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Final frontier

Research megaproject will soon disclose mysteries of the deep

BY ANNE MULLENS | SEP 08 2009

It started as a “what if?” idea tossed around over beer. But now, NEPTUNE Canada is a $125-million reality – the world’s largest and most advanced cabled ocean observatory that’s set to reveal, in real time, the secrets of the ocean for the next 25 years.

Led by the University of Victoria and located off the coast of British Columbia, the project brings together 13 Canadian universities, four international universities and research institutes, governments and industry. Hundreds of scientists, researchers, engineers and technologists have worked to bring it to the final deployment stage this fall. Named for Northeast Pacific Time-Series Undersea Networked Experiments, it will study tectonic plate movements for tsunami and earthquake monitoring, whale behaviour and migration, ocean nutrient levels, gas hydrate deposits, climate change impacts such as acidification, and more.

Chris Barnes, project director, says the deep ocean, not outer space, is truly the final frontier, and NEPTUNE is the undersea equivalent of the Hubble telescope. It was some 15 years ago that a few ocean science researchers, prodded by John Delaney, a professor of oceanography at the University of Washington, started blue-skying over a pitcher of beer about how to tap into ocean cable systems to provide deep-sea data.

“Ocean cables are not new – they’ve been around for about 150 years,” notes Dr. Barnes, “but it started the group thinking, why not put in new high-powered fibre-optic cables, with our instruments, where we want them to collect information that we need to collect?”

From that humble beginning, an international science megaproject was born, but it took time to find the funding and develop the technology to bring it to fruition, says Dr. Barnes, emeritus professor and an expert in ocean sediments at UVic. Canada got the start-up funding first – some $62 million from the federal and B.C. governments in 2003, at the time the largest research grant in Canada’s history – enabling the Canadians to hire and plan in earnest.

The project morphed from the idealized to the possible. A 3,000 km U.S.-Canada project with dozens of nodes was scaled down to an 800 km cable loop with five nodes off the coast of B.C. and a sister cable, still in development, off the coast of Washington State. (Other cabled observatory systems, not directly related to NEPTUNE, are in the works around Europe, Japan and Taiwan.)

Canada is about three or four years ahead, says Dr. Barnes. In 2007, it began laying the cable in a loop over the Juan de Fuca plate from Barkley Sound on B.C.’s west coast, at some places 2.6 km deep. Spur lines off the cable, up to 20 km long, connect five large bright yellow nodes to the cable line. The nodes supply power and two-way communication and house the data-collecting instruments, which are designed to allow changes or additions by remote submersibles during the 25-year life of the project.

The cable comes onshore at Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, where 200 km of land cable then send the data to UVic. The data should start flowing by November. Already, at www.neptunecanada.ca, live video feeds, blog posts and Twitter updates are charting the careful placement of the nodes and deployment of the project.

The technical challenges have been immense and include building instruments and nodes that can withstand the high undersea pressures, salt corrosions and even earthquakes and tsunamis. Most of the infrastructure was designed, manufactured and installed by French telecommunication giant Alcatel-Lucent or its sub-contractors.

The funding challenges are huge, too. While $125 million has been raised to date, the operating costs are $12 million a year and the project is still seeking long-term funding to see it past 2010. To spearhead that goal and to manage the financial and administrative side, a special organization called Ocean Networks Canada was formed, headed by former UVic vice-president research, Martin Taylor.

“The scale and scope of this project is so huge that it needs an overseeing body, separate from the research, to raise the funds and disperse them,” says Dr. Taylor. ONC will also support the research results by developing appropriate public policy, commercial applications of findings, and public education and outreach.

“Why does all this matter?” says Dr. Taylor. “We are at a time when the understanding of our oceans was never more important to the future of our planet and the future of our societies.” And NEPTUNE is set to start supplying some of the answers to policy and research questions.

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  1. janna ramsay best / September 18, 2009 at 09:32

    I’m glad to see NEPTUNE Canada getting some well deserved publicity. Nothing could be more important to understanding the workings of our planet than studying the mysteries of the oceans.