In the deep water just outside of Monterey Bay, California, construction is under way on an undersea observatory that will herald a new era in ocean science.
The MARS observatory (no relation to the planet, it’s just a cute acronym) will get continuous power from land and offer live, 2-way data communications through a broadband data connection that is always on. It’s the start of a revolution in the way ocean science is done – offering something like the new perspectives that the first satellites gave to earth and atmospheric sciences.
I don’t mean to get all grandiose on you – but then it’s difficult to talk about revolutionary advances in ocean science when few people have a clear idea of business as usual. Put it this way: the ocean’s average depth is 4,000 meters and for about 3,800 of those it’s absolutely pitch black. It consists of a weak solution of salty electrolytes that gleefully corrode metal and short out power supplies. Its average temperature is a frigid 4 degrees Celsius, which would call for a seriously thick wetsuit except for the fact that the pressure is a crushing 400 times what it is on land.
So much for hands-on research. And remote sensing is pretty much out, too. Radio waves – so handy for chatting with space probes as they parachute onto distant moons – crash to a complete halt mere inches into the water, leaving us literally in the dark about the ocean depths. The best deep-sea surveys we can muster come from sonar – sophisticated versions of a 1940s technology.
The MARS observatory has had a fitful history as various funding and permitting delicacies were negotiated by the farsighted planners at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and elsewhere. But this month workers began the first concrete step – burying the power-data cable along its route out to the site. The story attracted the attention of the BBC and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.
The Chronicle‘s reporter was none other than David Perlman, perhaps the country’s pre-eminent newspaper science reporter. He has a science writing prize named after him and a track record of fantastic scoops spanning a half-century. (case in point: when deep-sea life was found thriving at hydrothermal vents, in 1977, Perlman was at sea with the shell-shocked scientists – the only reporter on board, phoning the news desk each evening to pour news of that day’s discoveries into the ears of whichever editor answered.)
So a small thrill penetrated the Scribbler’s jet lag when he read the Monterey story. Last summer, I got to write much of the background material on the MARS observatory website. Reading Perlman’s description of the project felt like a distant rubbing-of-elbows with one of scribbling’s grandmasters.