Science

Under the Sea

Explore the depths of our oceans from dry land

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Imagine walking into Mission Control, a busy room filled with screens, buttons and equipment. Images of unknown terrain are projected on multiple large high-definition screens at the front of the room, and a robotic arm can be seen delicately probing at some strange lifeform. Scientists sit in front of control panels and computer screens, watching the real-time footage, intent on the data.

This might seem like a scene you’d see if you visited NASA during a moon landing, but in reality it’s the Inner Space Center (ISC) at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, where the undiscovered depths of the oceans are explored and revealed in real time to onlookers who are safe and dry on land.

Ninety-five percent of the ocean floor remains unexplored. “We know very little about the deep sea, where light no longer penetrates,” says Dwight Coleman, director of the ISC. “And it’s on our very own planet.” Much like scientists who explore outer space, the scientists that work with the ISC are driven by the urge to explore the unknown depths and share their discoveries with the world.

The ISC is a pioneer in leveraging new technologies and the connective power of the internet to facilitate collaboration amongst experts interested in deep sea exploration. Operational now for three years, the ISC is the vision of Bob Ballard, the oceanographer and deep sea explorer best known for discovering the Titanic in 1985. Years ago, Ballard, who is now a professor of oceanography at URI, envisioned using telepresence to move ocean exploration to a whole new level. Today, the implementation of his vision through the ISC has revolutionized what is possible in ocean exploration.

Telepresence allows someone to participate remotely in a discovery expedition in real-time. Experts can gather at Mission Control in the ISC, or link in through the internet, to observe and participate in on-going deep sea missions. Using satellite equipment on a ship and the internet capabilities on shore, an unlimited amount of people can view and participate.

This innovation has resulted in limitless potential in terms of the amount of experts who can collaborate on any particular mission. Previously, direct participation in a mission was limited by the amount of people who could fit on a ship. Now, there are no such restrictions. “Why send just 20 people out when you can bring the whole world with you?” asks Coleman, adding, “This has never really been done for ocean exploration before. We are the pioneers of this.”

The application of telepresence to deep sea exploration has vastly improved the potential for groundbreaking discoveries. “It’s really impossible to staff a ship with all of the experts in each area,” explains Coleman. “We compare it to the on-call doctors at a hospital. You need all kinds of experts standing by to deal with what might come up.” Now, ocean explorers can also tap into a bullpen of experts, including archaeologists, marine biologists, microbiologists, geochemists, geophysicists and maritime historians. The range of experts that can contribute to an expedition ensures that full advantage is taken of each discovery as it’s made.

Currently, the Inner Space Center works with two ships, the Okeanos Explorer and E/V Nautilus. The Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration vessel, is the only federally owned and operated ship dedicated solely to ocean exploration. It was updated and renovated specifically to support ISC activities. During the “field season,” which lasts for about two months, each ship visits a variety of locations. They might spend time exploring Greek volcanoes, looking for shipwrecks in the Black Sea, examining methane seeps or exploring an underwater canyon off the Florida coast. With so much unexplored terrain, the potential for exciting discoveries is virtually limitless.

The 2011 field season was a busy one. About 50 new shipwrecks, some up to 2500 years old, were discovered in the Mediterranean and Black Seas. There was even enough time to have a look at some previously unexplored underwater volcanic systems. “Often, we might know something is there, but don’t really know anything about it,” says Coleman. “So we then do a targeted exploration into a feature like a fissure between fault systems or a cold seep. We do a comprehensive reconnaissance, which is often directed by scientists not on the ship.”

Plans are already in the making for the next field season. In addition to other missions, the ISC hopes to explore some active underwater volcanoes in the Caribbean, a Meso-American reef off of Belize, and the coasts of Columbia and Venezuela.

In addition to ocean exploration, the ISC is committed to educating the public about the oceans and sharing the exciting discoveries it makes each year. It is involved in many educational programs, which aim to bring the general public down into the murky depths in much the same way they allow ocean experts to remain high and dry while participating in expeditions.

During the field season, real-time programs were beamed from the ships to live audiences at the Mystic Aquarium. A teacher on the ship runs the presentation via the internet. This gives the audience a glimpse of the work in progress on the ship.

ISC also runs live feeds of expedition on its website, allowing the public to tune in anytime to see what the scientists are up to. Also, the ISC has interactive kiosks set up at various educational sites, which compile and display information gleaned from expeditions. “We’re trying to make the public smarter about the ocean and bring them to care about the oceans,” says Coleman. Plans are in the works to expand their educational partnerships in the coming months.

Start your journey towards ocean literacy by registering for the next tour of the Inner Space Center on December 4 at 10am. To learn more and to register, surf over to their website. The tour is a great opportunity to check out the various components of the ISC, which is housed at the Ocean Science and Exploration Center at URI’s Bay Campus, including Mission Control, the Studio, Production Control and the Feeds Room. Before you know it, you’ll feel like you’re under the sea and on the verge of an exciting discovery.