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NOAA and Vulcan team up for ocean science

Deployment of Deep Argo float
Elizabeth Steffen, a scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab and the University of Hawaii, deploys a Deep Argo float off Hawaii in 2018. The float was tested in preparation for its use in a data-tracking array in the western South Atlantic. NOAA and Vulcan Inc. have been collaborating in the project. (University of Hawaii Photo / Blake Watkins)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it has forged a new agreement with Vulcan Inc., the Seattle-based holding company created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, to share data on ocean science and exploration.

The memorandum of understanding builds on an existing relationship between NOAA and Vulcan.

“The future of ocean science and exploration is partnerships,” retired Navy Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator, said today in a news release. “NOAA is forging new collaborations, such as the one with Vulcan, to accelerate our mission to map, explore and characterize the ocean, which will help NOAA support the conservation, management and balanced use of America’s ocean and understand its key role in regulating our weather and climate.”

Vulcan CEO Bill Hilf said the agreement furthers his company’s mission, which includes developing new technologies for conservation and addressing environmental challenges relating to the world’s oceans. Vulcan’s projects include the Allen Coral Atlas, which uses satellite imagery and other data sets to monitor the health of coral reefs; and Skylight, which provides real-time intelligence about suspicious maritime activity.

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OceanGate picks its supplier for carbon fiber

Titan submersible
OceanGate’s Titan submersible made use of carbon composite for its pressurized hull, and the company’s future submersibles will up the ante when it comes to carbon fiber. (OceanGate Photo)

Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate says Toray Composite Materials America is its preferred provider for the carbon fiber material that will be used in the company’s next-generation submersibles.

Toray CMA is the world’s largest supplier of carbon fiber and the leader in providing fibers for numerous aircraft, including the Boeing 777 and 787. The company’s U.S. head office is in Tacoma, Wash.

OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush said in a statement that Toray CMA “will play a critical role as we develop the next generation of manned submersible, to usher in a new era of exploration using aerospace-quality composites.”

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OceanGate raises $18M to boost submersible fleet

Maintenance check for Cyclops 1 sub
OceanGate’s team puts the Cyclops 1 submersible through its annual maintenance check at the company’s shop in Everett, Wash. (OceanGate Photo)

OceanGate says it has raised $18.1 million in new investment, laying the financial groundwork for an expansion of its fleet of deep-sea submersibles and setting the stage for dives to the 108-year-old Titanic shipwreck in 2021.

The funding round was reported in documents filed today with the Securities and Exchange Commission. OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush said the figure reported in the documents, $19.3 million, would be amended to reflect the actual size of the round.

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How I unwittingly steered a sub to discovery

POSSESSION SOUND, Wash. — Steering a five-person submersible is like playing a video game, except for the fact that you’re piloting a nine-ton piece of hardware at watery depths that are inaccessible to all but the most experienced divers.

I got my chance to play this week during a survey dive in a pocket of Puget Sound known as Possession Sound, courtesy of OceanGate, a manufacturer and operator of submersibles that’s headquartered in Everett, Wash.

During our three-hour tour, GeekWire photographer Kevin Lisota and I were taken around the sound at depths ranging as low as 350 feet, in OceanGate’s Cyclops submersible. We even played a supporting role in finding a colony of anemones in an unexpected underwater setting.

The trip was part of a summertime expedition to get a better sense of the ecosystem on the bottom of Puget Sound, in collaboration with researchers from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Shipwreck-hunting project wins TV spotlight

Vulcan's Rob Kraft
Rob Kraft is Vulcan’s director of subsea operations. (Image © 2019 Navigea Ltd. / R/V Petrel)

The voyages of the R/V Petrel, funded by the late Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, are the focus of a National Geographic documentary premiering on Aug. 12 – and as a prelude to the show, the leader of the Petrel team is talking about what it takes to find historic shipwrecks in the Pacific.

“Our missions have led to discovery of over 30 historically significant shipwrecks, diverse ecosystems and encounters with rare marine species,” Rob Kraft, Vulcan’s director of subsea operations, says in an online Q&A. “The environment we operate in brings inherent dangers, challenges and risk that most people will never experience.”

That all sounds like a natural fit for the next episode of “Drain the Oceans,” a National Geographic series that delves into what we’d find beneath the waves if the world’s oceans could magically disappear.

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Climate change doom teaches lesson for today

Permian-Triassic extinction
An artist’s conception shows the desolation caused by the Permian-Triassic extinction more than 250 million years ago. (LPI / USRA Illustration)

Scientists say rapidly warming oceans played a key role in the world’s biggest mass extinction, 252 million years ago, and could point to the risks that lie ahead in an era of similarly rapid climate change.

