9: NEPTUNE, THE WORLD’S LARGEST UNDERSEA OBSERVATORY
Oceans cover nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface and contain 90 percent of its life, yet they are almost entirely unexplored. Neptune, an ocean-observatory network that consists of some 530 miles of cable and 130 instruments with 400 sensors, all of it connected to the Internet, will provide the first large-scale, around-the-clock monitoring of an ocean system, including animal life, geology and chemistry.
Neptune’s battery of instruments, which lie as far as 220 miles off the coast of British Columbia on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, offer a real-time view of the area. A tethered float, outfitted with radiometers, fluorometers and conductivity sensors, ferries up and down the 1,300-foot water column from the seabed to the surface, sampling the column’s chemical and physical conditions to determine how it changes over time. A remotely operated vehicle called ROPOS installs instruments and gathers data. Its high-definition camera provides still photographs and video of animals and their behaviors, which scientists could use to gauge changes in the local ecosystem. Hydrophones positioned on the seafloor record dolphins and whales to track their numbers and migration routes. And a remotely operated crawler named Wally drives over the seabed to monitor underwater methane deposits, which could exacerbate global climate change and also be a potential source of energy.
What’s In It For You
Armchair (and professional) scientists worldwide can tune in over the Internet to see streaming video of Wally the crawler rolling over the seafloor, watch deep-sea tubeworms waving in the currents of a hydrothermal vent, or listen to a humpback-whale song.