Launch of Deep-Sea Atlantis Gives Ocean Research a High-Tech Boost

By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 22, 1997 | Go to article overview

Launch of Deep-Sea Atlantis Gives Ocean Research a High-Tech Boost


Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Gulls wheel overhead as people dockside brace themselves against a stiff April wind. They jostle and point seaward as a long-awaited vessel appears from behind a headland.

This assembly of marine researchers, their families, and other well-wishers marks the arrival of the newest - and final - addition to the nation's university-based deep-sea oceanographic fleet, the R/V Atlantis.

The $50-million, 274-foot vessel is the keystone in a United States Navy-sponsored modernization program that began in the mid-1980s. It also symbolizes the revolution the field is undergoing as scientists use new technologies and the ships that carry them to explore Earth's last frontier. From bizarre life forms near volcanic upwellings on the sea floor to studies of fisheries and the oceans' effect on climate, these explorations have "an enormous and direct impact to the people on this planet," says Dan Fornari, chief scientist for deep submergence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Although the fleet is maintained and run by universities, the Navy still has access to them, and plans to use them for such activities as ocean surveys. On the outside, Atlantis looks much like its three sister ships, one of which will join the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in July. Yet because it is designed as the mother ship for the manned deep-sea submersible Alvin, Atlantis is unique, Dr. Fornari says. It "gives scientists the ability to use a suite of deep-submerging tools {from one ship} with incredible synergy.... It's a much more cost-effective way to carry out science." Modernizing the fleet The academic fleet's modernization took shape in 1987 under Navy Secretary John Lehman, according to Steven Ramberg, head of the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) ocean, atmosphere, and space department. "It's a national interest to make sure the oceanographic community has world-ranging access to the oceans to do good research, whether it's for the National Science Foundation or for the Navy," he says. "We had seven old ships, and we said: Let's upgrade to a smaller number of ships, but make them bigger and better." In all, Dr. Ramberg says, the Navy has spent nearly $200 million during the past 10 years building three new oceanographic ships, including Atlantis, and giving two older ships a major refit. That suited university scientists; the kinds of questions they wanted to answer, such as the ocean's role in the global carbon cycle, were getting bigger, more complicated, and required ships capable of staying at sea longer. …

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