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Through research themes focused on deep ocean technology, dynamic processes at the seafloor and the role of the deep Earth and ocean in elemental cycles— the Deep Ocean Exploration Institute (DOEI) 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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HROV Nereus recovery during the Mid Cayman Rise Expedition in 2009. (Photo by Chris German, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Deep Ocean Technology

Work in the deepest, most dynamic regions of our planet requires advanced technology. DOEI 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 deep-sea technology to study the ocean. Home to the National Deep Submergence Facility, which can be considered the “NASA” of the deep-ocean, the Oceanographic and its 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. The hybrid ROV Nereus is unique. It is the only vehicle capable of routine access to the crushing pressures of the greatest ocean depths, including the deepest part of the ocean—Challenger Deep, a nearly 7-mile-deep trench in the western Pacific. Nereus can be configured as both an ROV or AUV, depending on the science task at hand, making it efficient and adaptable for a broad agenda of research objectives. It also uses novel fiber optic technology and a host of other technological developments that will have profound positive impact on oceanographic research for decades to come.

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Two types of seismic waves radiate outward from an earthquake through Earth’s interior and along its surface. (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Dynamic Processes at the Seafloor

DOEI 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. With Ramunas Stepanauskas, the group recently obtained single microbial cells directly from the environment and are sequencing the DNA of the abundant, yet little-known microbes to get information on their physiology and metabolic potential. (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. DOEI 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: February 24, 2012