John Wiltshire’s undersea lab explores growing Hawaiian island

John Wiltshire: The Hawaiian islands are a growing chain. In fact, Hawaii is one of the few places where new land is made every day. The next island is growing up from the seafloor.

John Wiltshire is director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory. He organizes undersea explorations to explore and study the depths of the Pacific Ocean – including the growth of the newest Hawaiian island.

John Wiltshire: The process by which it grows is very significant, because it grows up through a series of volcanic eruptions, and then parts of it will collapse, much as you would dump gravel on a pile, and some slides down the side.

Every year, Wiltshire’s research vessels survey the new craters and landslides. He sends down remotely operated vehicles, which are underwater robots, to explore and survey the emerging island.

John Wiltshire: It’s about 20 miles offshore from the island of Hawaii. We expect it to break water anywhere between a few hundred and 50,000 years. The best estimate is 10,000 years from now, so it’s a little early to buy real estate.

Wiltshire’s undersea lab has also explored World War Two shipwrecks, documented changes in the deep sea, and studied ancient precious corals. Wiltshire said there is much more of the Pacific left to explore.

John Wiltshire: The sea is 71% of the planet, but much of the deep sea is very poorly known.

The daily growth of the island is monitored by seismic activity, but Wiltshire said his lab studies many other interesting aspects of the growing volcano.

John Wiltshire: Our lab goes out every year or so, and actually looks at the changes at the top of the sea mount, new craters which have been formed, new landslides which have happened. We’re also very interested in the hot water pouring out of the sea mount. It turns out that this water is above the boiling point. And in this water, we have some bacteria, which survive about above 100 degrees Celsius and above standard pressure. They live in superheated water, and it’s very interesting how bacteria do that. we’ve sampled these, and these are currently being studied for their interesting biological properties.

The undersea research laboratory runs a 225 foot research vessel, as well as 2 deep diving submersibles, and a Remotely Operated Vehicle. Wiltshire said scientists from all over the world want to use these tools for a wide range of research in the deep sea. He said once the lab decides on what explorations, or missions, to do, there’s a standard procedure.

John Wiltshire:
The vessel would, first of all, do very detailed mapping of an area. Then you know what you’re looking for. The underwater robot is essentially the explorer, and the submersible is essentially the surgical strike tool, once you’ve got a very specific target.

Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.

December 7, 2009

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