Exploring the Ocean Floor
Since entering the University of Rhode Island in 2010, where Clara Smart is currently pursuing her doctorate in ocean engineering, she has spent time out at sea every spring and summer as part of her research. Her first season on the E/V Nautilus was in 2011, serving as a navigator and high-resolution mapping specialist.
Smart’s research focus has been to study hydrothermal vents, which were first encountered in 1977. She helps explore vents through mapping and engineering sensor data analysis. She explains that these vents result from seawater percolating down through fissures in the ocean crust. The water is heated and mixed with a variety of minerals and chemicals, then expelled, forming vents.
One amazing thing about them, says Smart: "These vents have tons of life around them." Prior to their discovery, people thought that life could not exist without sunlight or photosynthesis. “But these organisms exist on chemosynthesis. They use methane as a source of energy.”
The implications are far-reaching.
“As the vent fluid returns from underneath the crust and flows out into the water—minerals precipitate out of the water and form deposits that people go after for deep-sea mining—like silver, gold, and copper, to the rarest elements that are critical for our core technologies,” says Smart. “We need to develop a good understanding of these vents’ role in the ocean and the species associated with them before deep-sea mining operations destroy them.”
“We don’t yet have a good understanding as a science community about where these communities or organisms are, what is required to maintain them, and how they have evolved,” Smart says. That’s precisely what makes the study of these vents so intriguing, and so critical.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute notes on its website that “hydrothermal vents act as natural plumbing systems that transport heat and chemicals from the interior of the Earth and that help regulate global ocean chemistry.…Learning about these organisms can teach us about the evolution of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe.”
Here, Smart talks with Blueprint Earth.
Tell us about your work.
Overall my work is to develop sensors and tools for deep-sea scientists. My dissertation is on the remote detection of hydrothermal venting. I use a suite of sensors, which include a structured light laser sensor, a set of stereo cameras and a high-resolution multi-beam sonar system. It’s not that any of this technology is new, exactly, but what is new is putting it underwater and making it work. The majority of my work involves data acquisition techniques and effectively processing that data. Part of my fieldwork is being out with scientists and knowing how to apply my engineering expertise [Smart earned her bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Northwestern University] to extract information. My work with geologists and biologists helps me understand what data is important and meaningful to them and why.
You mention in the JASON Learning video that you like to break things, figure out why they’re broken and then fix them. Can you expand upon that idea?
To be a good engineer you must be willing to push things to the limit at which they fail, figure out why they fail and make it better. If you play it safe, progress isn’t made! Breaking and fixing things can be incredibly frustrating, especially when instruments are supposed to be in the water, but it’s how you learn and understand how things work. This is similar to Blueprint Earth’s goal of figuring out how to fix broken ecosystems. To do that, you have to figure out why it’s broken. This principle is important for the advancement of science and humanity.
How do you see innovation, creativity, and design intersecting with science and engineering?
I like to think that I am a creative human. I grew up dancing, playing music is important to me, and I cook, knit, and build things. Without that creativity it is difficult to be a good engineer or a good scientist. While I am interested in developing new tools and sensors, the big picture involves defining a problem, which applies to any endeavor and requires a creative eye. Yes, upgrades to a system are possible with limited innovation, but creating something truly great requires creativity. Additionally, I enjoy fieldwork. When you are out in the field, or when robots are thousands of meters underwater, you often don’t have the tools, capabilities, or luxury to address issues in a straightforward, easy, or even typical fashion. At a moment like that, it’s valuable to be able to detach yourself from ‘normal’ to look at what is available to help you solve a problem.
What is it like to be mapping sites on the sea floor?
Mapping itself is very methodical, and, in a way, therapeutic. We receive a real-time feed of downward-looking images, which is a different perspective than what you normally have in a vehicle. However, the frames only cover 2 x 3 meters, so you don’t have much spatial awareness. During mapping operations, I have to be aware of the site—its extents, goals, and structure; the navigation—where the ship and the vehicles are; Hercules’s movements—we fly about 3 meters above the seafloor taking images every 3 seconds, while simultaneously collecting sonar and laser data at much higher rates; as well as tracking all the data that I am collecting. So the constant focus can be quite tiring.
What have been some of the most exciting or surprising things you’ve encountered so far in your work?
To see what vent sites look like, you can visit the Nautilus live website. I have spent a lot of time at sea and have seen some really cool things. It’s always an adventure. For example, seeing the Kick’em Jack undersea extinct volcano. There were coral structures with stunning colors popping out in the pitch black. There was one that looked like it came out of a Dr. Seuss book—curly things and twisty things and pointy things, too! It is all ridiculously amazing.
You were drawn to the ocean because you feel it is not as well understood as land and space. Why?
Advances in technology have made detailed observation of the ocean possible, but funding is always an issue, and the ocean research budget (which is mostly through the NOAA and NSF) is not nearly that of NASA. I think space was viewed as a new frontier and therefore is really cool (which I totally get!), but I think the presence of the oceans all around us—always having been there—means we tend to overlook them and forget that they are more than home to whales and sharks and the keeper of giant waves.
Oceans are critical for the environmental stability of the planet. We don’t know what is down there, and discoveries tell us about life without sun, possibly the origin of life on earth, and the geological processes that comprise the world in which we live.
To put this in context: The first ship launched to study the deep-sea floor was the HMS Challenger in 1872. The first deep-sea submersibles were in the 1930s; the magnetic properties of the planet (switching poles) were discovered by towing magnetometers across the Atlantic in the 1950s; and hydrothermal venting wasn’t discovered until 1977. Conversely, Galileo was making complex discoveries about the universe in the early 1600s. So deep-sea exploration is relatively new in human history, and we are still finding new creatures, unexpected geologic activity, and even entire mountains that are new.
If we have a better blueprint of the ocean, how might that improve our understanding of our planet’s other environments?
The ocean is difficult to study because exploration is expensive and time-consuming. Although we now have advances in technology, we still have to address how we value the ocean and how we treat it. This involves painful discussions of how we exploit our ocean’s resources, climate change, and how our food chain is polluted with mercury. It means we need to look at things like diminishing coral structures and connect that to oil spills and temperature changes. And because the oceans are so vast, it can be overwhelming. Conversations are happening because we’re being forced to understand tsunamis, for instance, but to have effective dialogue, we need to have solid science behind it.
In the JASON Learning video you said, “Each oceanographer/engineer works on a very tiny part of a much larger operation. The sheer number of tiny parts still continues to astound me.” How do you use that sense of wonder to motivate you when you might otherwise feel overwhelmed?
I find you become fascinated with a small component, attempt to gain as much understanding and engineering capability as possible, and that will make you useful to the larger community. It is all linked. It is our job to collaborate and make sure each link is strong. And yes, there is an insane amount to do. That’s OK—life would be really boring if we understood it all!
There’s a good chance that I won’t stay working only on vents but will follow different projects. That’s my advice to other students and explorers: to find projects that inspire you. Don’t necessarily chase the discipline, chase a project. The discipline that interests you will fall out of that project.