Researchers Map the Deep Ocean Off Alaska’s Coast

16 August 2023

The U.S. weather agency is exploring the ocean around the Aleutian Islands aiming to map the sea floor and make discoveries about undersea life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research ship, called Okeanos Explorer, is on a five-month mission. It is a former U.S. Navy ship, which has been changed to meet current needs. Civilians and members of the NOAA Corps are carrying out the mission.

The ship has a 48-member crew. It has technology and tools to gather information about the deep ocean and to immediately share it with researchers. The hope is that the data will be used for future research.

The NOAA Okeanos Explorer sits at a dock on Friday, June 23, 2023, in Kodiak, Alaska. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)
The NOAA Okeanos Explorer sits at a dock on Friday, June 23, 2023, in Kodiak, Alaska. (AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel)

Mission leader Shannon Hoy said that the sea floor near Alaska is full of life. She added, "You would never know that unless we were able to go down there and explore."

Researchers are using several kinds of sonar technology, used to map objects underwater, and two remotely operated vehicles, Deep Discoverer and Seirios. They are designed to map and collect samples. The researchers are exploring the Aleutian Trench and Gulf of Alaska, areas of water near the U.S. state of Alaska.

The researchers are also using cameras that can operate at depths of up to 6,000 meters. The cameras permit the researchers to document and immediately share their findings. The ship can also share live video of the dives with the public.

Hoy said that, in two to four weeks, the Okeanos Explorer can map as much as 50,000 square kilometers of ocean floor.

Hoy said the team plans to investigate some of the area's cold "seep communities." These are places where gas from under the sea floor rises through openings. Life in these places is not believed to depend on the sun for food production.

Hoy said the researchers are also going to study the water column to see what interesting animals they can find there.

Kasey Cantwell is the ship's operations chief. She said the data will help researchers and the public better understand these areas of the ocean. The information could also help make decisions about fisheries and could also identify dangers at sea and improve maps.

"It's really hard to care for things you don't understand, to love things you don't understand," Cantwell said.

The deep ocean off Alaska's Aleutian Islands is one of the least mapped places in the U.S. Modern mapping has covered just 34 percent of the sea floor off Alaska. The area includes one of America's largest coastal ecosystems, and only a small part of that has been seen, the mission's web site says.

Emily Crum is a communications specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She said filling holes in current information is a mission goal. The effort will also help meet a goal of mapping all of the United States' deep waters by 2030 and near-shore waters by 2040.

I'm Gregory Stachel.

Carla K. Johnson reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

mission n. a specific military or naval task

sample n. a small amount of something that gives you information about the thing it was taken from

column n. something that is tall and thin in shape

ecosystem n. everything that exists in a particular environment

shore n. the land along the edge of an area of water