Keck Foundation funds major new initiative into deep-sea quakes, life

July 20, 2001

New kinds of instruments and experiments -- made possible with a just announced $5 million award from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles -- could give scientists the best way yet to study the rich microbial life that flourishes wherever the seafloor twists and buckles, and which is part of a biosphere beneath the Earth's surface that may dwarf all life on land or in the sea.

Oceanographers, just back from mapping an area off British Columbia where they are eager to deploy the new class of instruments, say the support of a premier philanthropic foundation such as Keck is especially important now during the design phase of Project Neptune. Neptune is a bold plan to install instruments across an entire tectonic plate off Canada, the Pacific Northwest and California, something never attempted anywhere.

"In 20 years we'll turn the seafloor into a 'laboratory' where we will routinely do work that isn't imaginable today even in labs on land," says John Delaney, University of Washington oceanographer. Delaney is lead investigator for the Keck award and head of a consortium of Neptune participants from the UW, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Lab, Canada's Institute for Pacific Ocean Science and Technology, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Neptune scientists want to use 2,000 miles of electro-optical cable -- cable that can carry power, instructions to remote instruments and data sent back from those instruments -- to wire the whole Juan de Fuca Plate and surrounding areas. At 80,000 square miles, the Juan de Fuca Plate is significantly bigger than Washington state. The entire extent of the Neptune study area, including the continental shelf, would be 150,000 square miles. Thousands of instruments, including tiny subs and probes that could be maneuvered by scientists back on land, would be stationed at 30 experimental sites along the cable network a mile or more under the ocean surface.

The only currently operating U.S. research observatory connected to land by a similar cable is a Rutgers University facility six miles off the Atlantic coast, in 50 feet of water with only two experimental sites about 100 yards apart.

The Juan de Fuca Plate is one of a dozen or so that make up the surface of the Earth. The places where tectonic plates pull apart or slide against neighboring plates are of great interest to scientists. Among other things these plate margins are subject to earthquakes -- which, in turn, appear related to subsequent quakes on land -- volcanic eruptions and releases of fluids from beneath the seafloor which sometimes burst forth at temperatures of 700 F or hotter.

Those fluids, toxic to most other life, support microorganisms that thrive without sunlight under crushing pressures. The Keck award focuses on ways to learn more about this particularly intriguing aspect of tectonic plates: Just what are the links between earthquakes and deep crustal life forms? What are the limits to life in these environments? How extensive is the biosphere? Might it be everywhere beneath the Earth's surface? Could similar biospheres exist on other planets?

There are many challenges to studying that life in relation to events along the Juan De Fuca Plate, Delaney says. Some measurements -- for example determining how many microorganisms are present in fluids -- are currently done in laboratories, but nobody knows how to do them remotely on the seafloor.

"The Keck foundation is known for investing early and wisely in projects that are trying to transform a particular scientific field of inquiry," Delaney says.

The feasibility study for Neptune, funded with $500,000 from the National Oceanographic Partnership Program, was completed in July 2000. Organizers expect Neptune to be in operation by 2006. It is estimated the entire Neptune network will cost $250 million to develop, install and operate its first five years. Organizers then expect to use the network for 30 or 40 years.

Beyond its value to researchers, Delaney says Neptune organizers want the project to provide what he terms an "oceanarium" and a "scientific CNN" for the public.

"Oceans are the most fascinating feature of our solar system," Delaney says. "We want everyone with a home computer to be able to access what we're studying and eventually involve school children in our robotic operations, allowing them to experience firsthand the mysteries of the deep."
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