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New Undersea Cable Will Link Ocean to Internet

Anne Casselman
for National Geographic News
August 27, 2007
 
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.

The Canadian section of the observatory, supported by the University of Victoria in Canada, will be built off the west coast of Vancouver Island. (See a map of the Vancouver region.)

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.

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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