ANACORTES — Imagine if elementary school students took an interest in volcanoes and were able to track volcanic activity in the Pacific Ocean over the next 20 years, carrying what they witnessed into later college studies and maybe eventually their careers.
That vision is part of what has driven researcher Deborah Kelley to bring to the rest of the world what she has experienced as one of the few deep-sea divers who have spent a significant amount of time along the seafloor.
Kelley is part of a network of researchers across the country who have been involved in a decades-long National Science Foundation effort to bring underwater data and observations to people bound to the land.
Finally, their project is close to going online, and local educators are excited about the opportunity to share the data with their students.
Building an underwater observatory has involved sending hundreds of scientific instruments into the depths of the sea and connecting them to the Internet via several miles of underwater cables. The National Science Foundation funded the $386 million project, which will go live online in June, Ocean Observatories Initiative science communicator Leslie Smith said in an email.
Through the cable system, a website will receive near real-time data from the various pieces of the system. That data will be available to anyone and is expected to change undergraduate studies and inspire citizen science.
“Not only are these wonderful sensor arrays deployed out there in all these important places in the world, but there is a cyber backbone that brings that data back to shore,” said Scott Glenn, principal investigator for the initiative’s Education and Public Engagement team and a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Kelley, who teaches oceanography at the University of Washington and has been involved with the observatory project for years, said it’s a development that is going to change education across the globe.
“It’s really going to revolutionize the way we think about the ocean,” she said.
Thinking out of the book
Researchers and educators who have helped develop the observatory agree: Teaching oceanography from a textbook leaves much to be desired. The goal of the observatory is to fill the gap between textbook-only learning and the less common opportunity of first-hand experiences at sea.
“That’s a real gap in science education: How do we provide research experience? … We know research experience really gets undergraduates excited about (their career path),” Glenn said. “Not everyone gets to go to sea; it’s expensive, they might live in Kansas, but here’s this nice opportunity where everything is on this network,” he said.
Local educators share his excitement.
Mount Vernon High School oceanography teacher Laurelynn Brooks had the opportunity to travel with Kelley when she was researching underwater volcanoes early on. Brooks remembers the 1996 trip vividly and still shares souvenirs with her students.
During the journey, scientists sent foam cups into the water to see what would happen. When they pulled them back up, the found the pressure had shrunk them to not much larger than a thimble.
Researchers from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds were on the voyage, which was sponsored by the National Science Foundation through the REVEL program, or Research and Education: Volcanoes, Exploration and Life.
While Brooks spent her time during the voyage on deck, she remembers the excitement of Kelley’s discovery of “black smokers,” which are like hot springs coming from underwater volcanoes.
Kelley and fellow professor John Delaney are credited for really spearheading UW’s role in the project. Brooks calls the underwater observatory, in a large part, Delaney’s vision.
“It’s just a model of a dream come true, of a visionary’s dream come true,” she said. “His vision was to bring the view of the ocean — the view of the universe, really — to everyone.”
Students have also been involved with the observatory along the way.
Last summer, more than 80 undergraduate students joined a four-month expedition related to the project. Following their journey, UW students Katie Bigham and Jesse Turner created a video about the coming technology.
Some students who joined researchers and engineers during the installation process are becoming ambassadors who will go into schools to share their experience with other students, Kelley said.
“I think having that connected network of kids in university and getting them into K-12 schools is a really powerful message,” she said.
Brooks and AP Environmental Science teacher Rebecca Krueger launched a marine biology class at Mount Vernon High School in 2004. Krueger later took on AP Environmental Science in 2006, and Brooks’ class became more focused on oceanography.
The two are excited to introduce the underwater observatory’s online data cache to their classes.
“The kids can get online and see that data and use that data. I would love for them to be able to see real live data streaming in, and then they can be the citizen scientists,” Brooks said.
Krueger said of the 22 chapters her students go through in AP Environmental Science, only one is specific to oceanography. But several other topics throughout the semester are related back to the underwater theme. Studying the ocean is important to better understand issues like climate change and ocean acidification, she said.
