New Undersea Cable Will Link Ocean to Internet

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From the Seafloor to Your Laptop

Last Wednesday the massive cable lay coiled in the ship's cable tanks like thread around a 40-foot (12-meter) wide bobbin—but not for long.

It would soon be threaded off ship and through a 30-ton (27-metric-ton) steel plough that fed the cable into a waist-deep furrow dug into the seafloor.

The cable will deliver power to the ocean instruments and transmit their data back to Vancouver Island's Port Alberni Shore Station, where the two ends of the cable will sit.

In total, more than 200 scientific instruments, along with video cameras and a remotely operated vehicle will be connected to the network. The devices will stream data into the Web nonstop for the next 25 years.

"This way anybody from Beijing to Calcutta to London can go on the Internet and look at the data," said Brian Bornhold, NEPTUNE Canada's project scientist. (Related: "Students Log On as Scientists Explore Deep Ocean" [December 6, 2004].)

"It provides the impetus to be interdisciplinary and work with other people."

No More Ocean Blinders

Previously ocean scientists undertook boat expeditions that would collect—weather permitting—brief snapshots of the oceans.

To study it over time, they were limited to simple, self-powered scientific instruments that collected data without human supervision. (Related: "Tagged Animal 'Army' to Help Map Ocean, Experts Say" [February 23, 2004].)

"We've been working with those blinders on for decades," said Jim Bellingham, chief technologist at MBARI.

"As we begin to take them off, I think it's going to be a whole new world of discovery."

Huge cabled observatories have caught on elsewhere: Europe is planning to wire the seas off Norway, Ireland, Portugal, and the Mediterranean with a project called ESONET.

NEPTUNE Canada will grow significantly once its American counterpart is finished in 2013. Though the segments won't be physically connected, they'll together provide data on 1,864 miles (3,000 kilometers) of ocean.

Steve Etchemendy, principal investigator for MARS operations and maintenance, believes the next highest priority region to study—the polar regions—might be the most challenging.

"Our polar areas are the canaries in the coalmine for global change," he said, "and the ability to actually put oceanographic observatories both in the north polar and south polar areas would be fantastic."

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