Volume 11 | Issue 6 | Year 2008

NOAA, the national oceanic and Atmospheric Administration works to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. It’s a mission of science, service and stewardship that touches millions of lives daily.
All life relies on the ocean. It drives weather, regulates temperature, and provides oxygen food, medicines, energy, and avenues for commerce. Yet, the ocean is more than 90 percent unexplored. Therefore, we don’t know yet fully understand how the ocean functions, and we definitely have only a cursory understanding of what living and non-living resources the ocean contains. So we explore the ocean for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge. We seek to better understand all the essential roles the ocean plays, and will play, in sustaining life on Earth. We seek to know.

Until 1977, we thought all life on Earth was photosynthetic – based on sunlight. Then ocean scientists discovered animals in darkness around seafloor hydrothermal vents, animals with lives based on chemicals (chemosynthethic life). The discovery was stunning, perhaps one of the most significant in modern science. It changed how we think about our planet and life on it. Yet, at the time of the discovery there were no marine biologists on the ship and no way to send images of this strange new life to marine biologists ashore.

With NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer, America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration, experts ashore are connected to the ship, live. Commissioned in August, the ship is on course next year to be the only federal ship dedicated to exploring our largely unknown ocean, and in new ways.

This ship will sail with virtually all if its participating scientists remaining ashore. Using telepresence technology, data, including live images from the seafloor and water column, will flow by satellite and high-speed Internet to scientists standing watch in any of five Exploration Command Centers ashore. They will add their expertise and may take control of missions, no matter where the ship may be. Video will also stream to NOAA’s Web site (www.oceanexplorer.noaa.gov) helping to raise ocean literacy by bringing the excitement of ocean discovery live into classrooms, newsrooms and living rooms.

Missions will include exploration mapping and site characterization, reconnaissance, education, and outreach. When mapping discloses an anomaly, the ship’s cruise plan will enable it to stop to conduct a preliminary investigation, deploying sensors and systems, including remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs), as deep as 6,000 meters. Data will be shared with wide audiences as quickly as possible. When enough discovery data is judged to be sufficient to enable other scientists to pursue follow-on investigations, the ship will then move on to explore more of the unknown ocean.

The ship’s prominent VSAT (very small aperture terminal) dome enables high-bandwidth satellite communications between explorers ashore and afloat and provides multiple high-definition video streams for wide dissemination via multicast protocols. The manufacturer describes the system as the world’s largest and highest-power commercial VSAT stabilized terminal.

A hull-mounted multibeam sonar produces high-resolution maps of the seafloor down to 6,000 meters. In deep water, sonars produce wider but lower-resolution data just as a flashlight’s coverage does as it’s moved further from a wall. But Okeanos’ sonar is uniquely engineered to produce higher resolution data in deep water. This also allows the ship to move at higher surveying speeds. The ship is testing the sonar’s capabilities and early results have produced high-quality seafloor maps. The sonar is also capable of detecting targets in the deep water column such as phytoplankton and fish.

“Our multibeam operates most efficiently at deeper depths,” said NOAA Corps Officer Lcdr. Jeremy Weirich. The system is currently being tested and when testing is complete, Weirich expects it will have been proven to be “The best deep-water system in the world.”

Okeanos Explorer is not the only new system to explore the deep. Like its namesake Greek god of the sea, a new underwater explorer Nereus can change shape. Developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (whoi.edu) and supported by the National Science Foundation, NOAA, and the Navy, the unmanned Nereus can be either a tethered ROV or untethered autonomous undersea vehicle (AUV), able to change with requirements or conditions.

Nereus has the most extreme job on the planet: exploring the deepest ocean. Except for a Japanese robot with limited capabilities, no other undersea research vehicle can operate below 21,000 feet (6,500 meters). Nereus can survey those deep and mysterious ocean areas.

In AUV mode, Nereus can find its way home. “It knows where it is and tracks its progress underwater through acoustic and inertial navigation systems,” said Nereus Project Manager Andy Bowen. While tethered, Nereus can explore out as far as 25 miles. Asked why 25 miles of tether is needed when the ocean is less than seven miles deep, Bowen said Nereus can also be sent out to explore laterally, for example, under ice in the Polar regions.

With onboard batteries, Nereus has no need for power from a heavy armored cable. It uses a thin fiber-optic strand in its tethered mode. Shipboard reels for armored cables are the size of a large motor home, but Nereus’ tether fits in a microwave-sized box. With fewer shipboard support needs, Nereus can operate from a wide number of less-specialized and less-costly ships. For flotation, Nereus uses unique ceramic spheres for a 40 percent weight savings over traditional syntactic foam. The vendor now markets these spheres to ocean science and gas and oil industries.

Not all exploration and research assets travel far and deep. At 60 feet deep, NOAA’s Aquarius Reef Base is neither a deep ocean vehicle, nor a far-ranging one. This stationary asset provides critical support in ways unmatched by other assets.

If science or industry needs a laboratory where scientists can live and work underwater for extended periods, NOAA’s Aquarius Reef Base is the planet’s only undersea laboratory and habitat. Recently equipped with new systems and sensors and located in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Aquarius Reef Base has supported NASA in training teams for Space Station missions, and hosted numerous ocean science missions. An example is the recent first “saturation” mission to study how coral reef ecosystems react to ocean acidification as the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide and the chemistry of seawater changes. In November, Aquarius will host a “Teacher Under the Sea” mission for the purpose of connecting students and teachers ashore, in real time, with science under the ocean. It’s the 100th mission for Aquarius.

