Tech Day celebrates exploration of the oceans


From new techniques to glean a three-dimensional view of our seas to how an MIT alum and colleagues won the America's Cup, Technology Day 1993 offered a look at how cutting-edge science has transformed-and will transform-our knowledge and use of the oceans.

A predominant refrain of the program, however, was how much more we have to learn.

"It's said by many that we have better maps of the moon and Venus than we do of the bottom of the ocean," said Professor T. Francis Ogilvie, head of the Department of Ocean Engineering, in his opening remarks.

"Our knowledge of the ocean today is probably comparable to our knowledge of space in the 1950s, so we're really just getting started. We have a lot more questions out there than answers."

So saying, Professor Ogilvie introduced the morning speakers, who regaled a record Technology Day crowd of close to 3,000 alumni/ae with talks on autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), new techniques to measure properties of the ocean, the ocean's considerable effects on global climate, and what it takes to win the America's Cup.

Technology Day '93 also featured four concurrent afternoon panel discussions on the ocean [see sidebar] and several ocean-related exhibits, and celebrated the centennial of the Department of Ocean Engineering.

AUTONOMOUS UNDERWATER VEHICLES

Dr. Sylvia Earle, director of Deep Ocean Engineering, prefaced her remarks on AUVs with a personal anecdote about a visit she made to MIT with a colleague. After a tour of the Institute, the colleague whispered to her, "Is this all there is?" Her response, in part, was that MIT's greatness derives "from a fresh way of looking at things that keeps coming from seemingly ordinary offices."

As a result, the Institute has had a "remarkable impact on ocean exploration," she said.

For example, Dr. Earle said later in her talk titled "Exploring the Ocean with Unmanned Vehicles," an AUV developed at MIT "made history this past winter." Odyssey, which she said "looks a little like a tunafish," was the first AUV to be operated in Antarctic waters.

Weighing about 360 pounds, Odyssey is also a good example of the move toward smaller AUVs. "One of the limiting factors in using unmanned subs is cost," Dr. Earle said, ".cost is what has driven the development of small systems.

And Odyssey, she said, "will warm hearts with a component cost of under $50,000 and a range of 270 kilometers." (According to MIT Sea Grant's Quarterly Report, "Odyssey is one sixth the weight, has twice the range and is a fraction of the cost of any other deep-diving AUV in the world.")

Though Dr. Earle championed unmanned vehicles "for their ability to stay down for unprecedented amounts of time and in some cases [for traveling] unprecedented distances," she emphasized that manned vehicles are also important.

Referring to the "debate raging in the ocean [research community] concerning manned vs. unmanned systems," she said that "I hope this either/or attitude is squashed. We need all the tools we can muster."

MEASURING THE OCEAN

Dr. Robert C. Spindel's enthusiasm for his topic, "Measuring the Ocean Environment," was obvious. The director of the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory told his audience: "We are on the verge of a complete new understanding of how the oceans operate" because tools are now available that allow scientists to see the ocean as a whole, rather than in small parts.

Data collection from the ocean has changed over the years, he explained. Early measurements were made by researchers from aboard ships, which was time-consuming, expensive, and only representative of one location.

Then scientists moved to ocean moorings, which range from "a wire that extends from the surface to the bottom with instruments attached all along it," to a ship in a fixed position with instruments that "measure temperature, salinity, etc., and transmit data directly to a satellite, which [in turn sends the data] to the scientist in his lab," said Dr. Spindel, who is also a professor of electrical engineering and adjunct professor of oceanography at the University of Washington. Here too, however, the instruments are fixed in one place, so the ocean is only measured in one place.

About 20 years ago scientists took another step forward in data collection: instruments that just drift on the ocean. (These instruments, too, transmit data back to shore via satellite.) "So we've gone from ships to unmanned, autonomous, freely drifting instruments," Professor Spindel said.

Now researchers are at another exciting crossroad with the burgeoning use of satellites and acoustic instruments to study the ocean.

"Over the next decade we have scheduled the launch of more than a dozen satellites" that will be used for ocean-related research, Professor Spindel said. Right now, he said, "there are very few satellites equipped to get data back from the sea."

As a result, he said, with the new satellites "for the first time we will be able to see the ocean all at once." The satellites should allow scientists to explore in greater detail such things as the waves inside the ocean, and how sediments and wastes are distributed.

Dr. Spindel also noted the importance of acoustic instruments in studying the ocean. "Sound basically goes forever underwater," he explained, "and as it passes through the water it has imprinted on it all the patterns of the ocean."

As a result, "acoustic instruments can be put into the sea [where they can] talk to each other and record variations in the ocean that occur with time and space. They can bring back data comparable to what x-rays do with the interior of the body."

One important use of the instruments: tracking changes in ocean temperature that could indicate global warming. "Sound travels differently [in water] if that water warms up or cools down," Professor Spindel explained. As a result, scientists are working to set up a large network of acoustic transmitters and receivers to "measure the effects [of temperature] on sound as it travels from one [instrument] to another."

With the advent-and growth-of satellites and acoustic instruments, then, Professor Spindel concluded: "If ever there was a time when it was exciting to be an oceanographer, now is that time."

THE OCEAN AND CLIMATE

Professor Carl Wunsch, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography and MIT SB '62 and PhD '67, effectively conveyed the critical role the ocean plays in determining global climate by explaining that the ocean could be-and has been-responsible for major changes in climate over very short time periods (decades).

