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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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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 ocean is one of the most dynamic environments on Earth and as such requires advanced technology. OEI is committed to inspiring and funding the development of the next generation of vehicles, sensors and instruments that can explore, sample and measure biological, chemical and geological processes in situ in remote and harsh conditions.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has consistently pioneered ocean technology and sensor development. Home to the National Deep Submergence Facility, which can be considered the “NASA” of the deep-ocean, WHOI scientists have developed a fleet of underwater vehicles and advanced sensors for underwater exploration and research. Vehicles like Alvin (the world’s longest-operating deep-sea submersible), Jason (a state-of-the-art remotely operated vehicle or ROV) and Sentry (a pioneering autonomous underwater vehicle or AUV) are world-renowned for playing key roles in some of the most iconic discoveries and oceanographic studies. Today, new technologies enable discovery and access to unexplored regions of the global ocean.

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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 exploring fundamental planetary forces and phenomena. These include, for example: 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 also impact the overlying ocean and we are just beginning to understand their role in heat and chemical transfer in the ocean and how they influence global circulation.

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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 geological, chemical and biological processes involved in forming and evolving the ocean crust, 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.

The Earth’s “deep biosphere” includes a variety of subsurface habitats on Earth, such as mines, aquifers, and soils in the continental realm, and sediments and igneous rock in the marine realm. It has been estimated that nearly half of the total biomass on Earth resides in the deep biosphere. Due to its vast size and intimate connection with the water cycles, the subseafloor biosphere has enormous potential for influencing global-scale biogeochemical processes, including carbon, energy, climate and nutrient cycles. OEI researchers are engaged in developing novel ways of addressing scientific questions concerning the large-scale exchange of material between the seafloor and the ocean and the temporal relationship between that exchange and tectonic and volcanic cycles.

Last updated: August 27, 2014