Some of the most efficient ocean exploration platforms are provided by nature. To better understand potential climate changes, scientists needed ocean temperature data where cold fresh water from melting Arctic ice collides with warm saltwater flowing north in the Gulf Stream. Obtaining such data by conventional means, including the use of icebreakers, specialized equipment, and people at sea, especially in a challenging Arctic environment, is very expensive. So NOAA supports missions using natural “oceanographers,” in which scientists tagged narwhals with sensors. The deep-diving narwhals collected temperatures from pack ice to the seafloor at 1,500 meters deep off Greenland, When the narwhals surfaced, data went up to a satellite and down to scientists. Because narwhals make the same migration journey each year, scientists have the opportunity to collect unique and invaluable time-series data as ocean temperatures change across seasons.

Ocean discovery also results in new medicines from the sea. An ocean commission report (www.oceancommission.gov/) lists chemicals and biological materials from marine organisms now in use or development, including 10 anti-cancer drugs, drugs to fight viral herpes, inflammation, fungus, tuberculosis, HIV, malaria and dengue. There are ocean-derived molecular probes, orthopedic and cosmetic surgical implants from corals and mollusks, a diagnostic test for bacterial contamination from horseshoe crab blood, nutritional supplements from microalgae, and cosmetic anti-inflammatory additives from a coral.

Medicines from the sea is often part of our outreach and education mission, When those in NOAA’s Ocean and Research Program visit schools, we sometimes ask students, “What animal would you collect to find a powerful chemical or medicine in an ocean animal? A fish? A crab? A sponge attached to the hard ocean floor?” We gently lead them in the direction of the sponge, because it is unable to escape predators. In fact, sponges contain bioactive compounds that kill would-be predators or encourage them to stay clear.

NOAA will have Okeanos Explorer collect ocean specimens with potential medical and economic benefits, but the agency has already gone bioprospecting for medicines from the sea with partners, including scientists from Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Florida.

“If a predator attempts to grow over a sponge, sponges have ways of defending themselves with a compound that kills an intruder’s cells,” said Dr. Amy Wright, Director of Harbor Branch’s Center for Marine Biomedical and Biotechnology Research. Wright said some compounds from sponges target a protein essential to the intruder’s ability to grow via cell division. “Depending on dose, a compound kills the intruding organism or causes it to go elsewhere. That’s a formula for killing cancerous tumors,” she said. One compound discovered by Harbor Branch has been in human toxicity trials as a cancer-fighting agent, and another potent sponge-based compound is in testing.

When medicines from the sea are proven effective and safe, there’s a need to produce larger amounts. Wright sees a future in which genes from specific organisms are extracted and engineered into bacteria that then serve as factories producing healing compounds. Scientists at Harbor Branch preserve small pieces of each collected organism in what they term their “Molecular Ark.”

NOAA and partners also work to find new energy resources in the ocean. Harbor Branch’s biotechnology work includes extracting enzymes from deep-sea marine bacteria. The enzymes break down and convert cellulose in seaweed and chitin in shrimp shells into sugars for conversion to ethanol. Other bacteria produce large quantities of lipids for conversion to biodiesel.

There are numerous places in the ocean where natural hydrocarbons seep from the ocean floor. Along continental margins and in Arctic permafrost, low temperatures and high pressures often create gas hydrates, crystalline solids that trap gas molecules in a lattice of frozen water. Energy in methane hydrates is estimated to exceed the combined energy of the world’s oil, coal and conventional natural gas. In the Gulf of Mexico, where NOAA is a partner in establishing a seafloor gas hydrates observatory, a 3,000-square-kilometer area is estimated to contain enough methane to provide the equivalent of 30 years of U.S. natural gas consumption. Because methane is a greenhouse gas, challenges include how to safely and efficiently obtain this energy supply.

Additional ocean medical, energy and other resources will likely be available to nations that conduct surveys for data to justify extension of their continental shelves. NOAA is currently sponsoring a multi-year ocean mapping effort to obtain such data. Resources associated with an extended U.S. continental shelf are likely worth many billions of dollars. The U.S. now imports 98 percent of our cobalt and manganese, 77 percent of our nickel and 19 percent of our copper. These strategic materials have potential to be mined on an extended continental shelf and in ocean areas beyond.

These descriptions of new ocean resources are joined by the fact that the ocean hides much of what is old. Indeed, it’s been said there’s more history on the ocean floor than in all the museums on Earth. NOAA explores for, and protects, a large number of sunken shipwrecks and other submerged cultural sites that span a time from ancient prehistory to the 20th century. In 2002, NOAA’s Undersea Research Lab in Hawaii discovered the wreck of a Japanese midget submarine off Oahu confirming disputed claims of crewmembers of the destroyer USS Ward that the ship had sunk the sub as it tried to follow a ship into Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, more than an hour before the air attack. Such discoveries allow us to write on otherwise blank pages of history.

Dr. Stephen Hammond is chief scientist, and Fred Gorell, chief communications officer, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
For information on the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer, visit oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/welcome.html.