A floating array of mermaids are about to reveal Earth's inner secrets

Robots are going to tackle the mysteries of the Earth's mantle. Meet the MERMAID.


Scientists are set to send a fleet of 50 mermaids out onto the high seas, to analyze and uncover some of the biggest secrets about the Earth’s inner workings.

If images of something out of The Little Mermaid come to mind, rest assured it involves a fair fewer human-fish combinations. These MERMAIDs, also known as Mobile Earthquake Recording in Marine Areas by Independent Divers, are floating sensors that act as seismometers. A team working with the South Pacific Plume Imaging and Modeling program announced Thursday plans to send 50 of them out into the Pacific Ocean.

“We are hunting for the deep source of mantel plumes, which bring to the surface hot volcanic material from great depth,” Frederik Simons, at Princeton University, said in a statement. “What happens inside [the Earth] is all part of the plate-tectonic cycle [that gives] us energy. I see it as both as an opportunity and as a threat.”

These plumes are areas with hot volcanic material, from the mantle layer between the crust and core. Oregon State University notes a big theory that the mantle rocks melt into magma, indicated by volcanoes away from plate boundaries. One such hot spot in Hawaii has been going for at least 70 million years.

The program includes scientists from the United States, France, Japan, and China. In this effort, they will gather more data about the giant plume below the South Pacific Ocean. This is a plume that rests around 700 kilometers, or 435 miles, below the Earth’s surface. A 2009 research paper noted that the “geometry, origin depth, temperature, and composition of the superplume remain controversial, however, mainly due to the lack of seismological data.”

In short, those mermaids could lift the lid on why the Earth acts the way it does.

Volcanoes: how do they work?

Wikimedia / Richard Bartz

Each MERMAID is designed to both drift and dive down up to 3,000 meters, or 1.86 miles. They come with a hydrophone capable of capturing seismic information, a unit that can digitize and process wavelet detection, a GPS for location navigation, and a satellite link to send all the data home. Each one is designed to last for five years.

These sensors are expected to provide more information when compared to traditional-land based sensors. They’re set to capture data from a multitude of angles, essentially giving the Earth a CAT scan to see what’s going on. Because if its remoteness, the floating sensors should also offer a closer look.

The data should show more information about a number of factors that influence these mantle plumes. It’s expected to reveal the viscosity, buoyancy, temperature, and density of the South Pacific Ocean plume. It could also reveal more information about how the material is flowing from the lower to the upper mantle, as well as providing measurements of seismic waves’ propagation speeds.

It’s not the first time researchers have employed hydrophones to listen to the water. A team in November took the wraps off an autonomous submarine that can measure sounds and check for nuclear explosions. Researchers have also used the gadgets to measure the quality of champagne.

Through these MERMAIDs in the water, researchers should be able to hear more about how our world works.

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