The latest analysis, published in this week’s issue of the journal Science, puts together computer modeling of ancient ocean conditions and a close look at species characteristics to fit new pieces into a longstanding puzzle: What were the factors behind the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, also known as the Great Dying?

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Scientists in a sub explore the Salish Sea

OceanGate's Cyclops 1 sub
OceanGate’s Cyclops 1 submersible prepares to dive in the waters off San Juan Island as a Washington state ferry passes by in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

FRIDAY HARBOR, Wash. — This week’s Salish Sea Expedition is unfolding amid the heavily trafficked waters off the San Juan Islands, but there’s still plenty of room here for scientific discoveries.

For example, researchers riding a deep-water submersible called Cyclops 1 announced that they discovered a new low for the feeding grounds of a prickly marine species known as the red sea urchin.

“We extended the range of red urchins to 284 meters,” Alex Lowe, a marine biologist at the University of Washington, proudly declared at UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, which is serving as the base of operations for this week’s expedition.

The expedition aims to assess the health of the habitats and species in the Salish Sea, a body of water that takes in the coastal waterways around the U.S.-Canadian border, from the Strait of Georgia to Puget Sound. The Salish Sea offers a rich ecosystem as well as a tourist destination and an increasingly busy shipping lane, but its murky waters make it challenging to study in depth — and at depth.

To remedy that, the expedition’s organizers are making use of Cyclops 1, a five-person craft that can descend far deeper than scuba divers go.

The survey expedition is a joint undertaking that involves scientists from the UW and other research institutions, with support from the non-profit SeaDoc Society and the OceanGate Foundation. Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate, which built Cyclops 1, is playing the lead role in getting the researchers to their underwater destinations.

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Ships set sail to trace tiny creatures’ carbon trail

R/V Sally Ride
With Scripps Institution of Oceanography research scientist Bruce Appelgate as their guide, participants in a NASA Social meet-up walk down Seattle’s Pier 91 with the R/V Sally Ride in the background. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

After seven years of preparation, two research vessels are heading out of Seattle to begin a 40-day voyage to track how tiny organisms in the ocean affect the world’s carbon balance — and it’s a bittersweet moment for one scientist who’s staying behind.

“People ask me, ‘Are you happy?’ ” Paula Bontempi, EXPORTS program scientist at NASA Headquarters, said today at Seattle’s Pier 91, hours before departure. “I don’t know. Are you happy when your kids go off to college?”

It’s graduation time for the EXPORTS oceanographic campaign, jointly funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. EXPORTS stands for Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing, but the mission is really about two subjects that aren’t in the acronym: carbon and climate.

The principal focus of the sea survey is a class of near-microscopic plantlike creatures known as phytoplankton, and the slightly bigger creatures that eat them.

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What killed the birds? Scientists blame the Blob

Cassin's auklet
This Cassin’s auklet was found on Oregon’s Kiwanda Beach in 2014. (Patty Claussenius Photo / COASST)

Researchers have untangled the mystery behind a die-off that felled hundreds of thousands of tough seabirds known as Cassin’s auklets in 2014 and early 2015.

It’s not a simple answer: The proximate cause was starvation, but in a study published by Geophysical Research Letters, scientists report that the most likely root cause was an anomaly in Pacific Ocean circulation that came to be known as the Blob.

“This paper is super important for the scientific community because it nails the causality of a major die-off, which is rare,” senior author Julia Parrish, a marine scientist at the University of Washington and executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, said today in a news release.

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Paul Allen marks Memorial Day in a deep-sea way

Lexington shipwreck
An image captured by a remotely operated vehcile from the R/V Petrel shows the barrel of a 5-inch gun on the USS Lexington. (Image courtesy of Paul G. Allen. Copyright Navigea Ltd.)

It’s traditional to revisit the gravesites of America’s fallen warriors on Memorial Day, but billionaire philanthropist Paul Allen is adding a non-traditional twist.

Today the co-founder of Microsoft is highlighting the work that he’s funded over the past couple of years to document the wrecks of historic warships — and not only U.S. ships, but naval vessels that flew the flags of Japan, Italy and Australia.

newly unveiled website celebrates the exploits of the Petrel, Allen’s research ship, and its remotely operated vehicle. But more importantly, it celebrates the sacrifices made by the crews of such venerable ships as the USS Indianapolis, the USS Lexington, the USS Juneau and the USS Helena.

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