Project Neptune

In 2001, the W. M. Keck Foundation provided $5 million to the University of Washington for a five-year experiment to explore some of the linkages between the restless ocean and the underlying seafloor made up of tectonic plates that are continually in motion. Early in 2007, the National Science Foundation announced its intent to invest approximately $330 million in the creation of a globally distributed ocean observing system that will incorporate the Keck experiment.

The 2001 W. M. Keck Foundation grant supported Project NEPTUNE (North East Pacific Time-integrated Undersea Networked Experiments) – the brainchild of UW scientist John Delaney and his colleagues, who had been dreaming of such an underwater laboratory for almost 15 years. NEPTUNE is the precursor to the Regional Scale Nodes component of the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) network. This regional effort on the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate will use a heavily instrumented network of 750 miles of fiber-optic/power cable to enable long-term, real-time measurements of physical, chemical, geological and biological variables in the ocean and seafloor. A complementary Canadian effort – NEPTUNE Canada – is building a 480-mile loop of instrumented cable on the northern portion of the plate.

For the Keck-funded experiment, Project NEPTUNE built a set of prototype observatories located at three major tectonic plate boundaries as the first step toward hard-wiring one entire puzzle piece of Earth’s fractured crust – the Juan de Fuca Plate. By 2006, a total of 40 new instruments had been developed and deployed at the undersea observatories.

These successes relied on the efforts of multiple interdisciplinary teams to design the instruments, map the detailed topography of the plate and coordinate the complex system design and instrument deployment.

The main thrust of the Keck experiment was to explore the poorly understood interactions between plate tectonic processes and microbial output from the seafloor. Early data from Project NEPTUNE provided evidence of dramatic connections between episodic deformation of the crustal plates, fluid venting and blooms in microbial populations.

Steve Bohlen, president of the Washington DC-based Joint Oceanographic Institutions (JOI), the organization that is charged with coordinating the Ocean Observatories Initiative for NSF, said the planned network, which will have elements at global, coastal and regional scales, represents the greatest leap in ocean study since the early 1800s, according to an article in the May 16, 2007 Seattle Times. That’s when ships started taking ocean measurements.

Ocean-going ships have been the principal research platforms since that time. “This is the beginning of a new revolution,” Bohlen said. “It’s new science, it’s big science and it’s big risk. But that’s how we make big scientific advances.”

Bohlen also stated in the Seattle Times article that the UW is in line to receive $170 million in NSF funding. First comes a $2.2 million planning phase followed by a $130 million construction phase. Maintenance and operating costs will account for the rest.

The University of California, San Diego received a contract for $29 million to design and construct the information technology and networking components of the OOI. In August 2007, JOI announced that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will lead a partnership that includes UCSD, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Oregon State University to develop, install and operate the global and coastal components of the OOI.

As University of Washington President, Mark A. Emmert stated in May 2009, “Today we are taking an important first step in fulfilling the vision that John Delaney and his many colleagues articulated more than 12 years ago. We are embarked upon a very ambitious project which will transform our understanding of the planet on which we live through a deeper understanding of the oceans. This is science at its grandest, and the University of Washington is an eager participant in this venture.”

John Delaney commented that “This new ocean observing capability will provide novel and enduring ways to study the oceans. These new approaches are going to revolutionize not only how we humans look at oceans and the earth, but eventually – in the time of our children’s children – the way we learn to manage our entire planet.”

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