Monday, August 22, 2011

The NEPTUNE Project

In nature specials and science fiction movies, we always see scientists dive into the ocean with scuba gear, or diving bells or submarines.  But at some point the air runs out and they have to surface.  In other words, science in the sea comes in the form of expeditions rather than a permanent presence.

Canada's NEPTUNE Project has changed that.  Working from the University of Victoria in British Columbia since 2009, scientists have established a series of five underwater research 'nodes' connected by 800 km of cable.  This network includes one node on the inshore shelf, two on the continental slope, one on the abyssal plain and one on the mid-ocean ridge, with the deepest at 2,660 meters.  All connect back to the University of Victoria, where they can send and receive data at 10 gigabytes per second.

Not only does the project enable scientists to continuously study various ocean zones and the creatures in them, but it can also aid in developing tsunami warnings and examine the dynamics of undersea plate shifting.  The multiple devices installed on each mode can collect data on earthquakes, deep sea organisms, hot vent ecosystems and microbes.  They may help us understand not only whales and fish in the region, but how specific events like plankton blooms can impact marine life and the fishing industry.

One of the best aspects of this project is that by 'wiring' it to the Internet, the team at University of Victoria can share their data.  For instance, scientists in Germany have operated an undersea robotic rover on the seafloor off Canada using signals over the Internet.  The NEPTUNE Project even has its own YouTube channel, so people everywhere can watch video of their findings.

NEPTUNE is a 'big science' style project--the sort of thing that is often proposed, but rarely implemented.  However, when we see the flood of useful data that this well-wired project can generate, I think other countries will copy Canada's efforts.  Life on Earth depends very much on the health of our oceans, so the more we understand them, the better stewards we can be.  And help our chances at survival, too.

(I did some initial reading at this Globe and Mail article and at Physorg.com.  Once I found my way to the actual NEPTUNE site, there was plenty of material.  The pic is from NEPTUNE's Flickr page.)

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