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UW Husband-Wife Research Team to Lead Pacific Ocean Floor Research Expedition

December 19, 2016
children standing in a group around small homemade boat
Middle school students in Theresa Williams’ UW Lab School class pose with the ship they built. Dubbed “The Jackalope,” the small sailboat is outfitted with a GPS and will be tracked by NOAA. Students pictured are (front) Ryan Chamberlain; (second row, from left) Yousuf Abdelkader and Anna Chen; (back row, from left) Kairi Fahlenkamp, Zane Tillman, Williams, James Boyers, Rhonwyn Edwards, Malachi Bustos, Sadie Smith and Anna Roesler. (Michael Cheadle Photo)

When Michael Cheadle and Barbara John hit the high seas in January for their next research expedition to the floor of the Pacific Ocean, the two University of Wyoming faculty members will take with them a small sailboat built by UW Lab School students.

The tiny vessel, dubbed “The Jackalope,” will be launched at sea, with the hope it washes up on some faraway shore and is discovered.

“It’s outfitted with a GPS. NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) will track it for the Lab School students,” says Cheadle, a UW associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. “It’s almost five feet long, with no motor. It just has an itty bitty sail and keel.”

John, a UW professor of geology and geophysics, adds that the small boat also includes writing in nearly 20 languages, including Cantonese, Chinese, English, French, Mandarin, Papa New Guinea, Portuguese and Spanish, so that anybody who finds it can, hopefully, correspond with the Lab School students.

“It contains a time capsule about UW and Laramie,” John says.

The Jackalope is one component of a multipronged community outreach effort related to the voyage of the U.S. Research Vessel Atlantis and two small submarines tasked with exploring and sampling the sea floor at Pito Deep in the Pacific Ocean. The outreach effort includes partnerships with the Teton County Library in Jackson, the Wyoming Geological Association in Casper and the Birch Aquarium in San Diego, Calif.

“We intend to do a lot of outreach,” Cheadle says. “We have bought extra satellite bandwidth, so we can do two-way, live interactive broadcast from the ship to schools and other organizations.”

The husband-and-wife research team will lead 17 scientists from the United States and Canada on the research expedition. Eight of those will come from UW. Besides Cheadle and John, these include another faculty member, Susan Swapp; Theresa Williams, a middle school teacher at the Lab School; three graduate students; and one undergraduate student.

The Atlantis will leave from Easter Island Jan. 13 to work at Pito Deep before returning to Arica in Chile Feb. 24.

“Barbara and I, along with Jeff Gee from Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, are the chief scientists. So, this is very much our cruise,” Cheadle says. “Hence, we get to lead the operations, but also have to deal with any problems.”

John says she, along with Cheadle and Gee, wrote the research proposal to the National Science Foundation to obtain funding in 2016.

Expedition Objectives

small research ship at dock
The research vessel Atlantis is docked at Newport, Ore. UW researchers Michael Cheadle and Barbara John will lead a 17-person expedition to Pito Deep in the Pacific Ocean during January to explore the ocean floor crust, magnetic field boundaries in an underwater chasm and life forms around hydrothermal vents. (Michael Cheadle Photo)

The science objective of the expedition is three-fold:

-- To sample the interior of ocean crust to better understand how it is formed by working in a large chasm called Pito Deep, which is 3.5 kilometers deep (about twice the depth of the Grand Canyon) that provides a cross-section of samples through oceanic crust.

“Sixty percent of the Earth’s surface is the sea floor. Because it’s below the water, we don’t know enough about it,” Cheadle says. “We’ll explore the chasm to learn more about how ocean crust is formed.”

-- To map the geometry of the magnetic field boundaries in the third dimension (vertically in the cliff face of the chasm). This has never been done before, John says.

“What do these magnetic stripes do? Do they go down vertically? Or, are they inclined? Or, even more complicated?” John says. “This is an opportunity to understand what the 3-D of the magnetic stripes is and learn more about the cooling of the Earth.”

-- To explore for undiscovered hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the chasm and the strange life forms that live in these vents. Hot water is emitted from the top of these vents, and provides habitat for various bacteria, shrimp and small fish, Cheadle says.

“These are thermophilic life forms. They use the heat from the hot water to live,” Cheadle says. “Down there, you have complete alien ecosystems. Finding new species is very probable.”

“It’s possible these bacteria were the first life forms on Earth,” John adds.

Two submarines, named Sentry and Jason II, will aid in the exploration. The former is autonomous and uses sonar to map the sea floor. The latter is larger and tethered to the ship, and is used for core sampling both rocks and fluids.

“We’re using a lot of pretty fancy electronics and engineering to help us,” John says. “We’ll be sitting in mission control on the Atlantis running all of this.”

From the Pacific to Wyoming

A lot of what occurs with the submarines will be transmitted back to shore. Williams will broadcast live to UW Lab School students, and to students from other schools around the world, who will be able to ask questions during the interactive presentation. Williams will provide educational outreach to classrooms around Wyoming and elsewhere through live two-way webcasts.

“The teachers I interact with may send questions in advance or request specific experiences for their students, including a tour of the ship; an opportunity to question the scientists on board; the chance to see some of the samples we’ve collected; or other interactions of interest to them and their students,” Williams explains.

Williams, together with videographer Lucas Kavanagh, also will create weekly videos, keeping track of happenings during the time the group is at sea. The videos, podcasts and blogs will be posted where interested people can follow the expedition’s progress.

Williams adds she will conduct a webcast with her own students and teach them lessons from Pito Deep. Besides building the boat, students, in grades K-8 at the Lab School, decorated Styrofoam cups and Styrofoam heads that will make a trip to the bottom of the ocean. Each group of students made predictions about what might happen to the Styrofoam while submerged so many kilometers under the sea.

“This also is a great opportunity for me as an educator, since I will work with the scientists while they are conducting their research,” Williams says. “I will have the opportunity to learn, firsthand, how the samples and data are collected, and experience the daily rhythm of field work on a ship. A deeper understanding of the work will help me to share the information with my students in a more meaningful way with engaging stories that I actually experienced.”

John and Cheadle also are excited about the outreach opportunities the expedition will provide for people in Wyoming and beyond.

“UW is pretty landlocked. A lot of kids don’t know much about the exploration of the seas,” John says. “With this outreach, they can observe and sample different types of science, from geology to robotics. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is not boring.”

The outreach will include a one-hour streamed program for adults at the Teton County Library; a live-feed program at the monthly meeting of the Wyoming Geological Association; and interactive communication with some courses at Casper College. Cheadle and John also have received an inquiry for a program from the Wyoming State Museum.

“We will do it (programming) from wherever we receive interest,” John says. “Cambridge University from the U.K. is on the list.”

To follow the progress of The Jackalope in January, go to http://educationalpassages.com/active-boat-map/ and select “Jackalope” from the map.

For more information about the expedition, go to https://www.pitodeep.org/.


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