busy shipping samples to the little-known
Plankton Sorting and Identification Center in Szczecin, Poland, for detailed analysis, she said.

A crucial part of the expedition, Kamphaus said, was the opportunity to join Indonesian oceanographers and work with their research ship, the Baruna Jaya IV.
The Indonesian scientists focused largely on the shallower seafloor - an area known for greater marine biodiversity than virtually anywhere else in the world.

"The voyage revealed that biodiversity runs deep in Indonesia's waters," said Kelley Elliott, a marine archaeologist and the expedition's coordinator.
"Dozens of new species were likely imaged during the voyage - from tiny crustaceans to stalked sponges and deep-sea corals - reminding us all how little we know about our ocean planet and how much remains to be explored."

The Earth's oceans remain virtually unexplored, said Stephen R. Hammond, chief scientist of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.

"This voyage has begun a new chapter in the history of ocean exploration that is certain to reveal many new discoveries that will help us to understand why, and how, the oceans are critical to life on Earth."

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