At Woods Hole, conquering the deep ocean

By Daniel Terdiman - Cnet News

Although crews have managed to shut off--for now, at least--the flood of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it is virtually certain that ongoing cleanup work will keep the concept of deep-sea science in the public's eye for some time.

That could be good news for the scientists and researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) here, one of the world's leading repositories of across-the-board ocean expertise, and the developers of a stunning collection of hardware and software tools designed to probe the countless mysteries of the deep.

I've come here as part of Road Trip 2010, and have been promised a close-up view of Nereus, one of the most exciting developments in underwater research in years.

Nereus is a new style tool: a hybrid remotely-operated vehicle, meaning that it is the rare beast that can be used for pre-programmed, untethered research missions, or those in which it is controlled from the surface via a very thin, fiber cable that can reach 25 miles.

This is one of the only vessels on the planet capable of reaching the oceans' deepest locations, and it can do so while sending back high-fidelity data that could vastly broaden our understanding of what goes on below.

Yet, despite the promise of Nereus and the other vehicles in the WHOI fleet, as well as that of other institutions, there is little doubt that deep-ocean research has, until recently, barely registered on the national consciousness. 

After all, just before the recent celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first--and only--manned mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on Earth, at 35,800 feet, Don Walsh, one of the two men who had taken that trip, told CNET News, "We were happy to be the first, but we didn't expect to be the last."

To talk to me about Nereus, I've come to see Andy Bowen, the director of WHOI's national deep submergence facility. 

Until now, Bowen said, most of the world's deep ocean exploration energies has gone into probing at 6,000 meters below the surface or above.

That's because, he said, 98 percent of the world's seafloor is above that level. The remaining 2 percent has largely been inaccessible. "We tend to look in the the easy places first and the hard places last," he said.

The history of deep-sea submersibles has been about two kinds of vessels: Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are designed to explore wide areas of the deep, mapping as they go and providing scientists with broad looks at the ocean floor; and remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs), which are tethered to a surface ship and which transmit data--photos, video and more--back over some kind of cable.

But Bowen explained that as scientists probe deeper and deeper, the costs of the exploration has traditionally grown, given the need for more sophisticated, and rugged equipment.



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