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Keeping watch on the planet from the bottom up Add to ...

This summer, a pair of research vessels will seek out a slim cable buried two years ago on the seabed 300 kilometres off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Using methods developed 150 years ago for the first transatlantic telegraph cables, they'll snag the line and haul it up to the surface with a heavy hook.

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But it's not spliced-together copper wire carrying Morse code at the revolutionary speed of two minutes per character.

Instead, this high-voltage, high-bandwidth line will plug in to a series of 13-tonne deep-sea observatories.

Once again, Canada is connecting to leading-edge communications technology.

"We are wiring the oceans," says Chris Barnes, program director of NEPTUNE Canada. From probing the shifting Juan de Fuca Plate to exploring secret whale superhighways, researchers from 12 Canadian universities, led by the University of Victoria, will share the wealth of intelligence. "We're on the front end of a revolution."

NEPTUNE, the North-East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments, will open a window on one of the most hostile research climates on Earth.

The backbone of the project is the 800-kilometre loop of undersea cable, carrying power and data for hundreds of unmanned subaquatic laboratories that carry equipment for listening, sampling and measuring what goes on in the deeps.

The cable can carry 10 billion bits of data per second - information that will be publicly accessible over the Internet by November, if all goes according to plan.



Now we're having this ability to look up at our planet through the sea Chris Barnes of the NEPTUNE project


Once one of the laboratories is wired up, a crane on board the cable vessel Lodbrog will then gingerly lower it over the ship's aft end, its makers watching from the deck as $5-million worth of equipment sinks below the waves.

The massive, bright yellow node will disappear from view perhaps 50 metres below the surface. At the deepest location, it will take four hours for the lab to touch down on the Pacific's abyssal plain, at a depth of 2,660 metres.

Throughout the descent, a submersible will be hovering nearby, ensuring the cables don't twist and the lab settles where it is meant to be for the next 25 years.

Once in place, gear such as the world's first Internet-operated deep-sea crawler, dubbed "Wally," can be deployed to check out the volcanic seafloor and probe "black smoker" hydrothermal vents while scientists remain on shore, sending commands over their keyboards.

"It's been our running joke: Scientists want to go to really dangerous, unsafe places, because that's where all the action is," says Mairi Best, the project's science director.

"We've been there in the past but nobody's had the luxury of staying there, being there for unusual events, whether it's an earthquake or a pod of whales going by."

Along the Endeavour Ridge, where the Juan de Fuca and Pacific tectonic plates meet, a site has been picked for one of the five nodes. Researchers calculate it will be just far enough away from the volcanic activity to be safe - but close enough to follow the shifts.

The research equipment must stand up to crushing pressure and corrosive seawater but it will be shielded from the more dangerous subsea threats - fishnets and anchors - by a brutish structure called a "trawl-resistant frame."

The lead engineer, Peter Phibbs, says the thick steel structure is inspired, in part, by observations made while the cable was being laid in 2007. Technicians noted a series of long gouges in the sea floor. They were left by trawlers, scouring the floor of the ocean with their nets.

Much of the system's engineering is based on standard telecom equipment, but adapting it to the harsh deep-sea environment has proved challenging.

Mr. Phibbs's search for potential contractors for one component, a voltage converter, led him to an arm of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In the U.S., it is the centre for robotic exploration of the solar system, so he figured they ought to know a thing or two about robust design.

He brought their engineers to London to meet with NEPTUNE's telecom partner, Alcatel-Lucent.

"The two industries, as far as I could tell, had never met. The submarine telecom industry and the space industry. The guys from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were stunned to find there was a completely separate industry that was working to all the same protocols and constraints."

And, as with space probes, underwater equipment needs to be built to last. The cost of retrieving a broken part can easily exceed even the cost of developing prototype equipment.

The nodes, Mr. Phibbs hopes, won't need to be hauled up more than once every five years. The gear inside is designed to plug and play - a remotely operated underwater vehicle can drive right into the frame and swap out devices.

The technology also allows researchers to develop new lines of inquiry over time. A "wet-mate" connector, developed for the oil industry, triggers a shot of vegetable oil to displace saltwater so that electrical connections can be made underwater.

The nodes have capacity to spare: The cable delivers 10,000 volts DC, while junction boxes in each node step the power down to as little as 15 volts, depending on need.

The research potential ranges from the micro - examining grains of sediment to chart the evolution of gas hydrates - to the macro - recording pressures on the seabed to improve tsunami warnings.

In between, researchers hope to learn how whales hunt squid in deep water, and unlock what the oceans can tell us about global warming.

"What this does is transforms ocean science," says Dr. Barnes, watching as crew prepared to transfer the first frame to the deck of the C/S Lodbrog at a dockyard near Victoria.

"What's gone unknown for so long is the deep oceans. Mankind has gone down in manned submersibles and taken pictures, more recently they've resorted to ROVs - remotely operated vehicles," he says, but they can only come back with what are essentially snapshots.

It's like trying to study space through a pinhole. If this project, which will cost in excess of $100-million, lives up to its billing, it will provide a means to chart gradual changes, as well as the ability to capture unique moments.

"There's something important about being there all the time," Dr. Best says. From tube worms to mighty whales, there are tales to tell. She'd like to know, for example, if whales really do use the submarine canyons leading away from the rich fishing grounds of Barkley Sound as a superhighway. Or watch an oasis of marine life bloom where a dead whale falls.

Dr. Barnes likens this advance to the launch of the Sputniks - the first human-made objects to orbit the earth.

"I can remember when the Sputniks went up in my youth. Now, with all the satellites in space, you and I can Google our home as it looks from the street or watch Hurricane Katrina in real time," he says.

"It has transformed the way we look at our planet because we can look down. Now we're having this ability to look up at our planet through the sea."

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

 

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