Deep-sea research is great and everything, but man, those submersibles can get pretty cramped. The other, bigger problem is that it requires going off and traveling on a ship, which is costly and can therefore only be done a few times a year. Fortunately, however, there’s now a way of obtaining real-time undersea data without leaving your office. NEPTUNE Canada, the world’s largest and most advanced cabled seafloor observatory, officially started going live to the Internet last December, giving anyone with an Internet connection free access to what will become an absolute mountain of data from the bottom of the sea.
NEPTUNE Canada is based around an 800-kilometer (500-mile) loop of fiber optic cable, that lies on the seabed off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Along the cable are a six nodes, each the size of three minivans parked side-by-side, that provide power and two-way communications to hundreds of instruments. Each node is located in a unique area, allowing for a greater variety of studies. Numerous research projects from numerous institutions are continuously under way, with all their data being sent along the cable to a database at the University of Victoria. That database, containing both live and archived data, can be freely explored by anyone with Internet access.
Over the 25-year lifespan of the project, key areas of research are expected to consist of underwater volcanic processes, ocean-atmosphere interactions, climate change, ocean productivity, fish stocks, and a wide variety of other topics. Subjects currently being researched include the effects of human activity on deep-sea ecosystems, gas hydrate deposit activity, and tsunami detection.
There are a vast array of instruments currently in use by NEPTUNE Canada, including current meters, hydrophones, bottom pressure sensors, seismometers and plankton samplers. One of the more interesting doo-dads is the Vertical Profiler System. It consists of a tethered probe that floats up through the water column, gathering all sorts of data, before getting winched back down to the bottom again.
NEPTUNE, incidentally, stands for North-East Pacific Time-series Underwater Networked Experiments. The observatory is a project of the University of Victoria, receiving funding from the federal and provincial governments.