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Saturday, July 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Scientists uncover secrets of underwater canyon

The Associated Press

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NEWPORT, Ore. — Lewis and Clark's expedition took them to the mouth of the Columbia River. A team of modern-day adventurers has picked up where they left off — exploring a 40-mile-long underwater canyon off the Oregon coast.

Like Lewis and Clark, the mission of these 21st-century explorers is to be on the lookout for unknown species and to document what they see.

Over about four weeks, they did so with state-of-the-art underwater technology, including a remotely-operated vehicle and sonar-mapping equipment.

Scientists held a news conference at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Visitors Center in Newport yesterday to discuss the project.

"We went to areas where people have never been before," said Brady Phillips, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The next step in the project is to analyze the data collected from the canyon, which ranges in depth from 300 feet to about 6,600 feet.

The research may give clues about the long-term health of ecosystems on the floor of the sea, and the causes of large decreases in underwater communities.

The project could also help scientists understand how the Columbia River interacts with currents in the Pacific Ocean.

The Astoria Canyon is about 10 miles off the mouth of the Columbia River and the city of Astoria.

The canyon was explored in the 1960s, but with equipment now considered archaic.

Scientists from NOAA, Oregon State University and Washington State University are taking part in the project, which is being funded by NOAA.

Bob Embley, a NOAA geologist, spoke excitedly about the last night the team sent the remote-controlled vehicle into the canyon.

The vehicle's camera sent back footage of a ridge "jutting out of the canyon" as well as pictures of "live colonies of coral, old rocks and plenty of biology," said Embley.

In the first phase of the project, the researchers worked off a 154-foot crabbing boat, the Auriga, that is based in Seattle.

A high-tech system capable of mapping water depths from 100 to 2,000 yards was mounted on a rigid metal pole suspended from the side of the Auriga. Researchers also used a type of deep-water sonar.

According to NOAA officials, use of the two mapping systems showed that parts of the canyon are extremely steep, and in some places nearly vertical. The research also showed a possible fault, rock outcrops with fish swimming above them and rock walls with large fractures.

The next phase of the project was conducted from the NOAA research ship Ronald H. Brown.

From that ship, the researchers used the remotely-controlled vehicle to get a closer look at the canyon's floor, walls and sea life.

The submersible was fitted with a sample-collecting arm, a digital video camera with lights, and equipment to chemically analyze sea water and currents.

On board the Ronald H. Brown, scientists gathered around a TV monitor to follow the remotely-operated vehicle's journey as it skirted canyon walls and skimmed canyon floors.

Along the canyon wall, scientists spotted sea cucumbers, sea stars, sponges, and anemones. In some places hundreds of sea stars gathered, indicating high levels of nutrients available in sediments.

Marine geologist Chris Goldfinger, from Oregon State University, said the expedition brought back geological samples which he hopes will show whether the canyon experiences radical changes during large earthquakes.

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