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The cable has landed: Ocean science history in the making

Posted on 07.09.2011 - 09:00 EDT in SUBSEA TELECOMS NEWS by Rons_ROV_Links

The cable has landed: Ocean science history in the makingSubmarine cables for the nation's first regional cabled ocean observatory made landfall last week on the Oregon coast. The cables eventually will provide power, transmit instructions and carry data back to scientists and the public from instruments installed across miles of seafloor and in the ocean. Natural phenomena that occur throughout the world's oceans will be studied, according to UW oceanography professor John Delaney, director and principal investigator of the regional scale nodes project, one part of the U.S. Ocean Observatories Initiative.

"The regional cable network will enable scientists to conduct local investigations of such global processes as climate-influencing ocean currents, active earthquake zones, creation of new seafloor and rich environments of marine plants and animals," he said.

Delaney, Pete Barletto, the project's chief operating officer, and Michael Mulvihill, associate director for operations, were among the UW staff on hand when the first cable landed.

"The horn on the backhoe blasted and someone shouted, The cable has landed!" blogged UW's Nancy Penrose, communications coordinator for the project. "With that the southern segment of the cable emerged at the shore end of the conduit pipe at 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday, July 12, in Pacific City.

"And ocean science history was made."

The two cables of the Regional Scale Nodes observatory involve a northern segment (pink) to Axial Seamount and a southern segment (mostly green) to Hydrate Ridge with a loop back on the continental shelf. Circles represent nodes where it will be possible to connect sensors and instruments to the cable. Courtesy of CEV/U of Washington.

Two cables were landed last week and a cable-laying ship will work the rest of the summer to finish extending them underwater from shore to research areas off the coast.

The cable that landed July 12 will eventually extend 75 miles (120 kilometers) out to Hydrate Ridge, a place with cold undersea vents that are lush with life, and associated with deposits of gas hydrates, mainly methane. Among other things, scientists are trying to determine if there's energy that might be extracted, or if the methane might pose an environmental threat as a potential contributor to climate change. A loop on the cable will support instruments for a companion project led in part by Oregon State University.

The second cable, that landed July 15, will extend 310 miles (500 kilometers) to Axial Seamount, the most robust volcanic system on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. It's there that scientists hope, among other things, to better understand how submarine volcanoes support life in the absence of sunlight.

TE SubCom, the firm hired to install the cables, should complete the work by the end of August, Barletto said. Although the crew with TE SubCom routinely lands cable, Penrose wrote in her blog that, "for those of us involved with the project it was a thrilling and emotional moment to achieve this milestone."

Next spring, plans are to begin deploying the connecting nodes to the cable segments, Barletto said. Instruments, sensors and moorings will eventually plug into the nodes. The UW has contracted with L3 MariPro Inc. of Goleta, Calif., to design and build the regional scale nodes project's primary infrastructure.

The commercial cable-laying ship, TE SubCom's vessel Dependable, installs the backbone cables off the coast of Oregon for the regional scale nodes project. Courtesy of OOI RSN/U of Washington.
July 13, the day after the first cable landing, an audience of some 200 people packed an open house at the Kiawanda Community Center in Pacific City to hear about the Ocean Observatories Initiative. Visitors viewed displays and underwater footage and heard a presentation by Delaney. A local citizen's group, the Nestucca Valley Community Alliance, is looking to the regional scale nodes project as one way to increase interest and opportunities in science education for local students.

The Ocean Observatories Initiative, funded by the National Science Foundation, will create a networked system to make ocean and seafloor measurements on coastal, regional – the part led by the UW – and global scales. A fourth component concerns public engagement.

The initiative is managed through the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, based in Washington, D.C., a group that includes the nation's top oceanographic institutions.

"With the landing of the Ocean Observatories Initiative undersea cable we see connection of a tangible piece of the OOI's unique infrastructure that will bring to shore data from multiple sensors and instruments and change the way we conduct ocean observations for decades to come," said Tim Cowles, vice president and director of ocean observing for the consortium.

"This is a significant step forward and moves us closer to our goal of providing the sustained observations needed to help us better understand and manage our oceans."

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