NOAA buoyed by undersea info

Researchers are now able to get near-real-time data on underwater volcanoes, thanks to a modem on a buoy stationed a mile above the sea floor.

The buoy uses an acoustic modem to communicate wirelessly with the New Millenium Observatory (NeMO). The buoy then relays the data via satellite to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers.

The technology also enables researchers to communicate with the observatory, asking it to gather additional data if necessary.

Pictures and temperature readings are updated regularly on the NeMO World Wide Web site.

The NeMO Net system was launched July 14 and announced Wednesday at a press conference in Washington, D.C. A prototype system that allowed one-way communication from the undersea observatory operated for a month last year.

The technology allows researchers to better study what has been previously a daunting task — taking continuous observations of an undersea vent.

"There is huge potential for making all types of measurements underwater now, not only in this type of research, but all for all oceanic studies," said Stephen Hammond, leader of the Oceanic Environment Research Division of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

The NeMO system is based 250 miles off the coast of Oregon and a mile below the ocean's surface. With a camera and several thermometers, it is studying the effects of a hydrothermal vent on the ocean.

Undersea volcanoes or vents — which make up roughly 80 percent of all volcanoes on Earth — are important to research because they have a large impact on oceans, Hammond said. Research has already determined that they affect ocean nutrients and currents and are also home to previously unknown organisms that reside beneath the sea floor.

The organisms — most closely related to bacteria — can withstand extreme pressure and heat, and could eventually have biotechnical and pharmaceutical uses, he said.

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