One of the world’s most advanced oceanic research platforms, the size of a small cruise ship with advanced equipment around every corner, rests at Pier 1, earning the Port of Astoria about $500 a day in dockage fees.

Crews come and go, adding and taking away components on its deck, readying it for the arrival of one of the world’s most advance deep-sea robots.

They’re preparing the Marcus G. Langseth, a research vessel purchased in 2004 by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, for its next voyage to communicate with sea floor devices planted along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a sloping fault where the Juan de Fuca and North American plates meet.

“The boat is capable of going into any condition,” said Robert Steinhaus, senior science officer on the Langseth. “We worked in the ice in the arctic all the way to the tropics last year. Since it’s been out in 1998, (it’s been to) Costa Rica, deep into the Arctic Ocean – we were about 680, 690 miles from the north pole. Last year, we did six months in the South China Sea at Taiwan, the Marianas Trench earlier this year, the Hawaiian Islands and Christmas Island down by the equator.”

The Langseth itself is a 234-foot, high-tech behemoth of a research platform, capable of carrying 20 crew and 35 scientists under way for more than a month. It is one of five global-class vessels sailing within the University-National Oceanic Laboratory System, an academic research fleet representing 61 universities, and is the only platform without a definite home port, a sort of self-sufficient, genius vagabond taking on science projects around the world.

It was previously a seismic vessel used by Western Geophysical, a Californian company searching the ocean floor for pockets of petroleum. Now it’s grant-funded, contracting out on various academic research projects around the world.

“They’ve always had a research vessel for years,” said Capt. Jim O’Loughlin of the Langseth, the fifth in a succession of research vessels for the observatory. “This was just another step up in capabilities. As the science gets more complicated, you need a more complicated vessel.”

Searching for

the next big one

The Langseth docked at the Port recently after cruising off the Washington and Oregon coasts for nearly a month, mapping the seafloor, gathering data and investigating the characteristics of the Cascadia subduction zone, a hot topic running parallel along 700 miles of coastline in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. It’s thought to be the cause of a North American mega-quake in 1700 similar to the disaster in Japan that might repeat itself along the North Coast in the near future.

“Our study was focused on investigating the structure of the Juan De Fuca plate before it goes down into the (North American) plate,” said Suzanne Carbotte, a research professor for the earth observatory who was on the vessel’s last cruise. Her team gathered data to test a hypothesis that the water being expelled through fault lines from the earth’s upper mantle might be a contributing factor in earthquakes around the different plates of the earth’s crust.

Carbotte said the research won’t give an estimated time for a potential quake, but it will help the world understand the characteristics of the earth that cause large quakes.

They used the Langseth’s sonar system, which spreads out in an array of data-collecting streamers behind the vessel that can record two- and three-dimensional images of the ocean floor.

The ship packs four linear sound arrays – a sort of oceanic subwoofer – on the main deck of the Langseth. The arrays blast out seismic waves that can bounce off the bottom of the ocean more than 6 miles down and back up to the array, where the streamers collect the data on the waves and, using a series of GPS receivers, acoustic networks and compasses, create clear two- and three-dimensional images of the ocean floor. When in operation, the array can burn through approximately 85 gallons of fuel an hour.

“It’s just a big broom,” said Steinhaus. “We go around just covering sea floor in the survey area.”

He said the drag in the water of this array can come to weigh 55 tons, and that the Langseth is basically a large tug boat towing it around.

Data is also recorded on sea floor devices previously deposited by a partnering Oregon State University vessel.

While underway, the Langseth also records meteorological, magnetic and gravitational data, along with the carbon dioxide concentrations, temperature and currents in bodies of water. The earth observatory even has an agreement to share mapped portions of the ocean with Google Earth.

The brains of

the operation

The Langseth contains its own miniature server farm, a cooled room of computer towers used for storing the massive amounts of data the vessel collects. A large, circular, high speed satellite on the observation deck allows the vessel to quickly transfer that data anywhere in the world.

Aft of the server farm is a large control room, complete with more than 40 computer screens, enough to run a city’s traffic control department.

“The purpose of this room is where we record and acquire all the geophysical survey data, as well as the sonar and mapping systems,” said Steinhaus. “We record all weather data for NOAA. We transmit that back to them once an hour, so we’re a mobile weather station for them while we’re at sea.

Steinhaus, who used to work for oil and gas companies, said the crew on board the Langseth is much smaller than one in the private sector searching out petroleum. They compensate by putting the 15 to 20 graduate students and scientists who come out for cruises to work.

Versatile crew

“The technicians assigned to the vessel do all the maintenance, but we teach them (scientists) how to operate it,” he said. “We get the scientists fully involved in all the data acquisition.”

The Langseth, when on cruises, carries five protected species observers who watch from an outpost high above any of the decks, looking for any aquatic life who might affect the Langseth’s operation. The outpost, the protected species observer deck, is equipped with Fuji-made binoculars – what Steinhaus calls “big eyes” – that can see nearly 7 1/2 miles out on a clear day.

“Jason and the seismic equipment on the Langseth, that’s the most advanced scientific equipment the academic community has for oceanography,” said Carbotte. “That’s as advanced as it gets.”

With all this and more advanced equipment, Steinhaus estimates that the Langseth costs between $50,000 and $60,000 a day to operate.

Crews are loading the Jason II, one of the world’s most advanced deep-sea robots, onto the main deck, also installing cranes that will lift it up and over the side of the deck.

The Langseth leaves Thursday to test communication between it and a series of sea floor devices placed within holes previously drilled into the sea floor.



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