Seismic Research Ship Sails from Galveston

The National Science Foundation is dedicating its new flagship seismic research vessel in Galveston. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports -- the ship is one of a handful of vessels used for academic geophysical research.

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The Research Vessel Marcus Langseth is a 235-foot ship designed to record seismic readings miles beneath the ocean floor. Harm van Avendonk is a research associate at the University of Texas and will be doing some of his own research aboard the ship next year. He says through this technology we learn to understand the Earth and its environment.

"The ship can be used for studies of subduction zones. These are places -- plate boundaries where one plate of the Earth dives beneath another. And so that's on a really large scale, plates move at a very slow speed and a lot of Earth scientists are interested in studying the Earth's motions."

Another application is studying sedimentary processes, where river systems deposit sediments in the ocean's basins. Van Avendonk says the petrochemical industry commonly uses ships like this to study hydrocarbon reservoirs, basically looking for oil and gas. But there are few ships of this kind available to academia.

"In the academic world there's only a few of these vessels, so the vessel has actually just recently been modified to do a wider variety of tasks and in that sense it's unique. It's a ship that has a permanent crew and then it also takes on a small science party, typically 10 or 15 people to study a specific problem."

The National Science Foundation provided more than $20 million to purchase the seismic exploration vessel and refit the ship with modern laboratories and scientific equipment. Researchers will be able to conduct 2-D and 3-D imaging of the ocean floor and the Earth's deep interior.

"As much as we can understand about what's under the surface of the Earth at larger depth -- we're talking here about depths of just a few miles to sometimes 20 miles deep -- that is something that was entirely unknown to us a few decades ago and so we learn a lot more about how the Earth works."

The geophysical research applications of the ship include the study of earthquakes, magma flow and continental drift. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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