Editor’s Note: Honolulu Civil Beat is pleased to introduce our new tech column, Civil Geeks, which will be written in alternating weeks by Burt Lum and Ryan Ozawa, co-hosts of Bytemarks Cafe and fans of all things geeky. This week, Burt Lum dives into literally the hottest ocean research going. 

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean seabed, created by magma rising through the Earth’s crust, are the harshest environment on our planet. Few research vessels are equipped to properly glean data in the extreme pressures and temperatures of these remote, deep-sea environments.

But new instrumentation on the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor now is helping researchers gain new insights into the unique biological, chemical and geological makeup of the hydrothermal vent environments — including findings that researchers won’t discuss in detail until they can publish them in academic journals.

Hydrothermal vents, created when magma rises through the earth's crust to the ocean floor, give rise to life forms seen nowhere else on Earth.

Hydrothermal vents, created when magma rises through the earth’s crust to the ocean floor, give rise to life forms seen nowhere else on Earth.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, was in Hawaii recently to talk about the work just completed by the institute research vessel Falkor. The ship spent a recent 13-day mission exploring the complex of hydrothermal vents off the waters of Tonga, in an area called the Northern Lau Basin. Chief scientist Dr. Tom Kwasnitschka, from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel, in Germany, led the mapping expedition.

According to Kwasnitschka, one of the surprising observations made on this mission was that of superheated steam phase separation at such a large scale. This phenomenon, caused when icy ocean water is heated by magma to as much as 700 degrees F, could be seen on a smaller scale, but never before in such an extensive vent field as here on the Northern Lau Basin. He intimated that this would be one of the papers to be published as a result of this expedition.

In addition, scientists were able to map the entire region using 4K video which allowed for less than 1 centimeter resolution images. With multiple cameras, the team now will be able to create 3D models of the hydrothermal vents as well as virtual reality simulations of the ocean floor for other scientists to explore without going out to sea.

The Schmidt Ocean Institute used this remotely operated vehicle to film 360-degree images of hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
The Schmidt Ocean Institute used this remotely operated vehicle to film 360-degree images of hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

These images and video can now be repurposed to be used in 360-degree viewing screens, much like what you might expect from a holodeck in Star Trek. You could also don a virtual reality headset and have a fully immersive experience of walking on the seafloor or riding on the remotely operated vehicle or ROV. The goal is to bring this experience to as many people as possible. Seafloor mapping not only benefits researchers and scientists but also benefits the general public through collaborations with Google Earth and Google VR.

With this data, Dr Kwasnitschka said, “We can establish a baseline for science before commercial interest like mining companies move in. If we know what is out there, we know exactly what we can protect. This will further our efforts in ocean resource conservation.”

This hydrothermal vent was photographed by Schmidt Ocean Institute researchers in a deep-water basin off the island of Tonga, in the southern Pacific Ocean.

This hydrothermal vent was photographed by Schmidt Ocean Institute researchers in a deep-water basin off the island of Tonga, in the southern Pacific Ocean.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

As a state of the art research vessel, the Falkor is equipped with onboard high performance computing that enables the scientists to test their data models on the ship without having to wait to get back on land. The speed to validate their models greatly enhances the return on time invested on the ocean.

One can only imagine what it takes to maintain a computer center on a ship. On land you do not need to worry about corrosive salt air, the constant rocking of the ship and a reliable power supply and cooling system. For the researchers, on board supercomputing is not only a great luxury but a time saving tool.

In addition to onboard supercomputing the Falkor is equipped with high speed satellite internet access. That enables live video conferencing between Schmidt and Kwasnitschka, live streaming of the ROV dives and lets collaborators around the world to see events as they happen in real time. This technology feature helps to speed both communications among the scientific community and the understanding of the ocean environment.

Schmidt emphasized that one of the core tenets of the Schmidt Ocean Institute is to have researchers share their work openly and transparently with other collaborators as well as the community at large.

“The more people that can get their hands on this data, the more rapidly we can accelerate the learning and understanding of our environment,” Schmidt said.

The Falkor, built in Germany in 1982 as a fisheries protection vessel, was converted to the flagship research ship of the Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2012.

The Falkor, built in Germany in 1982 as a fisheries protection vessel, was converted to the flagship research ship of the Schmidt Ocean Institute in 2012.

Leighton Rolley

She recognizes that the oceans are changing and coastal cities will be severely affected in the not too distant future. Environmental factors such as climate change, sea-level rise, acidification and the depletion of ocean resources will result in our having a very different relationship with the ocean over the next century if we continue to follow the path we are currently on.

“The purpose of the Falkor, as she leaves on her various missions, is to communicate about the science of the oceans to people, so that they can care about it. We can’t take care of something that we don’t understand; and we can’t care if we don’t know,” she said.

“Our mission, underneath all the science at Schmidt Ocean Institute, is to bring the ocean to everyone, so that people can care about its conservation and understand their essential relationship with the ocean. It’s time for us to recalculate the human footprint on our planet. This collaboration between scientists and the community can take oceanography and marine science out the of the silos and bring them out into the public conversation where policy and decisions are made.”

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