Ask an Explorer

Questions answered during the expedition are below.

 


 

Question from: Morgan, Washington

You discussed liquid carbon dioxide (CO2) in your December 8 Mission Log titled, "Mountains of Mussels." Does the liquid CO2 coming out of the seafloor turn back to a gas when it reaches the surface?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

Daikoku is well over a mile deep, so there is no chance of the CO2 bubbles making it to the surface in any form. The liquid CO2 bubbles dissolve into the water before they reach the sea surface. The liquid to gas phase happens at about 700 meters, but in this case, it's doubtful the liquid bubbles make it that far. If they did make it to the surface, it would be as a gas. At other volcanoes we have observed that are putting out lots of gaseous CO2, like NW Rota in the past, the gas bubbles have not made it to the surface.  Some have come close, but seem to break down in the near-surface mixing layer.

 


 

Question from: Shreyas, Washington

Are you collecting live mussels for study or only ones that are already dead?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

We collected live mussels from the seafloor at NW Eifuku.  As our logs have stated, dead mussels don't last long on the seafloor at NW Eifuku because they dissolve quickly once dead, due to the high acidity at that extreme environment. Verena Tunnicliffe's studies are focused on how the living mussels deal with the acidic environment that is their home on the seafloor at NW Eifuku.

 


 

Question from: Christian, Spain

How strong is the interest in obtaining molecules from hydrothermal vent fauna for biotechnological applications? Have some application been discovered yet?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

There are many potential biotech applications from hydrothermal vent environments, because they are so different from those on land. For example, enzymes from high-temperature hydrothermal vent organisms are the basis of the PCR reactions that are used for rapidly replicating DNA in modern genetic research laboratories.

[The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a biomedical technology in molecular biology used to amplify a single copy or a few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence.]

There is also great interest in isolating molecules from hydrothermal vents that could be useful for developing new "drugs from the sea." Other researchers are looking into potential uses of high-temperature vent microbes for waste water treatment and bio-fuels. However, those kinds of research are not being done on this particular expedition.

 

 


 

Question from: Victoria

What it the most fascinating thing you have discovered or seen so far?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

On this expedition, the most fascinating thing we have witnessed is probably the tall, skinny, iron oxide-coated chimneys at Urashima vent field.

Also, the fact that the mussels at NW Eifuku can exist in such a harsh environment, and live to such a ripe age is amazing.

 

 


 

Question from: Morgan, Washington

How big a sample of the microbial mats do you need to find what you are looking for?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

The samples can be collected with syringes, filters on water samples, etc. They are very small samples, like the microbes themselves.

 

 


 

Question from: Lexi, Washington

What happens to the physical samples you collect after they are analyzed? Are they stored and brought back to labs in the U.S., put back into the water, or something else?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

They are stored and brought back to the scientist’s labs in the U.S. and Canada.

 


 

Question from: Enola, Washington

How young is the youngest person on the ship?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

The youngest person on the ship is 21.  And the oldest is 39 (again)...just joking.

 


 

Question from: Kendra, Washington

Were you scared during the typhoon?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

No, we weren’t scared out here on the ship. The ship’s crew and captain keep a very close watch on the weather and make sure to drive the ship out of harm’s way before we are in any danger. The ride got a bit bumpy and uncomfortable, but we were safe.

 


 

Question from: Zander, Washington

What would happen if a sampling tool malfunctioned underwater?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

If a sampling tool malfunctions underwater, Jason may be able to fix it underwater; otherwise, the scientist whose sampler malfunctions fixes it when it gets to the surface, if possible.

 


 

Question from: Alex and Celeste, Washington

With all of the dust, how do the samplers know whether they are pulling up only samples and not larger living organisms?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

What looks like “dust” on the video can be a variety of things: sediment that is stirred up by Jason, hydrothermal smoke, or microbial mat. Most of the samplers that Jason manipulates are size-dependent (can only collect things of a certain size). If Jason takes a grab sample with a scoop or suctions up the sediments, the point is generally to collect “larger living organisms” for macrobiological studies.

 


 

Question from: Alex and Celeste, Washington

Is it possible to bring animals up to the surface?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

We are collecting animals and bringing them to the surface on this expedition. We learn quite a lot about the animals by observing them on the ship. Depending on how deep those animals are collected, it is possible to keep them alive on the ship for days. The macrobiologists on board are hoping that they can get some of the animals to spawn, which will continue the life cycle in the laboratory.

