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Research Website Takes Viewers Deep into the Gulf of Mexico

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07 December 2010
Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Alvin is loaded onto the R/V Atlantis on WHOI dock (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

Researchers on an expedition in the Gulf of Mexico to view first-hand the possible effects of the oil spill on the sea floor are posting daily reports of their explorations on the web. Charles Fisher, a biological oceanographer from Penn State University, is the Chief Scientist on this research expedition. The research team's daily updates, photos, and videos will be added to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's (WHOI) "Dive and Discover" website until 14 December. To follow the activities during the expedition, click on the "Expedition 13" link at the Dive and Discover website.

The expedition is part of the effort to determine the full impact on the Gulf of Mexico of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from the Macondo 252 well, which poured oil into the Gulf for 86 days beginning on 20 April 2010. During this research expedition, the first dive site likely will be the same location where, on 2 November 2010, researchers including Chief Scientist Fisher were the first to find signs of dead and dying corals associated with the Macondo well. "During one of the current expedition's dives, we plan to return to the impacted coral site that we discovered in November to check on the state of the animals there," Fisher said. "Another focus of this expedition is to discover and characterize new sites with communities of deep-sea corals and other animals close to the Macondo well. We expect to find coral and hydrocarbon-seep communities that never before have been visited by a remotely operated underwater vehicle or a submarine."

Charles Fisher on a boat

Professor of Biology Charles Fisher will be an investigator on the Gulf cruise. Credit: Eric Simms, FLEXE

The team will make six dives during this expedition with the human-piloted submersible Alvin, which is owned by the U.S. Navy, to document the ocean bottom and collect samples of animals and sediment. The scientists also will use the autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) Sentry, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, for overnight missions to map and photograph the sea floor. The expedition is the first dual use both an AUV and a manned submersible in the Gulf since the blowout of the Macondo 252 well.

Also during this research expedition, the scientists will attempt to retrieve collections made by autonomous sediment traps put down in June. Similar instruments were deployed during September 2009, providing a time-series of samples that will help reveal the effect of oil and dispersants. "The combination of the exploration and mapping capabilities of the AUV Sentry, with the sampling and close-up imaging capabilities of the Alvin submarine, will allow us to discover, characterize, and sample new deep-sea communities very efficiently and thoroughly," Fisher said.

This expedition to probe the Gulf for impacts of the oil spill on the organisms of the deep-ocean communities there involves scientists from many institutions and is led by Penn State University, Temple University, Haverford College, and WHOI. The co-principal investigators for this expedition are Tim Shank and Chris German of WHOI.

[ Joel Greenberg / B K K ]

Barbara Kennedy (PIO):  814-863-4682 (office), science@psu.edu

More About the Dive and Discover Website

Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

This research cruise is the 13th mission of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Dive and Discover website since the site was launched in January 2000. Website visitors are able to tag along on research expeditions via their computers, and to experience much of what the scientists are seeing and learning.

Dive and Discover is an interactive distance-learning web site designed to immerse viewers in the excitement of discovery and exploration of the deep seafloor. The site is targeted for middle-school students in grades 6 to 8 and for interested people of all ages, and is structured to provide multiple levels of information. The backbone of the site is a series of educational modules that address basic science concepts central to the research being conducted at sea. References and links are made throughout to provide the viewers with easy access to more detailed and related information.

The site provides daily updates of an ongoing cruise, including still and video images from the seafloor and of shipboard operations. It also displays graphical representations of a wide variety of oceanographic data, explanations about the technology being used, and general information about life at sea for the scientists, engineers, and mariners aboard. In addition, a ''Mail Buoy'' allows students to communicate directly by email with scientists at sea.

More About the Deep-Ocean Submersible, Alvin

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution operates Alvin for the national oceanographic community. Built in 1964 as one of the world's first deep-ocean submersibles, Alvin has made more than 4,400 dives. It can reach nearly 63 percent of the global ocean floor.

The sub's most famous exploits include locating a lost hydrogen bomb in the Mediterranean Sea in 1966, exploring the first known hydrothermal vent sites in the 1970s, and surveying the wreck of RMS Titanic in 1986.

Alvin carries two scientists and a pilot as deep as 4,500 meters (about three miles) and each dive lasts six to ten hours. Using six reversible thrusters, Alvin can hover, maneuver in rugged topography, or rest on the sea floor. Diving and surfacing is done by simple gravity and buoyancy-water ballast and expendable steel weights sink the sub, and that extra weight is dropped when the researchers need to rise back up to the surface.

The sub is equipped with still and video cameras, and scientists can also view the environment through three 30-centimeter (12-inch) viewports. Because there is no light in the deep, the submersible carries quartz iodide and metal halide lights to illuminate the seafloor. Alvin has two robotic arms that can manipulate instruments, and its basket can carry up to 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds) of tools and seafloor samples.

This will be Alvin's last mission before it undergoes a major overhaul in 2011 that includes the renovation of its personnel sphere to give pilots and scientists more room and redesigned portals to provide enhanced viewing areas.

More About the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, Sentry

(Photo by Christopher Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)(Christopher Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Sentry was crucial in a June expedition in which scientists detected and characterized a plume of hydrocarbons at least 22 miles long and more than 3,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, a residue of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Sentry can survey large areas of the sea floor on dives lasting nearly a day without requiring that someone watch its every move. This capability is important when the job requires a long series of difficult or repetitive tasks that would be difficult and expensive to do with remotely operated or manned vehicles or that would very quickly become monotonous or overwhelming for a human to do manually. On a recent cruise to the Galapagos Rift, Sentry mapped about 100 square kilometers (40 square miles) of the seafloor to a resolution of 1 meter (3 feet).  Sentry was developed at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

More About the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Massachusetts that is dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean's role in the changing global environment.

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