NOAA 99-R512
Contact: Jana Goldman


There are far more volcanoes under the sea than on land and not only are their
eruptions affecting the ocean's chemistry and currents, they are also home to large communities of unique organisms, ranging in size from meter-plus-long tubeworms to microscopic bacteria. Researchers from the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and their colleagues from several Canadian and U.S. universities will go to sea again this month to further study the volcanoes, to determine how they affect the ocean floor environment, and to collect specimens of their unique biota.

Two cruises depart this week. One will use the Oregon State University research vessel Wecoma to conduct the latest in a 15-year-long series of surveys along portions of the Juan de Fuca Ridge. This ridge, a several hundred-mile-long volcanically active seam in the Earth's crust, lies 200-300 miles off the Oregon and Washington coasts at depths of one to two miles.

The other cruise will use the University of Washington's research vessel T.G. Thompson to carry out the second phase of establishing an unmanned long-term seafloor observatory, called the New Millennium Observatory (NeMO) in the caldera, or crater, of a huge undersea volcano.

The main objective at NeMO, which will consist of a wide variety of monitoring and sampling systems, is to understand and provide access to a huge community of microorganisms that live beneath the seafloor and thrive at temperatures which can exceed 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists are only just beginning to glimpse the apparently immense diversity of these microorganisms. Moreover, it seems that these heat-loving creatures have a wide variety of potential biotechnical and even pharmaceutical applications.

"We decided to locate the NeMO seafloor observatory at the summit of a large volcano because this was the most volcanically active site on the Juan de Fuca Ridge," said Stephen Hammond, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Newport, Ore. "We reasoned that the community of bacteria that inhabit volcanically heated regions of the seafloor would be especially vigorous where eruptions were particularly common." Indeed, within a few months of having chosen the NeMO site, there was a huge swarm of earthquakes under the volcano which was accompanied by a major summit eruption.

The eruption, which occurred in January 1998, was studied while it was active. Last summer's cruises to the volcano began the process of establishing the NeMO.

The R/V Wecoma cruise (June 16-29) will collect seawater samples as well as measure the ocean's physical and chemical properties over the Juan de Fuca Ridge. Volcanic activity on the ridge produces spectacular hot springs that can reach temperatures in excess of 700 degrees F. Monitoring this hot spring, or venting, activity allows scientists to determine the volcanic state of the ridge. Cruise activities include underway sampling and placement of moorings, which will provide year-long sequences of critical data.

One of the most important activities planned for the R/V Thompson cruise (June 17-July 16) will be the deployment of a sophisticated remotely operated vehicle called ROPOS. This vehicle enables on-board scientists to survey, sample, and photograph the NeMO region in real time with great precision and detail. ROPOS can do virtually anything a manned submersible can but has the major advantage of being able to stay submerged for much longer than conventional manned research submarines. ROPOS will be used to recover instrument systems left at NeMO last year and deploy new experiments.

More than 30 scientists will participate on the Thompson cruise. Daily reports will be posted in the Internet so those topside can follow the progress. Reports will include scientific data, observations of scientists, and ROPOS images of the animals, hot springs, and the seafloor at the NeMO observatory. Daily reports will also be provided through an Oregon Sea Grant teacher-at-sea program.

Along with the NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, other partners in the NeMO seafloor observatory project include NOAA's National Sea Grant Program, the National Science Foundation's RIDGE program, the National Science and Engineering Council of Canada, and NOAA's National Undersea Research Program. The NeMO project is part of NOAA's efforts to describe and predict changes in the earth's environment and to conserve and manage wisely the nation's coastal and marine resources.

To follow the cruises, visit: