NOAA 2001-R422
Contact: Jana Goldman

Bold Research Approach Reaps New Discoveries - Maps, Species

A team of NOAA ocean scientists and partners exploring the uncharted depths of an underwater canyon off Oregon has discovered new species of invertebrates and taken images of never-before-seen geological features of Astoria Canyon, found off the mouth of the Columbia River.

The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration led the 18-day mission that has been viewed as an extension of Lewis and Clark's cross-continent exploration that reached its western-most point at the mouth of the Columbia River. The mission successes were heralded during an open house today at the Mark Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

"These modern explorers continue in the spirit of Lewis and Clark using contemporary technology to explore our oceans," said Scott Gudes, acting administrator of NOAA. "More than 70 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by ocean, but to date, we've explored less than 5 percent of it. Finding new living marine resources and understanding how they fit into the larger ecosystem is critical to our future."

Explorations of this type represent a fundamental change in the way NOAA is approaching ocean research. This mission brings together experts from many disciplines, such as geology, chemistry, biology, ecology, and physical oceanography and provides them with the necessary platform and resources to explore areas they may never otherwise have the opportunity to study.

"Traditional research increases our knowledge incrementally by testing a specific theory about a topic or issue," said Capt. Craig McLean, director of NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration. "Exploration is research for the sake of discovery. And discovery can lead to quantum leaps forward in our awareness and understanding of the oceans. NOAA hopes to do for the oceans what NASA has done for outer space."

Though it will take months, even years, to analyze and interpret all the data collected during the exploration, new insights have already been gained about these complex systems.

Already, expedition scientists feel they have discovered new species of invertebrates, including at least one new species of brittlestar. Invertebrate zoologists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County were onboard and worked around the clock curating each day's collection of specimens.

A major discovery was the existence of an expansive fluid seep habitat just south of Heceta Bank in 1500 feet of water, consisting of carbonate encrusted rock crusts, inhabited with dense communities of chemosynthetic clams, predatory snails, and other invertebrates.

Geologists were also excited to find a section of the canyon wall broken away to reveal many layers of undisturbed sediments. The sediment layers were deposited over thousands of years. Core samples taken at the base of this site will help scientists reconstruct the frequency of past earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, and provide insight into predicting future incidences.

Scientists used sidescan and multibeam sonars in an earlier cruise in June and on the NOAA research vessel, Ronald H. Brown, to create new 3-dimensional, high-resolution images of Astoria Canyon that clearly depict never before seen features of walls, outcrops, rocks, faults, and slides. The team also conducted biological, chemical, physical and geological surveys of the canyon using a variety of remote sensing and sampling devices and a sophisticated remotely operated vehicle from Canada, capable of diving to 5,000 meters for more than 24 hours at a time.

"There is a tremendous need to explore more of these areas in this manner in order to continue a big picture approach and to expand the marine habitat knowledge base," said Waldo Wakefield, co-chief scientist for the Canyon Exploration at NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

After exploring the Astoria Canyon, the expedition ventured south along the
Oregon coast to map and supplement ongoing NOAA fisheries groundfish monitoring efforts at Heceta Bank, an important area for commercially fished species of whiting, rockfish, sablefish, and flatfish. Researchers will compare the habitats, fish, and invertebrate populations of Astoria Canyon with those at Heceta Bank to provide associations in varying habitats.

NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration was established to develop a U.S. strategy for ocean exploration. Its goal is to integrate and support our nation's best ocean scientists in mapping ocean resources, discovering new species and cultural artifacts, understanding ocean processes, and supporting new technologies to investigate these areas.

For more information and to follow the mission visit