Smart Boulders: Tracking The Movements of Abyssal Plain

by | Dec 22, 2016 | Cool Stuff

Right now, more than 400,000 cubic feet of sediment could be hurtling along an underground canyon. With speeds reaching over 8 meters per second (which is almost 18 miles per hour), theses underwater avalanches often go unnoticed until the sediment settles or unless the underwater force severs underwater cables that carry telecommunications around the globe.

This force of nature is exactly why scientists created Smart Boulders.

What’s A Smart Boulder and Why Is It Important?

No, we aren’t pulling your leg or anything. A Smart Boulder isn’t an actual boulder, but rather a piece of scientific technology designed to act like a boulder during an underwater avalanche. The Smart Boulders are used to monitor and track all of the sediment that is carried down an underwater slope during an avalanche.

To put it in perspective, during a recent underwater avalanche off the coast of California, sand rock moved more than 50 kilometers. The same sand and rock went from a depth of less than 300 meters below the surface to a depth of over 1,800 meters.

The flows that the Smart Boulders track is known as turbidity currents, which are actually some of the most powerful flows on Earth. On a large scale, these turbidity currents are the final phase of a tectonic plate shift. The process starts with a shift in tectonic plates causing mountains to be pushed up, which triggers erosion and sediment to be pushed down rivers to the coasts. Ultimately, it’s the turbidity currents that return this same material to the ocean floor.

Why Smart Boulders Are So Awesome

In short, Smart Boulders are incredible because they’re tracking something that scientists have struggled to study for decades. We’ve known about these incredibly strong currents, but we haven’t had a great way to actually study them. Scientists have made models, flume students, and remote-sensing surveys have examined the sediment before and after the movement, but the Smart Boulders are in the thick of things.

The Smart Boulders are another great example of STEM education and thinking in the real world. Using design, robotics, and physics, the Smart Boulders have to be durable enough to sustain damage during the avalanche all while processing what’s happening around them and sending that data back to the scientists.

The boulders are also a great example of how to creatively solve a problem. Until the boulders came around, there wasn’t a great way to study these massive underwater movements.

StratoStar Helps Bring STEM to Life

Embracing STEM in your classroom is a great way to not only get students excited about learning, but helps them to start thinking comprehensively. It’s not about just science or math. It’s about how all of these fields interact with one another and how they can influence each other. Launching a high altitude weather balloon with a customized curriculum and experiment designed by your students could be the perfect way to get your students interested in STEM!

Check out our free ebook, “How 3 Professors Partnered with StratoStar,” to see how our team can help you!