U.S. Scientists Partner with Indonesian Scientists to Explore Sulawesi Sea
New submarine volcanoes, a large hydrothermal field with a thriving exotic animal ecosystem, and areas rich with deep-sea ocean animals are among the discoveries they reported.
New submarine volcanoes, a large hydrothermal field with a thriving exotic animal ecosystem, and areas rich with deep-sea ocean animals are among the discoveries reported recently by U.S. and Indonesian scientists who explored the largely unknown deep Sulawesi Sea last summer off the coast of Indonesia.
At an American Geophysical Union news conference in San Francisco, scientists explained that, while the exploration area is recognized as one of the Earth’s major shallow water centers of marine diversity, little was known about the marine life inhabiting its deep areas until this mission.
“This expedition was exciting and productive in many respects,” said Indonesia’s chief scientist for the expedition, Sugiarta Wirasantosa of the Indonesia Agency for Marine and Fisheries Research. “The joint science team mapped Kawio Barat, an active undersea volcano that rises nearly 12,000 feet from the seafloor, and the mission revealed that high marine diversity extends deep in the area, but that there is a different mix of diversity between the shallow and deep ocean.”
“Within the ‘Coral Triangle,’ a 2.3 million-square-mile area in which the Sulawesi is included, more than 65 percent of the world’s reef-forming coral species are known to exist in shallow waters,” said Santiago Herrera, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who participated in the expedition. “We observed and imaged perhaps 40 potential new coral species and 50 potential new species of other animals, including those inhabiting an actively venting volcano. Documenting the abundance, biodiversity and distribution of deep-ocean animals will allow us to better understand the functioning of the ecosystems in the area and infer how resilient they are to human activities.”
The ocean exploration partnership matured in the wake of President Obama’s speech in June 2009 in Cairo, Egypt, when he spoke of building partnerships to support science and technological development in Muslim-majority countries. This expedition was the first in a multiyear plan for Indonesia and the United States to explore marine environments together as part of a larger partnership that foresees NOAA, Indonesia’s Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, and Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology partnering on issues of mutual interest including ocean exploration, fisheries and food security, climate change and tsunami research, among other areas.
The 2010 expedition was the maiden voyage of NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer, which worked with the Indonesian Research vessel Baruna Jaya IV. U.S. and Indonesian scientists worked side-by-side on both ships as well as in shore-based exploration command centers in Jakarta and Seattle, where they received information in real-time via satellite and high-speed Internet2 pathways, including high-definition video of the seafloor from the Okeanos Explorer’s remotely operated vehicles. Other scientists were on call ashore to assess the data, information and images as needed. At other exploration command centers, including one in Silver Spring, Md., and one at the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, live video came in from sea via telepresence technology and engaged a variety of audiences ashore.
“Our partnership to explore the ocean and to share knowledge and technology advances science while building and strengthening the friendship between our nations,” said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, the U.S. undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere. “We look forward to further cooperation next summer when the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is scheduled to return to Indonesia to continue this mission.”
“It’s especially important for Indonesians to better understand our ocean,” said Sugiarta. “Indonesia is a nation of 17,000 islands with a population that depends largely on the ocean for safety and on ocean resources for food, trade, and economic well-being. Measurements of the flow of deep water masses through the deep Sulawesi Sea will help us better understand the ‘Indonesian Throughflow,’ which is important to all because it plays a major role in the global distribution of heat transported by ocean currents.”
“We had a fantastic view of the summit area of Kawio Barat and the features we saw strongly suggest very recent volcanic activity at 6,200 feet (1,900 meters),” said David Butterfield, a scientist with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. “Seeing an eruption at Kawaio Barat is a priority for future observations. Although 70 percent of Earth’s volcanic activity takes place under the ocean surface, researchers have only observed active eruptions by two undersea volcanoes.”
The application of telepresence technology for ocean science and exploration and for education and outreach was first envisioned by Robert Ballard who partnered with NOAA to develop and refine the technology to bring the excitement of discovery in real time to audiences ashore. Expedition scientists on this latest mission believe that high-definition video transmitted from the deep sea to scientists ashore in real time provided a significant step forward in identifying marine animals, geologic features, and other aspects of the deep regions of the Sulawesi Sea.
“In an incredible extension of telepresence technology, live images from the seafloor also went for the first time to scientists ashore beyond Exploration Command Centers,” said NOAA scientist Steve Hammond, the expedition’s U.S. chief scientist. “One scientist at the University of Victoria shared the live seafloor video with her ocean science students and took still frames from the video to email to other ocean experts who could help with identifications. We had scientists of many disciplines in numerous locations all sharing comments in an online chat room as they viewed live video,” he said. “All those comments are time-coded to the video for further reference and research.”