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Ocean project dampens hopes for images Add to ...

Those hoping for a stunning live show from NEPTUNE Canada's new ocean exploration lab are bound for disappointment.

Science buffs who visit NEPTUNE Canada's website can see numbers updated every second, including current temperature, salinity and oxygen saturation - but pictures only rarely.

Due to the sensitivity of deep-sea ecosystems to light, images from the remote-controlled NEPTUNE Rover are available only when researchers are moving the rover between locations. The lights will remain off most of the time and it's unclear when they will be switched on next.

Nicknamed "Wally," after the animated Disney character Wall-E, the rover is attached to the world's biggest ocean-floor observatory, which is anchored off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

This might not thrill the average Internet surfer, but scientists say the public should be excited about the potential to better understand climate change, tsunamis, fish stocks and methane hydrates - an ice-like substance that could be used as a clean-burning alternative to coal.

The 78 instruments that make up NEPTUNE - the North East Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments - are powered by five 13-tonne nodes attached to the sea floor up to 2.6 kilometres beneath the surface. The nodes are linked together by an 800-km loop of fibre-optic cable that spans the entire length of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate.

The research team, which is led by the University of Victoria, plans to collect 1,500 terabytes of new data over the next 25 years - all of which is accessible to anyone who wants to look. More detailed analyses can be performed by anyone who signs up for the Oceans 2.0 software, also available on the site.

NEPTUNE's gravity meter is already detecting seismic shifts, including the earthquake off the Queen Charlotte Islands last month. That data could be used to develop better tsunami-warning system, says marine geophysicist Eleanor Willoughby at the University of Toronto.

Ms. Willoughby is thrilled she can collect and analyze data all year from her Toronto office, instead of just during her annual dives off the B.C. coast.

She is interested in how methane hydrates are affected by ocean currents and earthquakes, and while she believes the mining of deposits of gas hydrates off the coast of B.C. is at least a decade away, she says countries such as Japan and China are moving ahead quickly. Ms. Willoughby hopes to determine just how much gas hydrates are contributing to climate change and exactly what happens to the environment when gas hydrates are disturbed.

NEPTUNE Canada cost $100-million to build, including a $43-million contribution from the province. The Canada Foundation for Innovation, recently committed $24-million over the next two years to operate the observatory.

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