for National Geographic News
Call it a new type of fishing "net": studying the ocean by connecting the seafloor to the Internet.
The first step of NEPTUNE, a joint U.S.-Canadian effort to create the world's first regional cabled ocean observatory, was made last week when the French ship Ile de Sein laid down submarine fiber-optic cables in the Pacific Ocean.
Fiber-optic cables can transmit more data at a faster pace than other technologies.
NEPTUNE Canada will connect hundreds of oceanographic instruments to the Internet by way of a 500-mile (800-kilometer) long fiber-optic cable that encircles the northern Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The plate, which is named after a Greek explorer, is sliding under the western side of the North American plate.
The instruments include underwater microphones that will "eavesdrop on the ocean"; sensors that will monitor nutrient levels; and various video cameras, wave sensors, and seismometers.
"We're bringing power and the Internet to the oceans," project director Chris Barnes said during a tour of the 460-foot-long (140-meter-long) vessel, which was docked in the city of Victoria last week.
Scientists have a very limited ability to see what's going on in the oceans, Barnes explained over the hum of the ship's engines, even though Earth's seas cover two-thirds of the planet's surface. (See ocean pictures and facts.)
NEPTUNE Canada's continuous data stream will allow scientists to study the ocean in unprecedented detail and help tackle questions surrounding earthquakes and climate change.
"This is a fundamental revolution giving us a direct connection to the seafloor... the ocean will no longer control our ability to study it," Marcia McNutt, president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), said in a telephone interview.
MBARI has built a short undersea cable called MARS to function as a test bed for the instruments to be deployed on NEPTUNE Canada.
NEPTUNE Canada costs 106 million U.S. dollars (112 million Canadian dollars) and will be functional in late 2008.
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