At Deepwater Horizon, Basic Research Was Applied

By Lippsett, Lonny | Oceanus, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

At Deepwater Horizon, Basic Research Was Applied

Lippsett, Lonny, Oceanus

"Basic research, directed simply toward more complete understanding of nature and its laws, embarks upon the unknown. Clearly, that which has never been known cannot be foretold, and herein lies the great promise of basic research.... [It] enlarges the realm of the possible."

--National Science Foundation annual report, 1952

In the mid-1930s, a young physicist named Maurice Ewing sent letters to several oil companies. He asked them to "support a modest program of research" to see whether the seismic methods he was pioneering on land could be adapted to investigate the completely unknown geology of the seafloor.

"This proposal received no support whatever," Ewing later wrote. "I was told that work out in the ocean could not possibly be of interest to the shareholder and could not rightfully receive one nickel of the shareholder's money."

Ewing did get a $2,000 grant from the Geological Society of America, however, and thus funded, he and his students came to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to use its new deep-sea research ship, Atlantis. They launched novel experiments using explosions to generate sound waves to probe the structure of the seafloor.

To Ewing, the ocean was annoyingly in the way--that "murky mist that keeps me from seeing the bottom," he called it. To study the seafloor, he and his colleagues had to learn how to negotiate the intervening medium. In the process, they unexpectedly made profound and fundamental discoveries about ocean properties and how sound propagated through seawater.


In 1940, on the eve of war, WHOI Director Columbus O'Donnell Iselin wrote a letter to government officials, setting forth "some suggestions as to how the personnel and equipment of this laboratory can be better utilized for the national defense."

Soon after, one of Ewing's students, Allyn Vine, began incorporating their newly gained knowledge. He built instruments (bathythermographs) to measure ocean properties and trained sailors to use them to escape detection by sonar. It was the first among many applications of this basic research that revolutionized submarine warfare.

Many scientists pursued the marine geophysics research initiated by Ewing (who moved to Columbia University after World War II). Their work culminated in the late 1960s in the unifying theory of plate tectonics. It transformed our understanding of continents, ocean basins, earthquakes, volcanoes, and a host of other geological phenomena--including significant oil reservoirs beneath the seafloor where oil companies now routinely drill and make money for their shareholders.

Vine remained at WHOI and spearheaded deep-submergence technology, including the research submersible Alvin, which was named after him. Two years after it was completed, Alvin was applied to a national emergency, locating a hydrogen bomb that accidentally dropped into the Mediterranean Sea. A decade later, plying a basic research mission, Alvin found seafloor hydrothermal vents. To scientists' utter astonishment, the vents were surrounded by previously unknown organisms sustained not by photosynthesis but chemosynthesis. The discovery completely rearranged our conceptions of where and how life can exist on this planet and elsewhere in the universe.

In 1969, another event occurred that is central to this story. The barge Florida spilled 189,000 gallons of oil off West Falmouth, Mass., just up the road from WHOI. In the months following, WHOI biologists Howard Sanders and George Hampson collected marine life and shared them with Max Blumer and Jerry Sass, WHOI geochemists who pioneered the use of gas chromatography to detect low levels of organic compounds in seawater, sediments, and organisms. WHOI marsh ecologist John Teal and graduate student Kathy Burns adapted the techniques to study the fate and effects of oil over several years.

"You had modern science brought to bear on this oil spill," said WHOI scientist emeritus John Farrington in 2011. …

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