Geology & Geophysics News

NOAA Research Vessel Explores Atlantic Ocean Seamounts

NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer and two remotely operated vehicles help scientists investigate creatures, habitat, and geology on and near New England seamounts.

By

Mike Ford, a biological oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sat rapt in front of a bank of ­high-­definition monitors. They provided live video and data feeds from a tethered pair of ­instrument-­laden remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) that were descending 4692 meters on their deepest dive ever. Their target: an unnamed and unexplored New England seamount discovered in the North Atlantic last year.

The primary ROV, Discoverer 2 (D2), was aided by the smaller Seirios. Cabled to NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer research vessel, the Seirios “chandelier” camera sled was equipped with a 4000-watt lighting system to  help brighten the depths for D2.

From Ford’s dryland perch at the exploration command center at NOAA’s science center in Silver Spring, Md., he monitored the feed for gelatinous salps and anything else that streamed across the screens. Sitting next to Ford and watching this strange underwater world unfold was NOAA field operation specialist Kasey Cantwell, a coral reef ecologist, who helps shoreside scientists connect with the expedition. More than 20 other experts around the United States tuned in live during this 30 September ROV dive and its approximately ­500-meter tour of the seafloor region. Also observing intently were scientists aboard Okeanos, including expedition science lead Scott France and assistant scientist Susan Schnur.

Ford and the other scientists—on board Okeanos or viewing the feed through tele­presence technology—realized that the dive might bring new findings about creature behavior, morphology, and ranges; habitat; and geology on or near the seamount. These findings could expand our understanding of oceans and have implications for natural resources management, they said.

NOAA calls Okeanos “America’s ship for ocean exploration.” That exploration ethos encourages researchers to keep an open mind about what might be found on this and other Okeanos cruises, according to Ford and others. Hypothesis-driven science, while very important, “is not appropriate here”—in ocean discovery—“because that would really box you in or prevent you from being open to new discoveries,” Ford said. “The whole idea is to get out here and look at the observations, being at places that have never been seen before.”

Establishing a Sense of Place in the Ocean

Under the scientists’ scrutiny, the ROVs slowly plunged to the abyssal zone, where they hovered above the seamount that is about 315 miles off the coast of New England. The ROV dive took place as part of Okeanos’s 16 September through 7 October expedition leg exploring submarine Atlantic canyons, some of the New England Seamount chain, and the region’s world of creatures, including salps, corals, starfish, plankton, polyps, squids, anemones, shrimps, octopuses, and some unidentified species.

The 244-foot-long Okeanos, commissioned in 2008, has visited sites around the world to investigate unexplored or lightly explored areas. An analysis of data collected by the ship during 2011−2013 led to the surprise finding of more than 570 methane cold seeps along the U.S. Atlantic Ocean margin, many of which may harbor chemosynthetic communities, said John McDonough, deputy director of NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research (OER).

“Science only knew of two seeps along the East Coast of the United States from Maine to Florida, along the continental shelf edge, as of 2012. Now we know of at least 572,” he told Eos, noting that the finding could have significance related to resource management, ocean acidification, and climate change. A 24 August 2014 paper in Nature Geoscience describes the finding.

The multibeam mapping system operated from Okeanos led to the 2013 discovery of the unnamed seamount the ROVs explored on 30 September. Data gathered during Okeanos cruises also could be used to further investigations by researchers at NOAA, the Bureau of Ocean and Energy Management, the U.S. Geological Survey, and elsewhere, which could lead to improved natural resource management and better understanding of concerns ranging from offshore oil and gas exploration to fisheries management to marine hazards.

“It is the lack of information that drives us as opposed to information we already have and are then trying to build on it,” McDonough said. “We often refer to [ocean exploration] as establishing a sense of place in the ocean, going to areas we know nothing about, trying to do the best job we can to comprehensively characterize them,” he added. “What excites me is all those blank areas on the map. It is really the unknown areas.”

The information gathered through the mission “is open to everybody,” according to McDonough. The goal is to get that information broadly disseminated for use by multiple parties and in “the downstream debate that should occur,” he said. You put the information out there “and then allow the community to respond to that information to make the best use of it.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) biological oceanographer Mike Ford (right) and NOAA field operations specialist Kasey Cantwell (left) at the agency’s exploration command center in Silver Spring, Md. Credit: Randy Showstack
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) biological oceanographer Mike Ford (right) and NOAA field operations specialist Kasey Cantwell (left) at the agency’s exploration command center in Silver Spring, Md. Credit: Randy Showstack.

The Paired ROV System

“What we do is we open our eyes really wide, right, and we go out and look around, just like Lewis and Clark did, and we come back and we tell people what we found,” explained Dave Lovalvo, project manager for OER’s Deep Submergence Group. ”We try very hard not to go out with a preconceived notion of what we are going to find.”

