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ASU takes on major role in cutting-edge project

May 06, 2008

Scientists know that what happens in the oceans covering 70 percent of Earth has a critical impact on environmental conditions and life across the entire planet. Still, much remains unknown about the undersea domain.

“The ocean depths are the last unexplored frontier on Earth,” and a better understanding of that frontier “would revolutionize the ways humans can perceive and eventually manage their world,” says John Delaney, a professor in the University of Washington School of Oceanography.

He is among leaders of one of the most ambitious endeavors to unlock deep-sea mysteries – a program supported by the National Science Foundation to develop and deploy innovative technologies designed to probe the oceans, including a project in which ASU researchers are playing a significant role.

A key partner in the effort is the Center for Ecogenomics, which is based in ASU’s Biodesign Institute and directed by Deirdre Meldrum, dean of the university’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

Meldrum’s center is developing sensors and other sophisticated devices to measure biological, chemical and physical aspects of the sea-floor environs at the microbial level. The sensors will make use of the high power and high bandwidth of an underwater observation system designed to provide real-time data and measurements to researchers on land.

The National Science Foundation is investing $335 million in the overall program known as the Ocean Observatory Initiative. The part of the program on which Delaney’s and Meldrum’s work focuses is studying ecosystems in the depth of the Pacific Ocean across the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate off the northwestern U.S. coast.

The exploration will be enabled by an interconnected system that is to eventually include 1,500 miles of high-powered, high-bandwidth, electro-optical cable placed on the sea floor. The cable is being equipped with sensors and aided by underwater robots and submarine laboratories.

Together these tools will form an observational network to provide, among many other things, a real-time, high-definition Internet video of what’s occurring in the depths, as well as the ability to conduct experiments using the network’s sensing instruments and robotics systems.

“Such developing technologies allow us to do entirely new types of studies from remote locations,” Meldrum says. “Now we can do oceanography in the desert, as we will be doing at ASU.”

Adds Delaney: “When this new system is connected to the Internet it will allow scientists anywhere in the world to interact with the oceans.”

With the combination of advanced fiber-optic communications tools, more powerful computers for assimilating and modeling data, enhanced robotics and ecogenomic analyses all linked to the World Wide Web, “we will bring ocean exploration to laboratories, classrooms and living rooms in high-definition,” he says.

Delaney says the ecogenomics work at ASU “will become a leading test-case for this next generation of technologies for remote exploration.”

The Juan De Fuca Plate and the water mass that overlies it offer an active geo-ecosystem that includes volcanic eruptions, strong wave currents, tectonic plate movement and undersea “chimneys” that vent water that is up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The oceans reflect the interconnectedness of all life and all the elements that exist on Earth,” Delaney says. “The environmental health of the planet can be gauged by assessing the health of the oceans’ biology. The ocean environments have big impacts on climate change, on the planet’s capacity for food production, on its capability to sustain human life.”

For more information on the National Science Foundation Ocean Observatories Initiative, see the Web site