Final Frontier
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Brian Calder image
UNDERWATER VIEW: In 2002, CCOM researchers worked with the Navy to survey D-Day wreckage off Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. Sonar revealed a Mulberry harbor and blockship.

There's something else, too, about the mission ahead. The expedition's northern terminus is 88 degrees 27 minutes north latitude. Translation: the Healy will be 93 nautical miles shy of the North Pole, as close as Mayer or the current crew of the Healy has ever been. You might expect Mayer, as a scientist, to be coolly objective, even blase. He doesn't need to add his name to a long list that started with Admiral Robert Peary and Matthew Henson 103 years ago. Still, it's the North Pole. "It exerts a tremendous pull," Mayer concedes, a gleam in his eye. "I expect we'll have a discussion with the captain to see what can be done. We'll be so close."

MAYER IS, professionally speaking, an oceanographer, but he is obviously an explorer at heart, a man meant for a part of the world that's been dubbed "the great alone." He's also a man who never wants to miss an opportunity. His bags are always packed, it seems; his daily agenda in a state of perpetual overflow. Earlier in the year he flew 15,000 miles in a 48-hour period for lectures in Los Angeles and Hawaii. "I'd never done back-to-back Red Eyes!" he told me, as if his reservoir of stamina were a science experiment unto itself. (One of the great stories about Mayer, which reflects just how bad he is at passing up opportunities to do science at sea, involves his wedding in August 1979. It didn't happen until October 1979 because he couldn't say no to a trip.)

Mayer is nearing 90 ocean expeditions (more than five years' worth of days at sea), resulting in a wealth of habitat, sediment and geological research. He has mapped thousands of kilometers of uncharted Arctic seafloor, played archaeologist in the historic waters off Normandy (where sonar was used to detect the submerged artifacts of the D-Day invasion) and passed above the infamous Macondo wellhead in the Gulf, pinging sonar signals in a dramatic search for gas leaks that might reveal a new and even more catastrophic disaster following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
FIRST WATCH: Mayer, left, JHC co-director Andy Armstrong and Steve Roberts, NSF computer and data specialist, check sonar results aboard the Healy.

His office in the Jere A. Chase Ocean Engineering Lab at UNH is a veritable rummage sale of keepsake caps, patches and pins from his international cruises. In 2000, he was asked to serve on President Clinton's Ocean Exploration Panel; last January he was selected to chair the National Research Council committee on the effect of the Deepwater Horizon spill on the Gulf ecosystem. But from the number of yet-to-be-hung plaques and framed commendations, you get the feeling that he's neither a man who's easily self-satisfied nor one who's comfortable being too comfortable.

MAYER ARRIVED AT UNH in 2000, and since then he has overseen the dramatic growth of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping and the Joint Hydrographic Center, both of which focus on research, teaching and state-of-the-art ocean-mapping technologies. UNH is now one of only two U.S. institutions that has been awarded a Category A certificate for education in hydrography, the highest level of international recognition in the field.

Though UNH's two centers share faculty, researchers, students and facilities, the hydrographic center is defined by its unique partnership with NOAA (which is charged with producing charts for safe navigation over an area of 3.5 million square nautical miles), while the ocean mapping center partners with industry and others to educate students, do research and develop the next generation of hydrographic tools. Together, the two centers form one of the nation's most productive ocean science hubs, with graduate students coming from all corners of the world to study under Mayer and other high-profile faculty members like Brian Calder, who, along with the centers' co-director Andy Armstrong, has been on all six of the UNH-led Arctic cruises. In 2010, the Joint Hydrographic Center was awarded a grant by NOAA for $35.7 million over five years, the second-largest among all the grants and contracts ever received by UNH.

It's a long way from the startup days in 1999, when NOAA and UNH agreed to this novel partnership. Since then a steady stream of grants has not only funded the researchers' work but expanded it. Each CCOM project seems to lead to another endeavor; each new sonar tool mobilizes them in a direction they didn't foresee. Take the suite of sonar techniques and resulting 3-D ocean maps that the center produces. It was never intended for oil spill disasters, but research off northern California showed it could accurately detect natural gas plumes a mile below the ocean's surface. Since leaking oil from wellheads often contains natural-gas bubbles, Mayer's team, which included UNH acoustician Thomas Weber and NOAA hydrographic specialist Lt. Glen Rice '99, '06G, believed they had a new way to monitor what was happening deep beneath the surface of the sea.

Colleen Mitchell photograph
One of three state-of-the-art test tanks at the Chase Ocean Engineering Lab at UNH.

"Our real work in the Gulf started after they capped the wellhead on July 15," recalls Mayer of the team's deployment in 2010. "The White House was concerned about a potential blowout. Basically it took the U.S. Secretary of Energy pounding on the table, saying to BP, 'Let them over the wellhead.' We found a small leak, but fortunately it wasn't serious."

Mayer and his team can bring a clarifying scientific eye to messy events like this. A project that also might qualify as messy is a high Arctic cruise, not only because of the intense political ramifications of mapping the continental shelf and the size of the job (only six percent of the Arctic Ocean has been mapped using high-resolution tools) but also because of project-imperiling logistics.

Take the most recent expedition last August. Mayer needed to get himself and a 30-plus member scientific party onto the Healy, a 16,000-ton Coast Guard cutter plying the waters in a part of the world where weather windows close in an instant and nothing is certain. In the days leading up to their arrival in Barrow, Mayer learned that among other disquieting things the town was out of gasoline. When he told the helicopter ferry coordinator that at least the weather was looking great, the reply was, "I can guarantee you one thing—it will change."

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