CORVALLIS, Ore. - Improved technology and an increased focus on the vast unexplored regions of the world's oceans is leading researchers closer to their vision of a "digital Earth," where every aspect of the globe - land surfaces, climate, life forms, ocean floor topography, currents - fit into a meaningful, complete picture.
With that type of information and the sophisticated "geographic information systems" that can help make sense of it all, scientists say they can better answer some of the most difficult questions about land and environmental changes, tectonic and geophysical processes, and other issues.
And the process of acquiring this new knowledge is exhilarating, they say.
"When we talk about the deep ocean, we're still in the pioneering stage," said Dawn Wright, an assistant professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. "The technology we have now compared to what we used to work with is so much better that every time we go out there, we get surprised. We're literally rediscovering the world."
When people see maps of the ocean, Wright said, it's usually just portrayed as a big, blank, blue space between land forms, with nothing much going on. But the reality is a huge world filled with canyons, volcanoes, earthquakes, landslides, strange marine species, poorly understood currents, and complex life processes that persist in some of the most hostile environments imaginable.
Some of the techniques now being used to shed light on these processes include cameras towed on a metal sled along the sea floor, sophisticated "multi-beam" bathymetry, and direct trips to the sea floor using deep-diving manned submersibles such as Alvin.
In recent projects, Wright has helped study the Tonga Trench near Fiji, a fast-moving subduction zone where oceanic crust is being destroyed at a high rate of convergence. She also worked on the Eastern Pacific Rise near Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean, a sea floor spreading center with some of the fastest rates of sea floor spreading in the world.
"This area has extremely active volcanism," Wright said. "Using the Alvin and towed cameras, which was some of the same technology that helped discover the Titanic, we're trying to analyze sea floor cracking, undersea vents, hot springs, fissures and lava flows."
Researchers have mapped in detail only about 5 percent of the sea floor spreading centers around the world, Wright said, and would like to better understand the order and timing of volcanic events to gain a larger understanding of global tectonic and geophysical processes.
At the same time, they also observe and map the life forms found in these unusual, deep and often hostile environments - tube worms, serpullid worms, anemones, and strange fish.
"At this point some of these studies are basic research," Wright said. "Who knows what you may learn from animals that can live in no light under extraordinary pressures?"
The work itself, Wright said, is probably most similar to technology used to explore outer space. The Alvin, she said, is like Earth's complement to the space shuttle. And the reality is that scientists know far more about the topography of Venus or Mars than we do about the ocean floor of the Earth.
These adventures have drawn widespread interest. Earlier this year Wright was invited to speak at the prestigious "TED" conference in Monterey, Calif., which bills itself as an "eclectic gathering of remarkable thinkers and doers." It tries to explore the newest evolutions in technology, entertainment and design. Former TED presenters have included Bill Gates, Oliver Stone and Billy Graham, and attendees this year included Forrest Sawyer of ABS News, composer Quincy Jones, primatologist Jane Goodall, actor Noah Wylie, and astronaut Story Musgrave.
At this year's events, Wright gave a presentation titled "Towards a Second age of Discovery" in a speaking session that included Leon Lederman, a Nobel laureate in physics, as well as prominent authors and media executives.
"This work really does capture the imagination," Wright said. "It's fascinating science that may have great values in ways we don't even understand yet. But even more than that, it's a blast."