Deep-sea observatory will open doors to science education

Researchers are quite excited about the eruption of Axial Seamount on the Juan de Fuca Ridge, about 300 miles off the Oregon Coast. In following the story, I found that John Delaney of the University of Washington not only explained the findings well but he also put science itself into perspective.

In an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds, Delaney discussed the results of 25 years of work to create an ocean observatory where the volcano is erupting. In the coming months and years, scientists will be able to direct video cameras and instruments into the volcanic storm to record temperatures, measure chemicals and reveal unusual life forms. Researchers will drive unmanned submarines in and around the dense plume spewing from the volcano — all controlled remotely from shore.

The USA Today video provides a good overview, but Delaney goes even deeper in his talk at the bottom of this page.

Already, the sounds of the volcano are being recorded on underwater hydrophones — sounds that Reynolds shares with listeners at the beginning of the interview.

Said Delaney, “I’m tremendously excited about the fact that we have a wired volcano underwater that is very restless, and it looks like it is going to continue being restless for quite a long time.”

Reynolds then asked Delaney about the value of such research, and Delaney took a step back into the nature of scientific discovery.

“The unknown is what drives scientists,” he said, but on occasion they make discoveries that have “profound influence on the well-being of the society.”

The deep-sea research off the West Coast could bring new findings about whale migration, fish stocks and ocean acidification, he said. As with many scientific endeavors, the outcome may be all sorts of unexpected findings — “some of which have societal fascination, some of which have societal value, some of which are just probing the unknown to find out how things work.”

The ultimate value of scientific findings cannot be predicted, which is why I’m reluctant to ridicule even the craziest-sounding studies.

The deep-sea observatory — part of the Ocean Observatories Initiative — will move beyond scientific discovery to become a powerful tool for educating and inspiring future scientists.

When I was in grade school and junior high, I recall science being presented as a collection of interesting facts, based on years of discovery going back centuries. What I don’t remember is a teacher who took students to the edge of discovery, showing them where scientists are probing into the unknown. I believe this is changing. I know teachers today who are helping their students understand the known while revealing the questions yet to be answered.

With respect to Axial, the formation provides an ideal observatory, not only because of its location near the coast but also because of its overall structure, said Bill Chadwick of Oregon State University in a news release about the latest activity there.

“Because Axial is on very thin ocean crust, its ‘plumbing system’ is simpler than at most volcanoes on land that are often complicated by other factors related to having a thicker crust,” said Chadwick, an adjunct professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Thus Axial can give us insights into how volcano magma systems work – and how eruptions might be predicted.”

By studying the movement of magma, researchers are learning how to predict an eruption. The recent eruption was predicted with more precision than the last one in 2011, as explained in an OSU news release at that time.

If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating subject, which even extends to other planets, I advise watching John Delaney’s 2011 TEDx talk performed in Dublin, Ireland, and called Submarine Vulcanism On Earth & Beyond. Click on the video player below.

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