2009 Pacific Northwest Expedition

Leg 3 Logbook - Gas Hydrates
Day 9 — Visiting old haunts and discovering new ones
August 10, 2009

Latitude 48 degrees 42.50 minutes N
Longitude 126 degrees 50.20 minutes W

Well, last night wasn’t exactly a gently rolling sea as I’d hoped, but I guess I’m starting to get used to the jerking motions and strange clunking noises the Western Flyer makes in a confused swell. It’s still a better ride than any other 35-meter (120-foot) boat I’ve been on. We had another long two-dive day today, but now the wind is dead calm, the seas are small, and best yet, we can actually see the sun as it’s setting!

This morning’s dive, like yesterday’s, was at Spinnaker Vent. We went back to do a little more systematic mapping of the various pits and mounds, and to collect some additional samples for chemical analysis and age dating. The place hadn’t changed much—it was still a bunch of shallow pits, surrounded by flat, muddy seafloor. Within each pit were methane-seep clams, maybe some tube worms, and a flatfish or a piece of kelp. The Neptunia snails were still perched on their egg towers, and the large red crabs were still skulking around the carbonate outcrops.

This colorful group of deep-sea animals (a deep-sea sole, a spiny sea star, and orange and white anemones) greeted us when we reached the seafloor during our first dive today. How large rocks like this one to be sitting out by itself in the middle of the muddy seafloor is one of the questions we’re trying to answer on this cruise.

We went from one pit to another collecting vibracores and rock samples. Charlie will be using some of these samples to try to figure out how old the various pits and outcrops are. We suspect that we’re seeing pits of various ages, with corresponding changes in their chemistry and biological communities. If we look back on all the methane-seep areas we’ve seen over the last week, it’s clear that some are currently active, while others haven’t been active for a long time—maybe tens of thousands of years. Figuring out the ages of these vents will also help Charlie figure out how they formed and evolved over time.

When we came out of the control room for lunch, blinking in the bright sunlight, we discovered that the neighborhood was becoming rather crowded. Within a kilometer of the Western Flyer were two much larger vessels. One was the research vessel Atlantis, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The other was a large ship used for laying trans-oceanic cables. The cable-laying ship was laying cables from Vancouver Island to a series of study sites on the deep seafloor. These cables will carry power and data for an automated undersea observatory called NEPTUNE Canada. Just last year, MBARI finished building a similar, but smaller, cabled observatory in Monterey Bay, the Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS).

Bill, Mary, and Yirang look for tiny snails on a large piece of carbonate that we collected at Spinnaker Vent. We’ll bring these snails back to a researcher at MBARI, who will study their DNA to figure out how they’re related to similar snails that live all around the Pacific.

The Atlantis was using an ROV called ROPOS to install some of the undersea science nodes for the NEPTUNE Canada observatory. These nodes act like switches and junction boxes, to distribute power and data to different parts of the observatory and to individual science experiments on the seafloor. Once hooked up, such experiments will allow scientists to find out what’s happening in the deep sea 24 hours a day, without leaving the comfort of their offices on shore.

I found it amazing to look over at the Atlantis floating about a kilometer away from us, and realize that ROV Doc Ricketts was even farther away than this, but down on the seafloor below. We kept a careful distance from the other vessels. As one ROV pilot put it, “We’d tie the biggest knot in the Pacific if we got our tethers crossed.”

For our afternoon dive, we moved to an area picked by Michael Riedel, our geophysicist from the Geological Survey of Canada. This was another set of overlapping pits in the seafloor that Michael saw in our new AUV sonar data. These pits were located on a large, upraised block of seafloor, much like Hydrate Ridge to the south. However, unlike Hydrate Ridge and the other sites we looked at on this cruise, no one has ever studied this area before. Thus, we were excited to be breaking new ground (or seafloor, as the case may be).

