For the past decade, Ocean Networks Canada, based at the University of Victoria, has operated a massive cabled observatory at the bottom of the ocean. Working with underwater robots, ONC has wired the floor of the Pacific with fiber optic cable that transmits data, 24/7, about chemical, geological, physical, and biological processes in an area that's been almost completely inaccessible to us.
The data is delivered for free, over the internet, for anyone to use, whether it's scientists working on their own research, or people who are just curious about the deep.
In May and June, ONC scientists are at sea aboard two research ships, updating and expanding their network—"wiring the abyss," as they call it—using remote operated vehicles, or ROVs, that can be piloted from the ship's deck while they work on the information-transmitting nodes and cables deep underwater. They also have a "crawler," Wally, tasked with exploring Barkley Canyon, which is up to 985m deep in some places.
The whole operation of burying cable in the sea floor, and repairing and installing new nodes, isn't without its challenges. Working deep in the ocean is tough.
I spoke to Adrian Round of ONC about this, via a satellite phone from out on the Pacific. He had been at sea since May 12, he said, and would be there until the end of the month. (The connection was awful, and the line often crackled, dropping some of his words.)
"It can take three hours [for an ROV] just to get to the bottom," he said. "If you've forgotten a tool or something at the surface, well, it's a six-hour round trip."
ONC is adding 18 km of underwater cables to its operation, installing new monitoring instruments in the Endeavour hydrothermal vents off the BC coast.
Some of the sensors being installed at Barkley Canyon, at the leading edge of the Cascadia subduction zone—where one tectonic plate pushes under another—are earthquake early warning sensors, which will provide better warnings of earthquakes and tsunamis.
Oceanographer Kate Moran, president and CEO of Ocean Networks, said that this cabled underwater observatory has changed the way ocean science is done.
"We've got a wide range of sensor types in the ocean, to get a persistent understanding of it," she told me, "rather than piecing together an understanding by going to sea once a year for two weeks, in one location, and the ocean has changed again in the next few days."
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ONC collects images "with cameras we have right on the cables," Moran said. "They're typically on a timer, because scientists don't want to contaminate the ocean with light."
When the ROVs go underwater to do repairs or other chores, they bring along high-definition cameras that can capture images, too.
"Scientists onboard [the research ships] instruct the ROV pilots," who are controlling and manipulating the robots under the ocean, Moran said. "If they see something unusual, like some gas bubbles or a funny fish, they'll direct the pilot to stop, and take image or video."
ONC runs livestreams from deep in the ocean. One comes from a hydrothermal vent, 2186m deep on the Juan de Fuca ridge. Another shows a rockfish conservation zone, 23m deep, off Vancouver island. They capture all kinds of weird things.
One video, from 2015, showed a giant crab swarm almost 1,000m below the surface.
Moran has been checking in on the research cruise via livestreams from aboard the ship, and underwater. She recently watched a repair being done on the node at the Barkley Canyon site, a power and communications hub for the system. It was damaged last year, apparently by a fishing trawler, cutting off all communications from that area with ONC.
"I was a nervous wreck," Moran said. "And then, it was amazing. Seeing the ships working together, and the ROVs, it was an amazing dance. Honest to god," Moran laughed, "I was glued to the internet." The node is now fixed and transmitting data again.
ONC is branching out, incorporating fishermen and women, and local ferries, in its ocean monitoring. "We have sensors on ferries that cross the Strait of Georgia," she said. "And we're engaging fishers to go out in their fishing area, and deploy a standard oceanographic sensor, which they lower from the surface to the seafloor and back."
Data is then transmitted wirelessly, via a mobile app, to a tablet and uploaded to ONC's data management system, called Oceans 2.0.
The deep ocean is still a part of our planet that's barely understood by scientists and researchers, but cataloguing the changes that are happening there—a region that's being deeply affected by climate change, just like everywhere else—is crucially important.
ONC, a massive deep-ocean laboratory, is an important way to do that.