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Why do you throw 27 seismometers at the ocean floor?




Near Macquarie Island in the Southern Ocean, a research vessel is currently extracting 27 seismometers from the sea floor to find out what drives earthquakes and tsunamis.

The research is part of a long-term project to learn about the undersea earthquakes and landslides that occur around the Macquarie Ridge – an undersea subduction zone midway between New Zealand and Antarctica – and how these tremors may affect coastal populations in Australia and New Zealand.

“In order to do this, we first need to understand what’s underground,” says Professor Hrvoy Tkalić, from the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences.

“The continuous waveforms recorded by these instruments will help us do that.”

In October 2020, Tkalčić and his colleagues traveled to the remote island aboard the research vessel CSIRO Investigator. They dumped 27 seismometers to the ocean floor, some to depths of less than 5,000 meters, and deployed five others to the island.

RV Tangaroa, a New Zealand research vessel, has been contracted by CSIRO for the Southern Ocean voyage. Credit: Rebekah Parsons-King/NIWA.

Now, after 12 months of continuous data recording, the New Zealand research vessel Tangaroa set out on November 10 to collect the tools.

Border restrictions prevented Tkalčić from going on this trip, but he is keenly watching and advising on recovering from Canberra.

“[We] They already located them when we published them last year. So we know exactly where they are.”

The seismographs were attached to concrete ballasts when they were dropped, but they were fitted with a firing mechanism. When prompted—usually by a sound signal, but with other messages if that fails—the seismometer will detach from the concrete and float to the ocean surface.

“Then, when the crew discovers them, on deck, they are picked up by a long pole with a hook on it,” Tkalčić says.

“If that doesn’t work, then we have [something like] A fishing net for basically putting these tools on deck.”

Watch more: Meet the chief scientist of the Australian Antarctic Department

The task was very complex in design. Macquarie Ridge has steep cliffs, for example – and above the water, the weather and waves are wild and unpredictable.

“We often like to compare it to spreading instruments on other planets,” says Tkalči.

“It’s a really challenging environment, and we don’t know how many launch mechanisms these tools will work.

They all landed and reached out to us when we posted them. But how long will they survive, and will we be able to get them back? This is another story.”

Scientists Ian Smith, Ole Twigg and Sam Harrison extract a seismometer from the ocean floor. Credit: Joshua Mountjoy/Niwa.

The ship is scheduled to return on December 2, at which point the researchers will be able to gather data from the instruments and see how well their mission is going.

Tkalčić is confident that despite the uncertainty, they have deployed enough tools on enough channels to draw some valuable conclusions. Researchers will move to the analysis in 2022.

“I’m sure they will have useful data.”




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