In his talk, titled "Effects of the Ocean on Global Climate," Professor Wunsch also impressed on the audience how little we know about "this extraordinarily large, complicated, opaque fluid system."

In fact, he said, the ocean's "impact on our everyday life is essentially unknown to most people, even to most scientists."

Yet the ocean turns out to be critical to any number of discussions, including climate change. By studying the historical record, Professor Wunsch said, "you come to the inescapable conclusion that something in [the climate] system is capable of creating major climate shifts on time scales much shorter than the human life span.

"The ocean is the only [system] capable of doing this."

It does so via a complicated "conveyor belt" that moves warm water from the equator to the poles where that water gets very cold, sinks, and is replaced by more warm water from the south. In the process water moving northward is also taking up methane and other greenhouse gases. ("Only about half of the carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels is in the atmosphere-the rest is believed to be in the ocean," Professor Wunsch said.)

And anything that changes this circulation can affect climate. For example, if the atmosphere is warmed via the greenhouse effect, it will warm first at the poles, Professor Wunsch said. "So the water there that sinks won't be as cold or as heavy, and won't be pushed deep into the ocean." That, in turn, would lead to a series of events that would, for example, decrease the amount of nutrient-rich water circulated up from the bottom of the sea.

Such events have happened in the past-and will happen again, Professor Wunsch said. "We believe that our climate system and in particular our ocean have some characteristics of chaotic behavior," he explained. In other words, he said, "though the ocean appears to be very stable, there's no guarantee it will be stable in the future."

Later, in a Q&A session after the morning talks, Professor Wunsch echoed those thoughts when asked for his opinion on global warming and whether or not it is happening. His response: "We are going to have climate change whether global warming is induced by carbon dioxide or not." For that reason, he said, "I think much of the discussion [on global warming] is too narrowly focused." Rather than debating whether human activity is causing global warming, he said, we should focus on "what we are going to do to adapt to the environmental changes that will take place."

WINNING THE AMERICA'S CUP

When William I. Koch, MIT SB '62, SM '66, ScD '71, and crew joined the field of contenders for the 1992 America's Cup, they were already two years behind their biggest competitors, the Japanese and Italians.

"We had tremendous odds against us," Dr. Koch told the audience at his Technology Day talk. "The Las Vegas odds makers gave us 100:1 odds against winning."

One reason why they did so: "heading up the effort was a nerd from MIT who'd only learned to sail eight years ago and was from Kansas," Dr. Koch said (describing himself).

So how did the team eventually win the prestigious race? "We approached [the race] as a management problem first, then a technological problem, and finally as just a sailboat race," Dr. Koch said.

In his talk titled "The Management, Technology and Victory of an America's Cup," Dr. Koch described these elements and showed two videos of the boat and crew that won the race.

Key to the win was "having the best science available," Dr. Koch said. About 50 scientists were on the staff that produced the winning boat, named America3, including Professor Jerome H. Milgram, William I. Koch Professor of Ocean Engineering and MIT SB '61, SM '62, PhD '65, who was design director for the effort.

The team had to tackle and solve the variety of technical problems that accompany "designing a boat for a very complicated race course." For example, Dr. Koch said, "we evaluated 120 hull designs, which we narrowed down to 40 and tested in a water tank. Then we tested another 140 keel configurations through the wind tunnel."

The team also developed a new sail material composed of liquid crystal carbon fibers and high-density polymers. It is one third the weight of the material normally used for sails, and five times as strong, Dr. Koch said.

One big problem the team had to solve was detecting and removing kelp, a kind of seaweed. "If it gets caught on your boat, it can stop you," Dr. Koch said.

To that end the scientists developed a fiber optic system to tell if the kelp was on the boat, but eventually decided on a less technical system to actually remove it: a 10-foot pole to push it away.

In the end, the science involved helped create a winning boat. (The America3 coaches and technology were selected by the US Olympic team for the next Olympics, Dr. Koch said.)

But management was also key to the victory. And there Dr. Koch cited the influence of his MIT basketball coach, Jack Barry, who taught him "the essence of teamwork."

In the end, then, Dr. Koch said, "we showed that ordinary Americans taking a scientific approach, and with teamwork, can do anything."

Dr. Koch also made two special presentations to Dr. Paul E. Gray, Chairman of the Corporation and MIT SB '54, SM '55, ScD '60: a scaled-down model of the America3, which will be displayed in the Hart Nautical Museum, and a half-scale model of the America's Cup itself. The cup will be displayed at the Athletic Department, and will be a perpetual trophy to honor MIT students with the management, technological and teamwork qualities exemplified by the America3 team.

Perhaps management, technology, and teamwork could also describe the overall effort behind this year's Technology Day, which appeared to go so smoothly. In introducing Professor Ogilvie, William Hecht, executive vice president of the Alumni/ae Association and MIT SB '61, told the audience how every year a faculty member is asked to help organize the Technology Day festivities, and this year "we enlisted a faculty member who did an extraordinary job in putting this program together-in fact, I think it's more his program than ours."

Professor Ogilvie, in turn, cited the "many dedicated, hard-working committee members [led by Arthur Winston, MIT PhD '54] and Alumni Association staff" who helped make his work on Technology Day "a remarkable experience."

A version of this
article appeared in the
June 16, 1993

issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume
37, Number
36).


Topics: Oceanography and ocean engineering, Special events and guest speakers

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