NOVA Online (click here for NOVA home)
Submarines, Secrets, and Spies
Site Map

Greg Kurras 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 North Pole.
Can I Borrow Your Sub?
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.

Nautilus In 1958, the USS Nautilus, America's first nuclear-powered submarine, became the first sub to travel under the Arctic icecap.

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.)

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.

NR-1 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 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.)

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.

Global warning
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.


Printer-Friendly Format   Feedback

See Inside a Submarine | Can I Borrow Your Sub?
Sounds Underwater | Life on a Submarine
Resources | Transcript | Site Map | Submarines Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule | About NOVA
Watch NOVAs online | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Search | To Print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated May 2002
Join Us/E-Mail NOVA Site Map NOVA