 


 

Question from: Livi, Washington

What is the most reliable sampling tool you use?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

Jason is our most reliable sampling tool, of course. The suite of sampling devices that Jason is manipulating on the seafloor are all working incredibly well on this expedition. The Hot Fluid Sampler (HFS) has been one of the most reliable sampling tools that our group (Earth Ocean Interactions, formerly the NOAA Vents group) has utilized for years. The hydrothermal fluids that the HFS collects provide a huge amount of information regarding the chemistry of the vent sites and that determines the chemosynthetic communities that live there.

 


 

Question from: Emmet, Washington

Have any scientists gotten so seasick they couldn’t do research?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

No one has gotten very seasick on this trip, partly because we've had pretty good weather so far (knock on wood). If someone is very prone to seasickness, they generally do not become sea-going oceanographers – it would be too miserable! Generally, some people might feel a little "green" the first day out of port as we're all getting used to the ship motion, but after a day or two, most everybody gets their "sea legs" and we get used to it and feel fine after that.

 

 


 

Question from: Lexa and Riley, Washington

Where do you get the Jason ROV and the CTD? Do you make or buy them? How much does this kind of equipment cost?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

The Jason ROV was built and is operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and is part of the National Deep Submergence Facility that supports deep-sea scientific research in the U.S. and is funded by the National Science Foundation. The Jason vehicle is shipped all over the world to do oceanographic research and operates on many different research vessels. 

The CTD we are using was built by the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle, Washington. 

The Jason ROV cost about $5 million to build. The PMEL CTD cost about $150,000.

 


 

Question from: Emily, Washington

What happens if the fiber optic cable holding the Jason breaks?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

Another nightmare, but we do have to think about these "worst-case scenarios" because they could happen. If the tether between Medea and Jason breaks, Jason would of course lose power, but the Jason team always makes sure it is positively buoyant, so that in this situation, it would float by itself back to the surface where it could be recovered on the ship. 

On the other hand, if the fiber optic cable between the ship and Medea parted, this would be a worse situation. Because Medea is heavy and so is the cable, they would probably sink to the bottom, along with Jason if it was still attached. On the positive side, we would know where Jason and Medea were on the seafloor, so we would try to recover them later.

 


 

Question from: Kaitlin, Washington

What do you do if your equipment breaks beyond repair? Will you go back to shore and abort the mission? Can equipment be damaged from over testing it?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

Equipment breaking is every oceanographer's nightmare! When we go to sea on a research vessel, we have to bring everything we might need with us. Obviously, there is no store down the street and no FedEx deliveries out here. Going back to port is always the last resort and sometimes is not even feasible. More likely, we would try to do our best with the remaining resources we had. The best way to deal with the possibility of equipment failure is to bring lots of spare parts and even spare instruments out with us. Generally, testing equipment doesn't do any harm and is a good way to spot problems before they happen.

 


 

Question from: Maya, Washington

How deep is the water where you are?

 

Answer from: Susan Haynes, Education Program Manager, NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

The image below is what is called a false color bathymetric map of the area being explored during the expedition. On this kind of map, usually scientists will designate the warm colors of red, orange, and yellow as shallower depths than the cooler colors of blue and purple. There is a legend on the right side of the map telling you the depth range for each color.

Also, here is information on the Jason ROV and its depth capabilities.

 

The Mariana volcanic arc is a chain of underwater volcanoes (seamounts).  In this 3D view, the ocean floor is colored by depth - deep areas are cool colors and shallow areas are warm colors; the few islands in the scene above sea level are green. The image is 3 times vertically exaggerated.

 


 

Question from: Morgan and Celeste, Washington

How do the Jason ROV and CTD withstand the water pressure? How deep can they go? How are they powered?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

The Jason ROV can dive to a depth of 6,000 meters (nearly 20,000 feet!) and all its parts are specifically designed to withstand the pressure at that depth. For example, the electronics are in strong titanium pressure housings. Jason is powered through the fiber-optic cable that it is lowered on from the ship.