As soon as we reached the seafloor, we saw methane-seep clams to the right, carbonate outcrops to the left, and several large cracks in the seafloor. Michael smiled. ”I can see this is going to be a great place!” He was right. It was a fascinating terrain of narrow, carbonate-covered ridges separated by deeper, sediment-filled swales. In some ways, it was the opposite of what we’d seen in the morning, with the carbonates and animal life on the ridges instead of in the low areas.

During our second dive we found fields of angular boulders sitting on the tops of undersea ridges. We’re still trying to figure out how they got there.

One of the strangest things we saw was that many of the ridges were covered with large, angular boulders. These boulder fields looked to me like miniature versions of the rocky talus slopes you’d see in avalanche chutes in the high Sierra. But what were they doing here along the tops of ridges on the bottom of the ocean? Where did the rubble come from?

We were also perplexed to find large, three-meter-wide boulders and carbonate outcrops perched on some of the ridges. On one of these boulders was growing a beautiful, hot pink “bubblegum coral.” At over two meters tall, it reminded me of the spectacular forests of deep-water corals we’ve seen on Davidson Seamount, off Monterey Bay. This large coral could easily have been over 100 years old, which suggests that these ridges are not very active right now.

This beautiful Paragorgia, or “bubblegum coral,” was over two meters high, and could be over 100 years old.

We only spent a couple of hours exploring this study area, which we called the “Ridge-Crest Crater Site.” But we can see that it has the potential to be just as scientifically exciting as Hydrate Ridge and the other well-known sites we’ve studied on this cruise.

Tomorrow, we’ll be doing a quick dive back on the fault east of Bullseye Ridge—our last ROV dive before we head south. We’re going to see if we can use our vibracoring system to create more methane geysers on the seafloor. If we succeed, it will be a fitting end for what has been a surprisingly exciting cruise.

After processing our sediment samples, we were treated to an hour or so of beautiful late-afternoon sunlight.

—Kim Fulton-Bennett

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Leg 3

R/V Western Flyer

The R/V Western Flyer is a small water-plane area twin hull (SWATH) oceanographic research vessel measuring 35.6 meters long and 16.2 meters wide. It was designed and constructed for MBARI to serve as the support vessel for ROV operations. Her missions include the Monterey Bay as well as extended cruises to Hawaii, Gulf of California and the Pacific Northwest.

ROV Doc Ricketts

ROV Doc Ricketts is MBARI's next generation ROV. The system breaks new ground in providing an integrated unmanned submersible research platform, with many powerful features providing efficient, reliable and precise sampling and data collection in a wide range of missions.

R/V Zephyr

R/V Zephyr is the primary support vessel for MBARI's autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) program. This 26-meter vessel is also used to maintain environmental moorings, collect time-series data along the California Current, and support scuba divers as they study near-shore habitats.

AUV D.Allan.B.

The MBARI Mapping AUV is a torpedo-shaped vehicle equipped with four mapping sonars that operate simultaneously during a mission. The multibeam sonar produces high-resolution bathymetry (analogous to topography on land), the sidescan sonars produce imagery based on the intensity of the sound energy's reflections, and the subbottom profiler penetrates sediments on the seafloor, allowing the detection of layers within the sediments, faults, and depth to the basement rock.

Push cores

A push core looks like a clear plastic tube with a rubber handle on one end. Just as its name implies, the push core is pushed down into loose sediment using ROV Tiburon's manipulator arm. As the sediment fills up the core, water exits out the top through one-way valves. When the core is pulled up again, these valves close, which (most of the time) keeps the sediment from sliding out of the core tube. When we bring these cores back to the surface, we typically look for living animals and organic material in the sediments.

Benthic elevator

The benthic elevator allows us to carry more than the ROV itself can carry. Loaded with sediment enrichers, it is deployed from the ship before the dive and free-falls to the bottom where the ROV pulls the equipment from the elevator for use. After the ROV is recovered, the elevator anchor's acoustic release is triggered from the ship, and the elevator freely ascends to the surface and is recovered.

