Robotics to explore seabed

Researchers from Durham University will use robots to explore the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to study the growth of underwater volcanoes that build the Earth’s crust. The researchers and an international team of 12 scientists, aboard Britain’s Royal Research Ship (RRS) James Cook, will set sail from Ponta Delgada, San Miguel, in the Azores, on May 23, 2008.

During the five-week expedition they will use explorer robots to map individual volcanoes on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge tectonic plate boundary almost two miles below the surface of the sea.

The ISIS robotic device will also be used to collect rock samples from the volcanoes that will be dated using various techniques. It is hoped this will shed more light on the timescales behind the growth of the Earth’s crust and related tectonic plates. As tectonic plates are pulled apart by forces in the Earth, rocks deep down in the mantle are pulled up to fill the gap left behind. As the rocks rise they begin the melt and form thousands of volcanoes on the sea floor, which eventually cluster into giant ridges.

The team will date the volcanoes using radiometric dating, which measures the radioactive decay of atoms, as well as measuring the changing strength of the earth’s magnetic field.

The team is headed by Professor Roger Searle at Durham University and will include scientists from the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, the Open University and Paris University. The work is funded by a grant from the National Environment Research Council, which also owns and operates RRS James Cook.