The Stones Project at sea in the Gulf of Mexico
The Stones project in the Gulf of Mexico is home to the world’s deepest oil and gas production system

Down it drops, slicing through the glistening skin at the surface of the sea. Down further, through dimming shafts of refracted sunlight. Through stiff migratory currents descending into pressure intense enough to crush the life out of any human. Finally, at 2,896 metres (9,500 feet) below the surface, the anchor settles onto the seabed. 

This is the journey of a mooring line attached to a ocean weather station that floats in Shell's new Stones oil and gas field in the Gulf of Mexico. The station, which is designed to monitor weather and sea conditions, is anchored by a three-kilometre line that is already dotted with instruments that collect marine data.

But soon more will be added, because Shell plans to share parts of the line with universities and research institutions.

This partnership will shed new light on deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico where little is currently known. "Exploring the ocean at these depths is today's scientific expedition," says Shell oceanographer Dr Ruth Perry. "Just like early sailors who sought distant continents, we don't know what we'll find. But it's important. If we pool our resources and share our knowledge, we can get there."

Shell uses only a small part of the line to monitor areas where it extracts oil. Underwater sensors already measure the speed, direction and temperature of water currents. But making extra space available to scientists will provide a deeper insight into the ocean's various zones, each of which are home to numerous organisms adapted to their own unique ecosystem.

For now Shell will work with local academic and research organisations through existing partnerships. These groups will have to provide their own instruments and will be able to check data or add new technology every six months when the line is hauled in for maintenance.

The University of Southern Mississippi is one of the first to get involved. "For years, we have been searching for an affordable way to monitor the deep Gulf in a long-term study," says Dr Stephen Howden, an associate professor at the university’s Division of Marine Science.

"We need to know how the changing climate and carbon dioxide levels are affecting the oceans. Even a small change can have a great impact on food chains and weather patterns."

The mooring line is particularly important because it is affected by the Loop Current, a highway of warm water that flows through the Gulf of Mexico, into the Gulf Stream, and up the Atlantic Seaboard of the USA.

Because ocean currents effectively act as massive "conveyor belts" by moving warm and cold bodies of water around that can lead to global weather changes, understanding this vital system may ultimately lead to better weather forecasting, Dr Howden believes.

Dr Pak Leung, Shell's oceanographer who designed the ocean weather station with the mooring line, believes the partnership with universities could even spur a scientific breakthrough. "Just imagine what we can learn by collecting deep-ocean research data in the same spot for the life of the project - maybe as much as 25 years."

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Stones is an ultra deep-water oil and gas development in the Gulf of Mexico. It will host the deepest production facility in the world in some 2,900 metres (9,500 feet) of water.

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