Niskin bottles

Niskin bottles are used to collect water samples as well as the tiny bacteria and plankton in the water. The caps at both ends are open until the bottles are tripped, when the caps snap closed.

Heat flow probe

Held by the ROV's manipulator, the wire on the right is placed into the fluid emitted from a hydrothermal vent to record the temperature.

 Research Team

Charlie Paull
Senior Scientist, MBARI

Charlie Paull has been a marine geologist and geochemical stratigrapher at MBARI since January 1999. The central theme of Charlie's work involves investigating the fluxes of fluids and gases through continental margins. Over the past decade his primary focus has been gas hydrate research on the Blake Ridge gas hydrate field on the continental rise off of southeastern North America. Assessing the global distribution of gas hydrate and interstitial gas is a continuing interest as well as the development of new techniques to detect the presence of gas hydrate in marine sediments. Charlie's other ongoing work is focused on the geology associated with seafloor seepage sites, including investigating the deposits associated with chemosynthetic communities, determining the processes that occur at the methane-sulfate boundary, and understanding the origin of pockmarks and other potential seafloor fluid venting sites.

Bill Ussler
Senior Research Specialist, MBARI

During expeditions, Bill Ussler is primarily responsibility for the operation of the custom-built, portable chemistry lab van which contains a complete analytical laboratory for the analysis of the fluids and gases contained in marine sediments. Along with colleague Charlie Paull, Bill studies how methane (natural gas) forms and moves within seafloor sediments.

Michael Riedel
Research Scientist
Natural Resources Canada - Geological Survey of Canada

Michael Riedel was part of an international team of scientists supported by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) which completed a unique research expedition in 2005 aimed at recovering samples of gas hydrate, an ice-like substance hidden beneath the seafloor off Canada's western coast. As IODP Expedition 311's co-chief scientist, Michael explored his interest in gas hydrate; he believes such deposits have played an important role in ancient global climate change.

Ross Chapman
Professor, University of Victoria

Ross's research interests are in seismo-acoustic propagation, with specific application to the study of marine gas hydrates, and development and application of acoustic inverse methods for estimation of geophysical properties of the ocean bottom and for source localization. (Note: At the last minute Ross was unable to participate in the cruise, although he did attend the initial science meeting before the ship left the dock.)

Mary McGann
Geologist, United States Geological Survey

As a member of the USGS Coastal and Marine Geology Program, Mary McGann's professional interests include: foraminiferal and pollen biostratigraphy, paleoecology and biogeography; sedimentary paleoenvironment mapping, quaternary paleoclimatology; and AMS C-14 chronostratigraphy.

Laura Lapham
Postdoctoral Researcher, National Energy Technology Lab, U.S. Department of Energy

Laura's research is concentrated on studying methane cycling at cold seeps, biogeochemcial cycling of methane and sulfer in deep sea sediments, development of deep sea instrumentation to collect novel samples, stable isotope geochemistry, modeling of biogeochemical processes and temporal variability of dissolved methane concentrations. The focus of her research has been mainly on gas hydrate environments, but she is also interested in other systems that relate to the carbon cycle. Her research seeks to understand how methane is distributed between different pools, e.g. dissolved or hydrate phases, and also to understand how local biogeochemical processes affect this methane, mostly through anaerobic methane oxidation.

Kim Fulton-Bennett
Communications Associate, MBARI

Kim helps people outside of the institute to understand MBARI's research and development efforts. He does this by writing news releases and articles about MBARI research, as well as by helping members of the press who want to write their own articles or create video stories about MBARI. His academic background is in marine geology, environmental planning, and science writing.

Yirang Cho
Student, University of California, Davis

Yirang is an undergraduate at UC Davis in Environmental Studies and Ecological Engineering. She is an exchange student from Korea University who is interested in methane hydrates as an alternative energy source and in the ecological communities around methane seeps. She is very happy to have the opportunity to go on this cruise.

Tess Menotti
Graduate Student, Stanford University


Craig Joseph
US Department of Energy
Graduate Student, Oregon State University