Monday, January 12, 2009

Sea science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography

The Aquarius habitat is presently the only undersea dwelling and research laboratory in operation. Aquarius is owned by NOAA and is operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (Aquarius image copyright © 2009, University of North Carolina Wilmington. All rights reserved. Further reproduction prohibited.)

There were at one time seven or eight undersea research habitats in operation, but they are costly and difficult to maintain, and current priorities are elsewhere. The chief scientist for Aquarius, and formerly with the educational organization SEA, Ellen Prager, has written Chasing Science at Sea: Racing Hurricanes, Stalking Sharks, and Living Undersea with Ocean Experts, to convey her enjoyment and the wonder of ocean science.

The author makes a strong case for scientific field work. All natural sciences are based on observations, and nothing observes as thoroughly as a human. For any scientist, the wonder of discovery is powerful motivation; for a scientist in the field, this is coupled with the sheer enjoyment of fieldwork, regardless of the accompanying drudgery and discomfort, or even danger.

Chasing Science is primarily a book of stories. This is no dry tome, but a lively little book, full of anecdotes broadly grouped in a half dozen categories. Some of them are of dangers averted (or not), such as the aggressive sea lions that have occasionally chased the author right out of the water, or the sharks that came to investigate a group of mid-ocean swimmers, or the panic of running out of air sixty feet down, and having to surface quickly, grab an air tank and return to thirty feet to decompress before 'the bends' set in. Dr. Prager tells of a doctor who took an extra blood sample from her while she was saturation diving at Aquarius. Just to prove a point, he took it to the surface in a pressurized container, then released the pressure all at once. The effect was like opening a just-dropped can of soda: ker-fizz, ker-splash!

More of the stories are of the beauties and wonders of the work itself. The author and her science buddies tell stories of swimming amidst a dense pod of curious reef fish, of gathering data that blew away one idea only to replace it with a better one, or of getting so caught up in observing animal behavior that one forgets to sleep for a few days at a time.

Trouble and frustration stories also abound. Equipment gets lost, or storms delay a tightly-scheduled mission. But many a scientist will return from a scientific voyage having endured seasickness, hurricanes, poor sleeping conditions and worse food, and claim stoutly that those are nothing compared to battling the bureaucracy for continued support.

My wife asked, while I was reading the book, why it is so hard to do ocean science. I said, "Because you can't see into it." Astronomy is comparatively easy, because we can see our targets. Yet the amount spent on our four "great observatories", including the Hubble Space Telescope, exceeds all money spent on ocean science for all time, so far. NASA has 25 times the budget of NOAA's ocean science arm.

And this is the author's continued message. Funding for ocean science is declining, even as our need for solid data grows. Coastlines and reefs are being restricted more and more, so that people have ever fewer opportunities to have even the simple pleasure of clambering about a tide pool or snorkeling over shallow corals. Three-quarters of the earth's surface is hidden beneath the opaque screen of one to three miles of ocean water. Nothing compares with real light, reflected off real objects and sea life, entering human eyes unfiltered by video cameras and electronic screens.

I know, I've done geological field work, and nothing beats being there. All the pictures I have taken don't convey to someone else the feelings I had just being there.

No comments: