The newly-built Nereus completed a successful dive to 10,902 meters (6.8 miles) into the Mariana Trench in May 2009 and returned with video and samples of the location. Nereus dove nearly twice as deep as other currently operating research submarines and had to withstand pressures 1,000 times greater than at Earth’s surface. This unique hybrid vehicle is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), able to either autonomously map large areas of the seafloor or connect to a surface ship via a lightweight fiber-optic tether to send back images and collect samples with its manipulator arm. During autonomous operations and un-tethered ascents, the vehicle uses the WHOI Micro-Modem to provide an acoustic communication link to the surface for monitoring and control.
A team of engineers led by Principal Investigators Andy Bowen, Louis Whitcomb, and Dana Yoerger tackled and solved the many engineering challenges that arose while attempting to construct a vehicle capable of reaching the deepest areas of the ocean. Because traditional robotic systems with steel-reinforced cables were too heavy to be used in the extreme pressures found at the desired depth, fiber-optic technology was adapted to replace the heavier cables. Ceramic spheres were designed to be used for flotation instead of the traditional syntactic foam found on vehicles like Alvin or Jason, creating a product that could withstand 16,500 pounds of pressure per square inch yet would shatter if dropped. AOPE engineers also developed the Nereus robotic manipulator arm so that it would operate under intense pressure and extreme temperatures.
Another historic event occurred when the ROV Jason, also developed by a team of AOPE engineers and researchers, recorded an underwater volcanic eruption, the first time such an event has ever been captured on film. National Geographic named the resulting video as one of the top 10 of the year.
Rich Camilli and Judy Fenwick were among the WHOI contingent that traveled to Copenhagen to attend the international climate change conference, which for the first time included an Oceans Day focusing on the important role of the ocean in climate change and the health of the Earth as a whole. Other international outreach efforts included a keynote address by Brendan Foley for the US-Egypt Joint Science and Technology Fund at the State Department headquarters in Washington, DC and the promotion of interdisciplinary science programs in Algeria and Egypt.
Lifetime achievements by AOPE staff were also recognized in 2009. Jim Lynch received the Walter Munk Award from The Oceanography Society in recognition of his distinguished work and research in ocean acoustics. Dana Yoerger was honored with the 2009 Lockheed Award for Ocean Science and Engineering, presented each year to an individual who has demonstrated the highest degree of technical accomplishment in the field of marine science, engineering or technology. Steve Elgar was selected by the Office of the Secretary of Defense to be a National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow (NSSEFF) and is the only earth scientist in the group of selected fellows. The fellows are granted significant research funding for five years and help to advise the Office of the Secretary of Defense on science issues.
Beyond the international headlines, the day-to-day scientific and technological work continues, often without fanfare or recognition while important puzzle pieces containing some of Earth’s mysteries are snapped together. For example, Jim Ledwell and Dennis McGillicuddy are working with numerous colleagues in the East Pacific Rise Experiment to investigate larval dispersion at a mid-ocean ridge. Britt Raubenheimer and Steve Elgar conducted a three-month field experiment with students and colleagues in the Skagit Bay tidal flat area of Washington. The field observations are being used by joint-program student Vera Pavel and student Fellows Dana Giffen, Sean Kilgalin, Regina Yopak, and Seth Zippel to investigate tides, waves and currents on a tidal flat with a large river and associated distributory channels. Dave Ralston, Rocky Geyer, and Jay Sisson deployed quadpods in the Hudson River to determine the influence of surface waves on re-suspension of sediment in the river’s shallow reaches. Jim Preisig is leading a team of researchers to study underwater acoustic propagation and communications at the Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory.
Often, the best results came from collaborations. Mark Grosenbaugh, Don Peters, and Walter Paul teamed up with other engineers and scientists to design buoys that will listen for whale calls and communicate with satellites to warn ships whenever whales are detected in a given area. Hopefully, these buoys will help mitigate the threat that increasing ship traffic represents to the remaining population of less than 400 North Atlantic right whales. The Digital Recording Tags (DTAG) team tagged right whales and humpback whales in the Stellwagen Bank and the Arctic Polar Circle with tags designed and built by the team to study their behavior. Hanu Singh and John Bailey worked together to build and modify a model airplane designed to take aerial images of Arctic Ocean ice floes.
The Acoustic Communications Group, including Peter Koski and Lee Freitag, provided Acoustic Communications (ACOMMS) support to Arctic Submarine Laboratory's ICEX2009 exercise. These exercises are held bi-annually north of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where a temporary ice camp is built to support the tracking and communications systems. The 2009 exercise included two Los Angeles class submarines, the SSN Helena and SSN Annapolis. Acoustic communications is a key technology for arctic operations and exploration, providing long-range wireless connectivity for submarines or unmanned vehicles operating below the ice.
The building of the new Alvin is scheduled to occur in the coming decade, when it will first be overhauled to continue to operate at 4,500 meters, with a second phase of construction planned to allow Alvin to reach depths to 6,500 meters. With high-tech tools like Alvin, Jason and Nereus, together with the collaborative research skills represented by this department, we look forward to a new era of ocean exploration in the coming decade.
— John Trowbridge, Department Chair and Sheila Hurst, Administrative Professional