UW tracks undersea volcano erupting off Washington coast

SEATTLE - The nation's first underwater observatory is giving scientists new insights into an erupting volcano off Washington's coast. The hope is that many of the ocean's mysteries could soon be studied from shore.

The system is known as the Ocean Observatories Initiative. It is operated by the University of Washington, and in the past couple of weeks, it has shown its value by delivering real-time data on a rumbling volcano one mile below the ocean's surface.

Decades of work are finally paying off for UW Professor John Delaney and his colleagues.

"This is the first time we've done this. We are right at the beginning," Delaney said, who has been on this project with Will Wilcock, Mark Stormer, Bill Chadwick and Scott Nooner.

Late last month, sensors detected 8,000 small earthquakes centered around the Axial Seamount about 300 miles off the coast. The ocean's depths have shrouded these events before, but using this network scientists can begin to glimpse insights into the origins of life on the planet.

"We're seeing microbes that nobody's every seen before coming out of the sea floor," Delaney said. "We have no idea how useful those are going to be in pharmaceuticals or biotech."

The nation's first underwater observatory is built on 600 miles of coaxial cable. The fiber optics inside could someday track whale migrations, fish inventories, even ocean acidification.

"All those things are available to be studied using this fiber, which essentially allows you to be there without being there," Delaney said.

The Ocean Observatories Initiative is funded by tax-payers, and the goal is to stream its discoveries on the Internet for everyone to see. A crew heads out this summer to repair instruments and bring some video cameras online. That should help researchers, students and the public further explore the impacts of this volcanic activity.