Can I Borrow Your Sub?
Greg Kurras, a member of the civilian scientific team that rode the nuclear
attack submarine USS Hawkbill into the Arctic in August 1998, poses at the
by Peter Tyson
In August 1993, when the USS Pargo, a Sturgeon-class attack submarine, went to
sea with five civilian scientists aboard, George Newton smiled.
It had been the end of a long journey for him. Newton is Chairman of the U.S.
Arctic Research Commission and a 25-year Navy submarine veteran who served
under the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover. Ever since he'd first deployed to
the Arctic aboard a Navy sub in 1971, Newton had hoped one day to get Navy
submarines to take civilian scientists to the Arctic, a place notoriously
difficult to study. The idea remained germinal until the late 1980s, when the
Soviet threat dissipated like smoke and the U.S. government began seeking new, "dual"
uses of its military assets. That's when Newton swung into action.
"I got thrown out of a lot of offices, albeit politely," Newton recalls of his
seven-year struggle to convince the Navy to give his brainchild a whirl. The
idea of highly classified "ships of the line" gallivanting around the Arctic at
the whim of men in white lab coats—one can almost feel the bristles going up
on necks of Navy admirals. But with the help of civilian scientists, among them
Dr. Gary Brass of the University of Miami and the late Dr. Marcus Langseth, a
geologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Newton
pressed on. In the end, one of the very brass hats who had once ushered him to
the door opened that door for negotiation, and by late 1992 the Navy had
accepted the proposal.
There have been four cruises since then—one SCICEX or "Scientific Ice
Expedition" each year between 1995 and 1998. For each cruise, the Navy provided
a Sturgeon-class submarine for a multi-week scientific foray under the Arctic
ice. (The Navy paid operational costs, while most scientific costs were
shouldered by the National Science Foundation.) The most recent expedition took
place in August 1998, when the USS Hawkbill traveled 11,000 miles over 42 days.
Before the cruise, 12 torpedoes (of a possible full complement of 24) were
removed to make room for scientific equipment and bunks. Even so, the Hawkbill,
as its predecessors in the SCICEX program had in previous years, remained on
active duty throughout the mission. (To take a personal tour through an active
nuclear sub, check out See Inside a Submarine.)
In 1958, the USS Nautilus,
America's first nuclear-powered submarine, became the first sub to travel under
the Arctic icecap.
The SCICEX cruises were not the first time an American nuclear submarine had
traveled under the Arctic ice. That distinction rests with the USS Nautilus,
the country's first nuclear sub, which did so in 1958. Nor was the 1993 Pargo
jaunt the first time the Navy had lent out its equipment to scientists. In the
early 1990s, the Navy began letting civilian researchers borrow its $15 billion
underwater hydrophone system, which was formerly used to eavesdrop on Soviet
subs. Geologists listened in on undersea eruptions and earthquakes, while
biologists tracked the migrations of singing whales.
The Navy has even allowed scientists aboard its nuclear submarines before, in particular the
NR-1. This one-of-a-kind "deep submergence craft" is like a modern analogue to
Captain Nemo's sub in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Like a
giant robot, the 150-foot-long NR-1 has three viewing ports, external lighting
and video and still cameras, even an extendable wheel on which it can roll
along the seafloor. Rickover had it built in the 1960s as a developmental unit
for future subs as well as to install and maintain underwater equipment and
undertake search and recovery missions. (The NR-1 recovered key parts of the
space shuttle Challenger in 1986.) It was also designed from the start
to do oceanographic research, geophysical surveys, and other scientific work.
Bob Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, even borrowed it in 1997 to
search for ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. (He found eight, including
five Roman trading ships.)
For years, the Navy has lent civilians
its miniature nuclear sub, the NR-1, to conduct everything from oceanographic
studies to searches for ancient shipwrecks.
The Navy has even performed science before using its nuclear fleet. But
the advent of SCICEX marked the first time they had earmarked active
nuclear submarines for dedicated science cruises.
Scientists believe there is an urgent need to study the Arctic Ocean. Since
1990, its waters have warmed by as much as 2°F, a significant increase for
an entire ocean (albeit the world's smallest). The rise began after balmier
water from the Atlantic began muscling its way into the northern ocean. As a
result of the warming, the permanent pack ice has retreated some 100 miles
north, and in summer it has thinned by about a foot to just six feet. The
snow-white Arctic reflects sunlight back into space, providing a vital climatic
counterbalance to the tropics' heat. If the ice melted, leaving a wine-dark sea
to absorb the sun's rays, it could accelerate global warming.
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