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Over the years, Michael Cheadle has been a team member on a number of research ships that have explored the floor of the world’s vast oceans. The University of Wyoming faculty member has recently taken a step up, being named senior scientist for an expedition in the waters off the coast of Puerto Rico this April.
Cheadle, a UW associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, will be one of two senior scientists (serving as the geologist) heading a “telepresence” research cruise aboard the Okeanos Explorer, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ship. The Okeanos Explorer, dubbed “America’s Ship for Ocean Exploration,” is the only federally funded U.S. ship assigned to systematically explore the world’s largely unknown oceans for the purpose of discovery and the advancement of knowledge.
“Overall, we will be looking at the biology, especially deep sea corals, and understanding the geology for hazard assessment purposes, including evidence for large earthquakes and possible resulting tsunamis,” says Cheadle, who is currently on sabbatical from UW. “Puerto Rico is on a large transform fault between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates. This is part of the same fault system that generated the large earthquake in Haiti a few years ago. The idea of the cruise is to map the sea floor in an effort to better understand the earthquake potential around Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.”
On Jan. 12, 2010, an earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.0, hit approximately 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. Two weeks later, at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater were recorded. An estimated 3 million people were affected by the disaster, with death toll estimates ranging from 100,000 to 160,000.
Cheadle and the other senior scientist — Andrea Quattrini, a biologist from the U.S. Geological Survey — will be on board to direct and coordinate input from 30 or more scientists, stationed on land, who will drive the science. The cruise is scheduled April 9-May 1, with port outreach events scheduled April 8 and May 2.
The Puerto Rico Trench, the Muertos Trough, the Mona Channel, the Virgin Island Trough and local seamounts and canyons will be explored. This expedition will feature some of the deepest remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives (down to 6,000 meters below sea level) ever conducted in the regions, and will collect critical deep-water environmental information that will improve ecosystem understanding and inform federal and local resource managers.
“Mike was chosen for his expert knowledge of geophysics and seafloor plate tectonics, coupled with his previous experience working with telepresence-enabled ocean exploration and his participation in the Ocean Exploration Trust exploration workshops,” says Lt. Brian Kennedy, expedition coordinator with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.
“This will very much be a telepresence cruise, with the ship beaming the whole event live to the outside world via their (NOAA) website,” Cheadle says of planned educational outreach. “The whole idea is to make it like the (land) rovers on Mars program.”
Scientists will use the Okeanos Explorer’s cutting-edge technology and custom-built collaboration tools to stay in constant contact with the ship, and guide operations from shore. During the expedition, NOAA plans to send out “exploration alerts” or brief emails on especially interesting seafloor exploration dives and to share exciting discoveries in real time, according to Sarah Graddy, a public affairs specialist with NOAA.
Currently, more than 100 people receive these exploration alerts, including journalists from National Geographic, the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, CNN, CBS and the Smithsonian Institute.
“Outreach is very much a part of (NOAA’s) mandate,” Cheadle says.