News Column

Google's Voyage to Bottom of the Sea's Dead Zone

Aug. 1, 2013

A $60 million ocean research ship, carrying all the latest high-tech tools that Google money can buy, sails Thursday from the Exploratorium's Pier 15 en route to study a dead zone in the eastern Pacific and the ancient microbes flourishing around an undersea volcano.

The ship and its seagoing labs -- with teams of researchers aboard -- will mount a series of expeditions in the Pacific, following voyages in the Caribbean sampling remnants of an asteroid that might have doomed the dinosaurs to extinction.

During its port-side visit here, more than 150 lucky strollers along the Embarcadero were treated to a brief tour of one of the most unusual oceanography vessels ever sent to sea.

Named the Falcor, after the flying luckdragon in the film "The NeverEnding Story," the ship is privately owned by the Schmidt Ocean Science Institute, co-founded by billionaire Google executive Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy.

Wendy Schmidt has called the 272-foot vessel's work "not science as usual," and her passion for amenities in often-austere ocean research has added a special note to the vessel's interior: a ship's library decorated not with ocean charts but with color-coordinated pillows on upholstered benches, down-filled, curtained bunks and a fully equipped sauna.

"It may not be needed up here," said Victor Zykov, the institute's Russia-born director of research, "but when we're up in cold Canadian waters, the scientists and crew will surely appreciate it after a long day on deck."

Diving deep

On the Falcor's deck, Zykov proudly showed off its towering, crane-like structure, ready to carry ROPOS, the 2-ton Remotely Operated Platform for Ocean Science, down to explore the seafloor more than 3 miles from the surface.

Lowered gently down on steel cables, the unmanned submarine will carry cameras, rock drills, manipulators and precision instruments to explore a strange region of the seafloor off Vancouver Island called a "dead zone," where crabs and fish and all of ocean life die each year from hypoxia -- a periodic lack of oxygen in the water. Scientists believe it's caused by the changing climate or by poisonous effluents -- probably sewage and surface chemicals -- coursing into the water from the land above.

"It's impossible for any organism to acquire any oxygen at all in that water," Zykov said.

Submarine volcano

The Falcor will also cruise the sea bottom this fall around the Axial Seamount, a submarine volcano located about 300 miles west of the Oregon coast that last erupted in 2011 and sent a mile of hot lava streaming down its flanks.

Julie Huber, a microbiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., will be aboard the Falcor to research the bacteria that have been living inside tiny fissures within the porous seafloor lava rocks for countless millions of years.

"The carbon in the porous rocks is a really good energy source for those organisms," Huber said, "and studying their communities and life cycles can help us understand today's microorganisms, too."

Studying viruses

A colleague, Lisa Ziegler Allen of the J. Craig Venter Institute, which conducts genomic research, is studying the viruses that reproduce in those same fissures. Allen wants to know how the viruses live and succeed in infecting the bacterial cells in that strange environment.

"It's another wholly different community of viruses to study down there, and maybe learn how they've adapted to that deep, hot, different chemistry," she said.

And still another unique feature of the Schmidt Institute and its costly ship is its unique contract with all the scientists aboard: Their projects are selected by peer review and they bring their own salaries, Zykov says, but all their research costs -- their shipboard labs, their equipment, their expenses aboard the ship -- are entirely borne by the Institute.

"It's making science more available, more public," Zykov said.



Source: (c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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