Scientific equipment that vanished off Outer Banks in 2019 washes up 600 miles away

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A large pod of science equipment that went missing off the Outer Banks in 2019 has reemerged — in Bermuda.

That’s more than 600 miles east of where it was stationed.

How the 1,200-pound capsule of gadgetry got from the seafloor off Cape Hatteras to Bermuda remains a mystery, but marine researcher Mike Muglia of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute is thrilled.

“This was astounding to us,” he said. “It should in theory have more than two years of measurements that are precious. We’re trying to get a look at the data. The equipment was damaged and we are working through some problems. Working in the ocean is really tough.”

The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences recovered the equipment after it washed up two weeks ago on a Tobacco Bay beach. The institute found a vendor number and used it to track down UNC-Chapel Hill Marine Sciences Chair Harvey Seim, who is part of the project, Muglia said.

Locked inside the equipment is important data on the Gulf Stream, collected from a key spot where it flows past Cape Hatteras. This includes current speed, direction, temperature, water salinity and recordings of any sounds made by deep sea marine life off the cape.

The pod is one of two that have gone missing, both of which were stationed 400 to 490 feet down, and as far as 20 miles east of Cape Hatteras. A search for the second one is ongoing, Muglia said.

If everything had worked as planned, both pods would have risen to the surface in 2019, with key data for North Carolina’s Renewable Ocean Energy Program, he said. The project is looking for ways the Gulf Stream can be harnessed as a renewable energy source, including the use of underwater turbines and kites.

Cape Hatteras is critical to the research, due to its strategic location.

“The Gulf Stream is always flowing, but it wiggles around like a wiggly garden hose. Cape Hatteras is one of the places where it wiggles the least, after the gulf leaves the Florida Straights,” he said.

As for what kept the pod from rising to the surface in 2019, Muglia said there is evidence it might have gotten covered in garbage. It’s also possible the pod was weighed down by an underwater landslide, he said.

“It’s a mysterious place and there is a lot going on down there,” Muglia said. “It’s estimated the volume of water that flows in the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras is 30 times the flow of all the rivers on earth combined. It even has its own weather over the Gulf Stream.”

The recovered pod of equipment was also part of the National Science Foundation’s “Processes Driving Exchange at Cape Hatteras” project, he said. Known as PEACH, that study is gathering data on “the processes that control the exchange of waters between the shelves along the eastern seaboard of the U.S.”

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