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NOAA Sets Record For Undersea Research
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Posted by:Aug 15th 2005, 11:08:13 pm

NOAA image of surface lights being reflected off streams of bubbles after the lights were turned off on the submarine Pisces.

Aug 11, 2005 — The Research Vessel Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa (KoK), its embarked remotely-operated-vehicle and two human-occupied submersibles Pisces IV and Pisces V, and a weary but proud team from Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, sailed into its homeport in Hawaii last week after supporting the longest and most-challenging ocean expedition in HURL's 25 year history. The ship traveled 10,000 nautical miles and the Pisces submersibles made 67 dives, one as deep as 1,820 meters on Brothers undersea volcano. The results included discovery and the advancement of knowledge about the largely unknown ocean. (Click NOAA image for larger view of surface lights being reflected off streams of bubbles after the lights were turned off on the submarine Pisces. Terry Kerby, the operations director at the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory described it as a “magical scene.”

The nearly five month long international expedition to explore the South Pacific produced many discoveries including numerous suspected new species, new ranges for known species, measurements of the diversity of marine life, and more data about undersea volcanoes and the rare interface of life based on sunlight, and life based on chemicals.

"It was one of the most successful ocean exploration voyages in recent years," said Barbara Moore, director of the NOAA Undersea Research Program, which supports HURL and five other regional centers. "It was a multinational collaboration between the U.S., New Zealand and Germany, funded by two New Zealand institutes as well as the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and its Undersea Research Program," she said. "And it is certainly was multi-disciplinary, spanning a dozen disciplines in marine science and ocean engineering."

NOAA sonar image of Giggenbach Volcano.On one leg of the mission, researchers assessed living marine resources in waters of U.S. territories near Palmyra Atoll, Kingman Reef, Rose Atoll, Jarvis Island and American Samoa. In the first exploration of these waters below 200 meters, scientists expected to find high productivity, based on the numbers and diversity of organisms they observed in shallow coral reefs. While a number of unknown species were sighted in deeper waters, large numbers of organisms were not observed in deep water near Palmyra Atoll or Kingman Reef. Both Jarvis and Rose Atoll had greater numbers of deep-water organisms, but still not as many as expected. (Click NOAA sonar image for larger view of Giggenbach Volcano. Please credit “NOAA / NURP.”)

NOAA image of curious grouper checking out the inside of the sub.Scientists observed many suspected new species including a so-called "donut fish," a small tadpole-like fish that forms itself into a donut shape and drifts with the current near Kingman Reef. The fish and the purpose for its behavior were unknown to scientists. At a depth of about 700 meters near Jarvis Island, scientists discovered a previously undescribed species of electric ray, a fish that produces a strong electric shock to stun its prey and unwary predators. (Click NOAA image for larger view of curious grouper checking out the inside of the sub. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA / NURP.”)

Near Jarvis Island, scientists nicknamed a previously unknown crab "tyrano" because of his large size (size of a beach ball), powerful claws and quick movements, and at Kingman Reef they saw a large unidentified crab the size of a soccer ball and nicknamed it "sumo-crab," because its massive body and deliberate movements gave the impression of strength. At several locations scientists observed small striped eels and a cusk eel that may be new species.

NOAA image of steam vents on chimney at Volcano 19.On other legs of the expedition, scientists studied the biology, chemistry, volcanology and oceanography of hydrothermally active seamounts in the South West Pacific, where they discovered biological communities associated with undersea steam and carbon dioxide bubbles venting at depths below 1,000 meters. (Click NOAA image for larger view of steam vents on chimney at Volcano 19. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA / NURP.”)

Scientists explored numerous submarine volcanoes, most of which had never before been explored. With names like Monowai, McCauley, Giggenbach, Clark, Brothers, Volcano W, and Rumble V, these volcanoes rise to the upper ocean and many vent gasses into the sea and the air above it. The volcanoes, some quiet and some among the most active on Earth, are on the southern part of the same large tectonic ocean plate that far to the north and off the coast of Indonesia, moved 65 feet and generated last year's catastrophic tsunami. Of special interest to scientists was the affect of active volcanoes on the upper ocean, and the rare interface of photosynthetic life based on sunlight, and chemosynthetic life based on chemicals.

NOAA image of abundant growth on vent field at Volcano 19."Most of Earth's volcanic activity occurs unseen beneath hundreds to thousands of feet of ocean," said Bob Embley, an oceanographer with the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. "These are often challenging but always exciting places and we need to explore and better understand them to learn more about how our Earth works," he said. "We saw hydrothermal systems with very high gas contents well within the photic zone. Schools of fish interacted with abundant chemosynthetic life that included prolific microbial mats and areas dominated by beds of mussels," he said. Biology samples included an unusual tube worm that may be new to science and a species of anglerfish previously unknown in New Zealand waters." (Click NOAA image for larger view of abundant growth on vent field at Volcano 19. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA / NURP.”)

"Studies of extreme ocean environments, such as active submarine volcanoes, using new exploration technology, could help us understand potential dangers to shipping from degassing events and from the rarer but potentially very damaging, large scale caldera-forming events that could generate ocean-wide tsunamis," said Embley.

NOAA image of Pisces IV at rest between two pillars at 320 meters depth in Kingman Reef."Understanding submarine volcanoes could also lead to new insights into ore-forming processes, including a better understanding of how they concentrate gold and other precious and exotic metals," he said. "And, the technology and processes developed to explore our ocean can also have important implications and lessons for future remote explorations on other planets and moons in our solar system." (Click NOAA image for larger view of Pisces IV at rest between two pillars at 320 meters depth in Kingman Reef. This is one of the few locations where gold coral was found. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA / NURP.”)

Steve Price, a Pisces V co-pilot, dove on Monowai's caldera. "It was teeming with a diversity of life, with mussels, tubeworms, fish and crabs. Struggles for survival were playing out before our eyes. The incredible multitude of crabs in combat with each other for existence is an image I will never forget."

Pisces V co-pilot Max Cremer thought one submersible dive on Brothers volcano was something like an adventure in outer space. "We were gingerly feeling our way out of the forest of chimney smokers when the terrain turned to sheer vertical and overhanging walls. The rock surfaces had large, mostly vertical cracks in them, and there was no telling what was holding some school bus-sized boulders in place. It was like maneuvering through a freeze frame of a collapsing mountain," he said. "The only things saving us were that we were so tiny, and the mountain's convulsions and our visit were serendipitously out of phase. It was truly a sight out of this world. I felt like a planetary explorer."

NOAA image of roughy fish species seen at Rose, Jarvis, Kingman and Palmyra at depths between 500-350 meters.Terry Kerby, HURL's operations director and chief Pisces pilot, was especially impressed by Giggenbach Volcano." We descended into a shallow pit and discovered an area with pure white slopes of encrusted sulfur deposits with streams of bubbles pouring out of the bottom. The depth was only 163 meters so there was plenty of ambient light. When I turned off the sub's lights and looked across the slope it was like looking at a snow covered slope in the light of a full moon through a champagne glass. The surface light reflected off the streams of bubbles moving up in the water column and made for a magical scene." (Click NOAA image for larger view of roughy fish species seen at Rose, Jarvis, Kingman and Palmyra at depths between 500-350 meters. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “NOAA / NURP.”)

The multi-part expedition was jointly funded by the NOAA Undersea Research Program, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, New Zealand's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, New Zealand's National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, and the University of Kiel in Germany.

Steve Hammond, acting director of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, said, "These are path finding missions that challenge us and other explorers and scientists to understand the fundamental processes of the ocean and how they affect our lives."

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.

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