Researching Earth's vast unknown underwater worlds

MoLab Basic Configuration. Credit: MoLab-AG, GEOMAR

Jules Verne may have dreamt about this day, when technology would finally reveal the secrets of the ocean depths. Scientists and technicians at GEOMAR/Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel have created a seafloor observatory, which is equipped for multidisciplinary research.

Until now, researchers wanting to explore the ocean's depths had limited options due to technical limitations and the high prices of research vessels. The new observatory, named MoLab, will allow marine scientists to perform long-term investigations of complex processes occurring on the ocean floor. MoLab allows researchers to measure biological, physical, chemical and geological parameters over long periods of time and over a range of several square kilometers. It contains multiple devices, each of which will allow researchers to address specific questions. Furthermore, these devices can be combined to address more complex questions. One of these modules is a so-called 'Lander', which consists of autonomous deep sea observatories of different sizes and they are all equipped with similar basic sensor systems. These landers can be placed in different parts of the ocean and they communicate via acoustic signals with the central MoLab system, which can then transmit their findings to stations above the water's surface.

"This module communicates with all other modules in the measuring field using acoustic signals. Thus, for the first time we will be getting a synchronized and coherent data record from several measurement devices on the ocean floor," says Dr. Olaf Pfannkuche, marine scientist at GEOMAR and chief scientist of the project.

MoLab will allow researchers to investigate multiple factors simultaneously, inexpensively and on a long-term basis.

"No process in the ocean stands alone. The topography of the ocean floor influences currents, and currents influence the distribution of nutrients and thus biology. Organisms replenish the ocean floor anew after their deaths. If we want to make progress in research about global change we have to consider all these multiple interactions," stresses Dr. Pfannkuche.

This past May, MoLab set off on its first mission, aboard the RV POSEIDON. They are headed to a cold water coral reef in Stjernsund, in northern Norway. For the 4 months the researchers are there, MoLab will measure currents, tides, water temperatures, salinity, nutrients, and oxygen consumption in and around this reef, while cameras will roll continuously.

"We will install MoLab on a cold water coral reef off the coast of northern Norway. We want to find out why the corals grow at this specific place and what the impact of climate change on the corals will be."

In the second part of this article, The Munich Times will interview the research team on their return from their Nordic expedition and provide you with exclusive coverage of their findings.


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