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UNH and NOAA join worldwide effort to map ocean floors

Union Leader Correspondent

August 13. 2017 10:33PM
UNH research engineer Val Schmidt explains how an autonomous surface vessel works at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping and Joint Hydrographic Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. (KIMBERLEY HAAS/Union Leader Correspondent)

Laura Almodovar and Victoria Dickey are part of the Explorers-in-Training program at the UNH/NOAA Joint Hydrographic Center in Durham. (KIMBERLEY HAAS/Union Leader Correspondent)

Victoria Dickey is hard at work mapping the world’s ocean floors.

“I’ve always wanted to explore the ocean for as long as I can remember. We have better maps of the moon than we do of the ocean, and I thought that was silly,” Dickey, of San Diego, Calif., said Thursday at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping and Joint Hydrographic Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Dickey and her colleagues were busy monitoring live streams from ships collecting data from the ocean floor. Hundreds of scientists and students from all over the world will chime in to offer advice as part of the outreach and navigation program, said Larry Mayer, co-director of the Joint Hydrographic Center.

The center is a formal cooperative partnership between UNH and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The center was established in January 2000. Right now, construction is underway on nine new offices, more laboratories and an 85-seat amphitheater.

Mayer said the center’s goal is to be a world leader in the development of hydrographic and ocean mapping through innovative applications and collaborative work with the private sector and government agencies.

Somewhere between 10 and 11 percent of the ocean floor is already mapped, he said.

Mayer said the primary concern is safety in navigation — making sure ships don’t run aground and that vessels have the tools they need to understand what’s around them. The center also tracks the habits of fish and whales.

Currently, the center has 25 master’s and doctoral students and scholars from all over the world, including Egypt, Thailand, Russia, Madagascar, Mauritius and Japan. Mayer said that after they leave the center, the oceanographers keep in touch as they continue their explorations of the sea.

Since the program started, 148 students have graduated.

U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., was visiting the center Thursday with her team, and asked questions about the kind of work that is being done there.

Brian Calder, an associate director at the center, said oceanographers have a number of options when it comes to the type of research they can pursue.

“There’s lots of really interesting problems in the ocean. You’re never really stuck for choices,” Calder said.

Val Schmidt, a research engineer at UNH, showed off the center’s autonomous surface vessel. His job is to create prototypes and then get products out into the field for scientists to use.

In a visualization lab, research professor Thomas Butkiewicz and doctoral student Drew Stevens were watching a 3D track of two whales as they moved underwater.

Mayer explained the significance of the data.

“In this case, this is the first time two whales were ever tagged together. One was a male and the other was a female, and we were really excited and wondered if they would collaborate in terms of their feeding behavior, but they didn’t,” Mayer said. “One did all the work, and the other one just mooched.”

Internationally, oceanographers are pushing for the complete mapping of the 140 million square miles of ocean floor over the course of the next 13 years.

Seabed 2030 is a collaborative project led by the nonprofit group General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, which has received $18.5 million from the Nippon Foundation for its efforts.

Members of the public can learn more about mapping the ocean floor during Ocean Discovery Day Oct. 14 at the Chase Ocean Engineering Laboratory on the UNH Durham campus. Visitors will also get the chance to drive a remotely operated vehicle, band a lobster, taste a seaweed smoothie and watch a SCUBA diving demonstration.

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