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Below the waves: University researchers map unknown parts of the earth’s surface

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Below the waves: University researchers map unknown parts of the earth’s surface

Photos and video taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems and Alvin cameras.

Photos and video taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems and Alvin cameras.

Photos courtesy of P. Gregg

Photos and video taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems and Alvin cameras.

Photos courtesy of P. Gregg

Photos courtesy of P. Gregg

Photos and video taken from DSV Alvin using WHOI MISO Facility deep-sea camera systems and Alvin cameras.

By Jessica Bursztynsky, Staff Writer

The Earth’s surface is still a mystery to scientists. According to one University researcher, scientists know more about space than the earth.

“Our seafloor constitutes about two-thirds of our Earth’s surface, so we know very little about two-thirds of our planet’s surface which is quite shocking,” said Patricia Gregg, an assistant professor in geology. “We know quite more about the surface of the moon, the surface of Mars, than we do about our own planet’s surface.”

Only 10 percent of the seafloor has been mapped and only one percent of it has been mapped in detail, according to Gregg.

A team of University researchers spent 30 days mapping new territory of the Atlantic Ocean during the OASIS Expedition.

Gregg started the expedition based on her research. It costs over $2 million and is funded by the National Science Association.

Gregg has studied volcanoes for the past 15 years and noticed there wasn’t enough data to make scientific claims, including recreating volcanos on the ocean floor.

“At the end of my thesis work, one of the glaring issues was there was not enough data from the region to really constrain our models, so we had really pushed the boundaries on what our models could tell us,” Gregg said.

In hopes of filling in the gap, Gregg became the Chief Scientist of the OASIS Expedition and put together a team of 20 scientists to map the seafloor.

Gregg took four Ph.D. students from the University to help complete the research.

Haley Cabaniss, a graduate student in LAS, has been studying volcanoes since 2010 and said joining the team was “an obvious decision.”

Cabaniss was in charge of the outreach for the expedition. Before leaving for their mission, the OASIS scientists worked with local schools to put on workshops and plan curriculum for the students to go through.

While at sea, the scientists filmed YouTube videos detailing their lives and experiences, which Cabaniss said was mostly directed toward the young students but provides more information about the project.

“Even people who are not scientists necessarily can become citizen advocates for science,” Cabaniss said. “We went to a place that no one had ever been before because it had never been funded.”

Both Gregg and Cabaniss were diving for the first time in the submarine called Alvin, a six-and-a-half-foot diameter encased titanium ball that allowed the scientists to travel three kilometers deep into the ocean.

“There is nothing like being able to look out the windows and make those on the fly decisions that you can’t really do from the surface,” Gregg said. “I really appreciate how versatile mapping in that respect is. Targeting specific areas on the volcano where your research is.”

The dives with Alvin would take hours, as the submarine would move across the seafloor only about two-thirds of a kilometer, or roughly half a mile, per day.

As the pilot navigated the ocean, the two scientists in Alvin would spend their day laying on their shoulders in the cramped sphere, peering out a window and taking physical notes, voice recordings and videos of their findings, in order to recreate their missions.

“The time goes by really fast because you barely have a chance to catch your breath, and you’re going back to the surface,” Gregg said.

While at sea, one of the team members had a medical emergency and the crew had to rush to the nearest port, losing four days of research.

Because the territory had never been mapped, Gregg found that several of the findings did not align with what she expected.

“We have lots of questions and we came back with very few answers, so right now we’re working on data and really systematically going through things and figuring out what was happening in the system,” Gregg said.

Gregg will be taking a team of five or six scientists in 2018 back on Alvin for four days to complete their original mission.

“It was a very successful cruise and we were able to accomplish a lot of our goals, but we really do need as many observations as possible so we’re going to basically be completing the expedition,” Gregg said.

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