It was 20 years ago today that I posted my first blog on this website. It ran as follows:
Tuesday, September 30, 2003
Today Elaine and I stood on the tiny deck of Alvin, the submersible used to find an accidentally dumped H-bomb off Spain in 1966 – and to investigate wrecks like those of the Titanic, Bismarck and Thresher. Extraordinary sensation.
Here’s the background. Ever since the late 1960s, I had wanted to visit the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). I think I first heard of it via (Dr) John Todd, who founded the New Alchemy Institute and whose work on aquaculture, particularly the farming of tilapia, I was hooked by in the early 1970s. I even went off and worked with (Dr) Robin Clarke at his UK equivalent, BRAD (for Biotechnic Research & Development) for a short stint in 1973. But my burgeoning interest in oceanography and aquaculture lost steam by 1974, after timely, kindly advice from several professors in the field that you really needed a PhD to make any real progress.
But as the climate change issue grew in importance, so did my interest in the work of WHOI. Then Elaine and I met WHOI President and Director (Dr) Bob Gagosian at the 2003 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. He arranged for us to be taken around the Woods Hole set-up by (Dr) Dave Gallo, Director of Special Projects. Among the things we talked about was Daves work with (Dr) Robert Ballard, who among many other things discovered the Titanic.
We also got to see some pretty interesting technology. Dave took us around the 274-foot-long support ship Atlantis, on whose deck we saw and scrambled onto Alvin. Then there were the REMUS torpedoes, which were like something Q might have offered James Bond. Since I am just finishing off Robert Harriss novel Pompeii, whose hero is a Roman aqueduct engineer, I was interested to hear that REMUS torpedoes have been used to inspect a 45-mile stretch of the Delaware Aqueduct, which carries some 900 million gallons of water daily, and loses 10-36 million gallons each day.
I was even more interested to learn that REMUS machines have been used in Iraq to detect mines a job otherwise undertaken by US Navy-trained dolphins. The Navy also came up in discussions we had with a whale scientist whose work involves analysing blue whale calls picked up by SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) and other Navy offshore hydrophones, normally used to detect submarines. One of the whales they have been tracking this way, and for years, is easy to detect, because it sounds different turns out to be an unusual blue/finback hybrid. Another interesting finding: there seem to be more whales in some areas than anyone had expected.
But my key interest today was in WHOIs work on climate change, particularly of the abrupt variety. New data show North Atlantic waters at depths between 1,000 and 4,000 metres becoming dramatically less salty, especially in the past decade. The concern is that large-scale freshening of the North Atlantic could cross a threshold that would disrupt ocean circulation and trigger abrupt climate change.