Lovalvo, whose group designed, built, and operates Okeanos’s ROVs, said that the ROV technology “represents the ability to go anywhere in the world and go very deep, but you can do that and share the experience with everybody.” He said that with Okeanos’s ­dual-ROV system tied into the ship’s Very Small Aperture Terminal dish array, which is used to transmit data, the feed “can be looked at by a person with their iPhone with a 4-, 5-, or ­6-second delay anywhere in the world.”

The two ROVs move together in the water. Seirios—named after Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky—hovers near the larger D2 and provides information about D2 and what is around the ROVs as the vehicles collect video and data. Lovalvo said the system, which has an array of cameras and sensors, soon will be upgraded with more lighting and the ability to take small physical samples. However, Lovalvo said he would like to design and build sensors that could glean all the information with noninvasive sampling.

View From the Ship

France, the onboard biologist for the cruise, has studied deep-sea coral communities for several decades and previously has done research in the New England seamount area. “We have had a taste of what is out there, but there is so much more that hasn’t ever been seen, hasn’t been explored,” said France, an associate professor of biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “On a personal basis, you’ve got the whole mystery of the ocean thing going on. There is so much space here that nobody has ever been to before. We are on this cruise, and we are the first people to ever see it, and it can’t get much more exciting than that.”

He added, “It is so rare to get an opportunity to see these organisms that you study, alive and in such exquisite detail.” France said that “several years ago, it was impossible to dream” that such details could be viewed at such a fine scale at a depth of 2–3 kilometers.

During dives, France often is absorbed in dealing with numerous streams of information, including watching the feed, reading the event log, listening to the ROV pilot and navigation team, and trying to help other scientists who might want to see something on the video or get more information about it. Sometimes he “can’t even think about everything that is going on and how unique it is,” France said, adding, “You almost don’t have time to be in the moment.”

Schnur said there were many striking moments during the cruise, including seeing breccias at Physalia Seamount, pillow lava drainbacks at Kelvin Seamount, and octopods inhabiting a series of caves in an unnamed canyon. “What I really enjoy is that anticipation as you get closer to the bottom” of the ocean, said Schnur, a Ph.D. student in geology and geophysics at Oregon State University. “Suddenly you can see the bottom and you can confirm what you have been thinking, or maybe it’s something completely different from what you expected. That’s just that feeling of exploring and not really knowing what is beyond the headlights of the ROV. I like that feeling.”

Schnur said that when she is in the ship’s control room watching the screens, “it’s not really real to me. I know that these things have never been seen, but I’m in this stream of consciousness where I am just taking what I see and processing it and thinking about the science.” She said that for her, it “becomes real” when she goes on deck and the ROV is coming back up. “That is the moment I realize, whoa, this is really what we are doing now and we were able to get these images from the seafloor that otherwise nobody would be able to see.”

A rarely documented instance of sea star predation on bamboo coral. The image was taken by ROV Deep Discoverer 2 during a 27 September dive to the Atlantis II Seamount Complex, part of the New England Seamount chain. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

“A Whole World of Things”

Lindsay McKenna, OER physical scientist and hydrographer, is the mapping lead on Okeanos. “For me, day in and day out, I’m not really thinking about deep water corals or isopods or any number of things that [scientists are] spouting off whenever we see them. What is fascinating to me is [that] it’s easy to forget that that stuff is down there,” she said. “You can be on a boat and look at the water and you just see deep dark blue, but when the ROV is down there looking at it, you are like ‘wow, there is a whole world of things down there.’ At times, it can be full of life and it is just really easy to forget that this is a part of our world.”

OER expedition coordinator Brian Kennedy oversees all aspects of the expedition, including planning the science operations and coordinating public outreach. Kennedy said that he gets the most satisfaction when scientists are stumped by what they are seeing on the feed. For example, a hush fell over the scientists during the 30 September dive when they saw an unusual six-legged creature crawling across a boulder. The prevailing hypothesis, NOAA’s Cantwell told Eos, is that the creature is some form of isopod.

Kennedy said that the exploration with Okeanos’s ROVs is analogous in some ways to NASA’s rovers on Mars. “From the exploration standpoint, they are very similar experiences and operations. But from the end results of what’s done with that data, I think that what we do has a much more immediate and real effect [on] humans,” he said. “What we are doing here has a lot of immediate value to inform policy and inform conservation, and understanding the planet we live on.”

For more information, see http://­oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/­okeanos/­explorations/­ex1404. Okeanos’s 2015 field season begins in mid-February with an exploration of Caribbean trenches and seamounts.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

© 2014. American Geophysical Union. All rights reserved.