State of the Planet

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Collecting Data Offshore Alaska, But Just Barely

Seismic gear towed off the port side coming very close to the Unga shore

One of the core objectives of our project is to image the part of the plate tectonic boundary that locks up and then ruptures to produce great earthquakes. In the Aleutian subduction zone, the Pacific plate is being thrust northwards underneath the North American plate. To examine deep parts of the interface between these plates, we need to go as far north (and as close to the coast) as possible. This is easier said than done. We are towing a lot of scientific equipment behind the ship, including two 8-km-long cables (streamers) filled with pressure sensors, so approaching the coast and making turns is complicated and requires special attention to safeguard our gear. The southern edge of the Alaska Peninsula is rugged and flanked by lots of small jagged islands and shallow features just below the surface of the ocean. Currents and water density can vary locally near the coast, which could affect the positions and depths of our streamers behind the ship. And there is more fishing activity close to the coast, and thus increased risk of tangling seismic gear with fishing lines and nets. To reduce the risk, we scouted all of the trickiest parts of our survey ahead of time before we deployed the streamers, and we monitor the currents and fishing as we approach the coast. Captain Jim O’Loughlin, Chief Science Officer Robert Steinhaus, and the Langseth’s other crew and technical staff have a tremendous amount of experience and skill in maneuvering in tight spots while towing seismic equipment.

Navigation screen showing the Langseth and her streamers (blue) approaching the Unga coastline (green)

We recently completed one of our closest approaches to land near Unga, one of the Shumagin islands. At the apex of the turn, our 8-km-long (5-mile-long) streamers came within less than a mile of the coast. Due to some early difficulties with our equipment and an abundance of marine mammals, we had to make several attempts to collect data on the landward part of the line (and thus several passes near the shoreline). I held my breath and watched our third (and final) pass from the bridge.  After the ship and gear passed safely through the most harrowing part of the turn, the captain turned to me and asked, “We’re not going to do this again, are we?” Thankfully not! At least not here. But there are several other important parts of our survey ahead that will require close approaches to the coast to image critical parts of the plate tectonic boundary. As with this near-shore encounter, we will rely on the skill and experience of the mates and the technical staff, as well as a little luck.

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