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Science as Inquiry

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  • Measuring Sea Level from Space


  • Most people don't think about the seafloor very much. And if they do, they probably don't think about its interesting topographical features and the unique environments which they create for some unusual inhabitants. We have much to learn about the dark depths of the oceans, and we are beginning to see that many amazing discoveries await us, including possibly some of the most ancient forms of life on Earth.

    For those people who are interested in the seafloor, the opportunity to catch a first-hand glimpse does not arise very often. However, in 1998, a seafloor observatory was set up at Axial Volcano 240 miles off the coast of Oregon. Scientists were drawn to this site by indications of a possible major eruption, and they wanted to be prepared to study such an event in its initial stages when its effects on the ocean's chemical, thermal and biological environments would be most extreme. From the observatory, they have relayed descriptions of a foreign landscape marked by hydrothermal vents, black smokers, and snow-blower vents and inhabited by tube worms and other thermophiles. For an in-depth look at this bizarre environment and some classroom activities, go on an Ocean AdVENTure.

    This pioneering long-term, unmanned observatory is called "NeMO," short for New Millenium Observatory. NeMO will make it possible to begin understanding relationships between volcanic and hydrothermal hot springs and the microbial biosphere which lies beneath the volcano's surface. NeMO's 1998 expedition was the first in a series of annual expeditions. Check out the website to see if there's an expedition going on now, or access one of the archived expeditions. The NeMO Education Outreach page has learning material and questions and answers from scientists.

    For some more excitement, you can bring Axial Volcano right into your classroom. The NOAA/National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC), has compiled 30 years of seafloor mapping data, covering the entire globe. (Read the CNN article about the technology used to map the Arctic Ocean seafloor last year and the importance of collecting images of seafloor features and sub-bottom structures.) You can access topographical measurements of any section of the seafloor from the ETOPO2v2 Global Gridded 2-minute Database by entering latitude and longitude values for the area you are interested in. In the activity below, we have downloaded global relief data for the Axial Volcano to an Excel spreadsheet. (Note: these data are 5-minute increments as opposed to 2 minute increments now available from the website).

    To view and analyze the Axial Volcano Relief Data Excel spreadsheet, click on the link and if presented with the Save/View dialog box, select the Save option and save the Excel spreadsheet to your computer. If no dialog box appears, once the spreadsheet opens in your internet browser, immediately go to File > Save As, and save the data to your computer as an Excel document. Once the file is saved, open it in Excel and follow our step-by-step Excel graphing directions to create a 3-D representation of the underwater landscape ... it's the next best thing to being there!

    Extension
    Use the NGDC's database to graph other unique seafloor topographies such as Kaikoura Canyon off the coast of New Zealand (habitat of the giant squid! Grid area: 173°0' E, 42°0' S to 175°0' E, 44°0' S) the Mariana Trench (the deepest spot on earth with depths of more than 10,000 m! Grid Area: 141°0' E, 12°0' N to 143°0' E, 10°0' N) in the Pacific, or your own coastal area.

    For more marine geology data, check out the NGDC's World Data Center A for Marine Geology & Geophysics. And for more information on deep sea environments, see the Bridge's Deep Sea page.

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