Brooks said looking at live data will help students realize that studying the ocean is about more than the orca whale, for example, and involves complex chemical and biological processes.
Anacortes High School AP Environmental Science instructor Victor Garcia is also looking forward to being able to break down some of those complex processes for his students using the data.
Like Brooks, Garcia spent some time at sea while the observatory was in progress. Through the REVEL program he was one of 12 teachers selected from around the nation to participate in a UW professor’s marine research project in 2004.
He is excited to see the project nearing completion. The information from the observatory system will be useful for teaching about chemosynthesis, “dead zones” and the effects of ocean currents on local weather and climate, Garcia said.
Chemosynthesis is like a deep sea version of photosynthesis, which is how plants use energy from the sun to grow, he said. The process was discovered in bacteria found near deepwater vents like those Kelley specializes in. Those bacteria can convert methane and hydrogen sulfide into carbon-based food that powers the rest of the food web.
To date, much of the underwater world remains a mystery.
While 70 percent of the planet is blanketed by marine water, only 1 percent has been mapped in enough detail to be studied, Kelley said. Because people don’t spend much time beneath the surface, only three volcanic eruptions have been documented underwater, although there are thousands of volcanoes.
Given the unmapped territory, Kelley said today’s youths can look forward to opportunities for further environmental exploration and discovery.
Kelley shared her experience with the local community April 10 as the last guest to speak for the Friends of Skagit Beaches’ spring environmental lecture series. She also shared her work with high school students from around the region in December at the Breazeale Interpretive Center at Padilla Bay.
During her keynote speech that day she said when she was in high school, she wasn’t sure she would go to college. She certainly never imagined becoming a deep-sea scientist.
She tried an ocean sciences class on a whim, loved it and stuck with it, earning a master’s degree in terrestrial geology. Today, Kelley is known for her expertise in underwater volcanoes and has worked closely with Delaney on the underwater observatory project.
The University of Washington took on part of the project’s construction to build a portion of the 1,200-kilometer cable system to connect the observatory to the shoreline. Kelley is associate director of science for the cabled component, also known as the Regional Scale Nodes.
Delaney coauthored a report called “A 2020 vision for ocean science” that describes the project. It says the ocean directly affects flooding, drought and food production; maintaining an ecological “comfort zone” that makes life on Earth possible.
Looking below to see ahead
While people have explored the ocean by ship for thousands of years, it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the first deep-sea diving was achieved, Delaney said in his report. Later came the development of submarines.
Now, with the support of the National Science Foundation, scientists across the country are gearing up to connect the rest of the world with what’s happening down below.
Not only will the development have huge implications for education, but Kelley said it could help develop global management strategies in the face of climate change, and act as an early warning system for major earthquakes off the West Coast.
So far, climate change projections don’t look good for the region.
“As the oceans warm up, the weather will change; it will impact fisheries,” Kelley said. “Even Skagit — it’s a beautiful area with lots of crop production and farms and flowers, and the ocean governs how well those thrive and grow and survive.”
As for earthquakes, the subduction zone along the Juan de Fuca plate is known to have had a magnitude 9 earthquake in the 1700s, which sent a tsunami across the ocean that is famously depicted in Japanese art.
The National Science Foundation’s Smith said the Juan de Fuca plate along the northern West Coast was selected for the array in part because of the plate’s small size, estuarine activity and to satisfy long-standing scientific interest.
“This is the largest plate-scale experiment in the world, and it’s driven for both scientific as well as societal reasons, and education is a big part of that,” Kelley said.
It includes seven sites. One of them, the Endurance Array, is 300 miles off the West Coast, where the underwater volcano Axial Seamount is found. Axial Seamount is part of the largest volcanic chain on the planet, Kelley said.
“The community chose that site because volcanic processes are so important. They’re a fundamental building block of the seafloor, which is 70 percent of the Earth’s surface,” Kelley said. “It’s also a very hydrothermally active area … with several smokers that get up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit and host these really novel animals.”
Observations of the volcano have revealed as many as 1,600 small earthquakes there in a single day, she said.
“I think about it like listening to the heart of the volcano,” Kelley said.