Can I Borrow Your Sub?
Dale Chayes (background) and Robin Muench, chief
scientist aboard SCICEX '98, get some work done in the Hawkbill's modified
Part 2 | back to part 1
In addition to investigating this phenomenon, scientists aboard the SCICEX
cruises have undertaken geophysical surveys of the Arctic seabed, including
studying the little-known boundary between the North American and Eurasian
tectonic plates. They've used sonars to determine how quickly sea ice forms and
melts. (For a primer on sonar, see Sounds Underwater.) They've collected water samples and tested sea saltiness. And they've
sampled minute crustaceans in the seafloor to determine if pollutants from
industrialized countries to the south have contaminated this remote
"All of the marine and arctic disciplines are involved," says Dale Chayes, a
sonar expert from Lamont Doherty who was one of five civilian researchers on
the most recent cruise. "Not only mapping the seafloor with our sonars, but
mapping the ice canopy with upward-looking sonars and measuring biological,
chemical, and physical parameters of the Arctic in support of a very broad
range of science programs."
The logistical benefits to polar scientists are manifold. A submarine can do
things no surface ship can. Sturgeon-class subs can travel at over 25 mph and
are not impeded by sea ice, storms, or the need to refuel often. As long as the
ocean is deep enough, they can go anywhere they want. They are quiet, which is
good for sonar work, and extremely stable, which aids gravity and bathymetry
studies. And they're a lot more comfortable than, say, a research camp out on
the ice. Jay Ardai, another member of the August team who has long experience
in the far north, told Chayes that "anytime I can go to the Arctic and take a
hot shower once a day without having to make the water or generate the
electricity is a real win." (To learn what it's like to work on a sub, see Life on a Submarine.)
Benefits to the Navy are equally significant. "The Navy's been quite happy
with the results," says Robert Anderson, technical director of the Navy's
Arctic Submarine Laboratory in San Diego, Calif., which organizes the cruises.
The Navy has learned more about the polar region and what equipment they
require to work there efficiently. They've earned good publicity by showing
themselves as willing partners with science. Finally, they've
maintained their training and operability in this distant corner of the planet.
This last benefit is critical, Newton says. "You can read omnivorously about
the Arctic before you deploy, but when you get there you find that it's truly
different from almost every situation you've read about. It's one of those
places where training is best accomplished by actually being there."
The sail of the USS Hawkbill (SSN-666) pokes above the polar ice during
the August 1998 cruise.
The last SCICEX cruise is slated for March 1999, when the USS Hawkbill once
again heads into the frigid north. The Navy is about to retire its aging
Sturgeon-class subs, which will shrink the submarine fleet to 50 from the 94
subs it boasted in the late 1980s. The downsizing might prove the death knell
for SCICEX. "At least for the forseeable future, there will be fewer opportunities
for dedicated cruises like the ones we've seen over the last four years,"
George Newton, true to the never-say-never attitude that helped him convince
the Navy the first time around, continues to urge his former employer to fund
additional cruises. "It's a very difficult situation to take much further at
this point," he says. "But judging from my regular contact with the Navy, they
are hopeful that they can continue the annual cruise at least into the year
In the meantime, Newton is not content to rest on his laurels. He's now got a
better idea, one even more radical than SCICEX. He wants the Navy to give the
science community one of its retiring Sturgeon-class subs for its exclusive,
full-time use, not just in the Arctic but anywhere in the world ocean it wants
to take it.
Will civilian scientists enjoy views of the North Pole
such as this one on future SCICEX cruises? The program's fate now lies with the
It's a tall order. For one thing, who would run the sub? "I don't think it's
realistic to have the civilian community operate a platform of the complexity
of an attack submarine," says Chayes, who supports Newton's idea in principle.
Even if the Navy continued to operate any sub it donated to science, there are
enormous logistical issues to consider. For example, as Chayes notes, with a
diesel-powered surface ship, you can enter virtually any port in the world and
get food, fuel, spare parts—not so with a nuclear attack submarine. Plus,
the bill to overhaul a Sturgeon-class sub for civilian science has been
estimated at $50 to $200 million, with annual operating costs of perhaps $10
million. The Navy might have that kind of money, but does the science
Newton is used to not convincing everyone right away. Perhaps while he pursues
his latest dream, he'll just have to get thrown out of a few more offices.
Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.
Photos: (1,4,5,6) Courtesy of Dale Chayes; (2,3) U.S. Navy.
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