Scientists have worked at deeper sites than Gulf oil spill



Posted on June 2, 2010 at 4:33 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 2 at 11:01 PM

SEATTLE – What's it like to try working at depths like that of the Gulf oil spill?

Engineers and scientists have been working with undersea robots and submarines for over a decade right off the Washington Coast and they're about to build a virtual city of sensors off shore.

Since the 1990s, University of Washington scientists have been studying life thousands of feet below the surface off the Northwest coast - life that lives in a sunless world nourished by chemically rich, smoky-looking water that pours from volcanic vents. The minerals in that water form chimneys of rock.

In 1998, they cut off some of those chimneys 7,000 feet below the surface so they could study it. That's 2,000 feet deeper than the work now going on in the Gulf of Mexico.

UW maritime geologist John Delaney showed us video from that operation.

"There are no humans in this submarine," says Delaney. "It's a robot. A Canadian robot. And we tighten up the cable just like a logging chain. Pulled out a chain saw with specially hardened chips on the chain saw and cut about half way through."

The float hauls a line to the surface where it can be picked up by ship.

This is science and Delaney is not an oil man. But he says the mission was successful because of careful planning.

"The message I learned when we did this is plan ahead, test everything and plan ahead and look at what can go wrong and be ready for it," said Delaney.

Delaney is in the late planning stage of a $200 million project to establish robot observatories under the ocean, and he thinks about what's going on with the well in the Gulf.

"What they're doing is a very, very difficult operation. However, the entire industry has decided to go after deep oil. This type of eventuality is something they should have been thinking of some time ago about how to cope with. It should not have been a surprise," said Delaney.

Delaney's project, funded by the National Science Foundation should  be in place in three years and expand out from there. But his point is that working at these depths with underwater robots like the one that they used, is not new.