The CTD can also be used to 6,000 meters in general, but it depends what sensors are placed on it. For example, on this cruise we have a pH sensor that can only go to a depth of 1,200 meters (about 4,000 feet).

 

 


 

Question from: Beaver Lake Middle School, Washington

We heard that there were some problems with equipment. How are you planning on repairing the rusty cable and hydraulic arm?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

There are often small problems at the beginning of a research cruise like this one – remember the Jason ROV is a very complex piece of machinery and has just been shipped around the world and loaded on the ship. Before the first dive, the Jason team discovered a problem with one of the arms and had to take it apart to repair some wiring. Once that was done, it was good to go. The team bring lots of spare parts and know the systems on the vehicle inside and out, so that whenever a problem crops up they are usually able to repair it quickly.

 


 

Question from: Ken, Washington

How does the remote controlled mechanical arm work?

 

Answer from: Bill Chadwick, Volcanologist, Oregon State University and NOAA/PMEL

Jason has two mechanical robotic arms. One is stronger, but less dexterous, and the other is better for fine manipulations but not for breaking rocks, for example. Both arms are controlled by the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilots from inside the Jason control van using smaller "master" versions of the arms (small enough to fit in their laps). As the pilots move these mini-arm controllers, the mechanical arms on the vehicle move in the same way.  The Jason pilots are very skilled at collecting scientific samples efficiently with the arms.

 


 

Question from: Pitch, Washington

What else are you expecting to find on this expedition (separate from your main objectives)?

 

Answer from: Craig Moyer, Microbiologist and Professor, Western Washington University, and Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

We also expect to find both sulfur and manganese dominated microbial communities. There are many items on the metabolic menu that these microorganisms can feed on. Iron is just the most abundant in our iron mat habitats.

The other group of scientists on this expedition is looking at the change in activity at these volcanoes in the years since we last visited. Volcanoes are unpredictable and we really don't know what we will find. They can heat up and cool down, and in turn the biological communities associated with these sites can go through profound changes.  That's why ocean exploration is such a worthwhile goal. There is still so much we don't know about the 70 perecent of our planet that lies beneath the ocean surface.

 


 

Question from: Andreas, Washington

What did you do for Thanksgiving?

 

Answer from: Susan Merle, Senior Research Assistant, Cooperative Institute of Marine Resource Studies, Oregon State University

Here in the western Pacific, we are one day ahead of you in the United States. On Thanksgiving here, we were still in Guam. It was the day before we boarded the ship for this expedition. The scientists and crew on board enjoyed Thanksgiving in various ways. The chefs on board cooked up a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and all the fixings for anyone who cared to partake. Some chose to eat on shore, which is what I and a few colleagues did.  We went to a little restaurant called The Jamaican Grill and feasted on dishes that were not the typical Thanksgiving fare. Certainly not as nice as spending the day with family. Nothing is as good as Mom's home cooking, but we enjoyed the holiday.

 


 

Question from: Brea, Oregon

What material did you use in your chloride sensor that can stand up to 400 degrees C?

 

Answer from: Benjamin Larson, Research Scientist, Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, University of Washington and NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab

Excellent question. Hydrothermal fluids are not only scorching hot, but also have some pretty nasty chemicals that can be very hard on our equipment, so choosing the right material is critical. The chloride sensor housing is made of titanium (a widely used metal in most instruments designed for hydrothermal environments because stainless steel is too easily corroded). The sensor itself is made of four gold wires embedded in a zirconium oxide (ZrO2) cylinder about as big around as a soda straw, but half as long. ZrO2 is a ceramic material that has fantastic chemical resistance and is electrically non-conductive, which is important because the chloride measurement relies on changes in the electric field across the gold wires.

However, even with the best possible materials, the real trick in all this is installing the sensor carefully, because if it is moved during deployment even briefly from the 400° C (752° F) vent flow to the near-freezing seawater that completely surrounds the vents, the thermal shock can cause the ceramic to shatter...it's sort of like playing that old game, Operation, but with a remotely operated robotic arm at the bottom of the ocean. On the upside, the same conditions that make these places hard to study are ideal for a close-up look at volcanism. You (or your robot) can basically perch on the side of a volcano like NW Rota and watch it erupt while the vast reservoir of cold ocean water keeps you safe. If you tried the same thing on land, you would probably be incinerated.

 

 

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