Through research themes focused on deep ocean technology, dynamic processes at the seafloor and the role of the Earth and ocean in elemental cycles— the Ocean Exploration Institute (OEI) seeks to understand how Earth works by promoting interdisciplinary investigations of planetary processes occurring in the deep ocean and within the planet’s interior.
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Black smoker chimney at 17° S on the East Pacific Rise, seen through view port of the Human Occupied Vehicle Alvin
(Pat Hickey, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Ocean Exploration and Research

Exploration of our ocean advances discoveries that can ignite and enhance existing research, promote and develop new lines of scientific inquiry, and impact policy and management decisions in one of the most dynamic environments on Earth.  Exploration of key geographic regions, oceanic and seafloor features, water column, and atmospheric processes can lead to fundamental leaps in understanding.  Areas of interest are numerous, and certainly are not limited to: changing conditions in polar regions (e.g., Arctic sea ice dynamics and productivity), changing ocean chemistry (e.g., acidification and pH-related changes), biodiversity (e.g., assessments of pelagic and benthic biodiversity, habitats and natural resources), as well as new ocean resources (e.g., living and renewable).  Exploratory approaches include conducting interdisciplinary characterizations of unknown or poorly-known ocean areas, determining the breadth of resources and impact of resource extraction, increasing the scope and efficiency of exploration and research via improving exploration capabilities; and engaging and educating audiences in ocean exploration.  The institute seeks to support exploration of unknown or poorly known ocean regions, environments, and processes.

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The remotely operated vehicle Jason is launched from R/V Atlantis into the waters of the East Pacific Rise in January 2014. (Photo by David Levin, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Ocean Technology

The exploration of spatial and temporal aspects of unknown and little-known ocean phenomena require advanced technology.  The development of these technologies is critical for the advancement of ocean exploration throughout the broad spectrum of geotectonic and biogeographic settings, utilizing telepresence and education, and understanding the process-driven phenomena in these various settings.  OEI is committed to inspiring and supporting the development and improvement of the operational capabilities of the next generation of ocean vehicles, sensors and instruments that can explore, sample and measure biological, chemical and geological processes in situ in remote and challenging conditions.  WHOI scientists and engineers have consistently pioneered submergence technologies, including the development of a fleet of vehicles and advanced sensors for underwater exploration and research.  From state-of-the art Human-Occupied Vehicles (HOVs), Remotely-Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), WHOI is world-renowned for playing key roles in some of the most iconic discoveries and oceanographic studies throughout history.  The Institute seeks to drive new technologies that enable access to under-explored regions, environments, and processes of the global ocean, and that enable in situ measurements of chemical, physical, and biological parameters and processes.

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Strike-slip faults are generally found in transform zones, where the tectonic plates slide horizontally past each other. Normal faults are generally found in divergent zones, where the plates pull away from each other. Thrust faults are generally found in convergent zones, where plates collide with one another.

Dynamic Processes at the Seafloor

OEI researchers work at the cutting edge of numerous interrelated fields associated with investigating fundamental planetary forces and phenomena.  These fields include: earthquake generation, volcano dynamics and hazards, tsunami formation and propagation, magmatic processes in the Earth’s mantle, seafloor volcanism, and hydrothermal processes and biogeochemical interactions. Many of these processes impact the transfer of heat and chemical elements between the overlying ocean and the lithosphere and influence circulation.  Similarly, OEI researchers seek to understand the relationships among changing ocean conditions and fundamental biological, chemical, geological, and physical processes.  For example, with the rapid reduction in year round sea ice coverage, it is reasonable to infer dramatic changes in photosynthesis and productivity, as well as in temperature and salinity, which impact ecosystem composition and function.  The Institute encourages exploration that enables discoveries of these and other dynamic ocean relationships and processes.

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At Crab Spa, a diffuse-flow hydrothermal vent site on the East Pacific Rise, Alvin’s manipulator arm holds a sensor developed by Nadine Le Bris that measures temperature, pH, and sulfide in situ. WHOI microbial ecologist Stefan Sievert and colleagues are using the site to gain insights into chemosynthetic processes at deep-sea vents. (Photo courtesy of Stefan Sievert, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Role of the Deep Earth and Ocean in Elemental Cycles

Understanding the myriad of geological, chemical and biological processes involved in formation and evolution of the ocean floor, all of which influence the chemical composition of the global ocean, are crucially important research topics that are at the forefront of 21st century oceanographic science.  A significant portion of the total biomass on Earth resides in the subseafloor biosphere, i.e., deep marine sediments and altered igneous basement. Due to its vast size and intimate connection with water cycles, the subseafloor biosphere has enormous potential for influencing global-scale biogeochemical processes, including carbon, energy, climate and nutrient cycles. Similarly, the role of the aphotic zone of the pelagic ocean in global-scale biogeochemical processes is currently poorly understood. The Institute promotes new approaches to address scientific questions concerning processes in the dark ocean, the large-scale exchange of material between the seafloor and the ocean, and the temporal relationship between that exchange and tectonic and volcanic cycles.