Final Frontier
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Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
BIG PICTURE: CCOM director Larry Mayer with a National Geographic film crew.

"The press tries to make this Arctic stuff into a Wild West fight for Arctic resources," he notes. "It's really anything but. Each country is basically following the rule of law by going out and doing this mapping to develop an evidence-based case."

The urgency Mayer feels for gathering information is simple: the quicker the borders can be determined, the sooner nations like the United States can not only responsibly develop resources but also protect them. Once the United States has established an extended continental shelf, "we can create a regulatory regime that will have precautions built in," says Mayer. "Without regulations, there's the danger of wildcat exploration."

On the other hand, Mayer isn't about to hide his excitement over the discovery that the United States' land claim is likely to be considerably larger than previously thought. On a 2007 polar trip aboard the Healy, the team discovered evidence that America's "foot of the slope," which marks the nation's underwater boundary, extends far north into the ridge known as the Chukchi Cap.

MAYER HAS BEEN MESMERIZED by water for as long as he can remember. When he was growing up in the Bronx, he was a devotee of Jacques Cousteau and Arthur C. Clarke, including Clarke's 1958 book Boy Beneath the Sea. He earned his scuba license as a teen and attended the University of Rhode Island to study oceanography. Torn between a medical career and the ocean, Mayer chose the latter, pursuing his doctoral studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

At Scripps, Mayer applied acoustic sensor tools to problems no one had thought to use them for, like the history of climate. His varied research in the 1980s and '90s had one common denominator: the ocean. Arriving at UNH, Mayer wanted to make Durham the next best thing to being at sea. To do that, and to fulfill his mission at the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, his team aggressively expanded the new class of sonar tools that make, he says, "the ocean come alive."

Sugar Maples
Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
WILDLIFE WEBCAM: UNH IT specialist Roland Arsenault, left, and Healy crew member David Hassilev mount a Canon SLR camera for the ice GeoCam, which will take photos of the ice up to a kilometer away and compare them to satellite images in order to help understand how ice conditions affect the distribution of whale, krill, seals and other animals.

Sonar plays a large part in their research, and its evolution traces an arc across Mayer's lifetime. In the 1950s, the decade he was born, single-beam sonar was like a broad searchlight that illuminated the ocean floor by measuring the time a pulse of sound took to travel there and back. The results were "a very broad-brush look at the seafloor," he notes.

A 1970s innovation was the use of multibeam sonar. Smaller, focused beams of sound measured many depths all at once, producing a much more detailed and accurate image. "It felt like putting on glasses for the first time, like, 'Whoa!" recalls Mayer.

But the sheer volume of data generated was staggering: an hour of multibeam sonar can generate as much data as there is in the Encyclopedia Britannica several times over. NOAA was drowning in data. In 2003, Calder developed a complex algorithm called the Combined Uncertainty and Bathymetric Estimator, revolutionizing the field of chart making. Charts that once took weeks if not months were suddenly ready in hours.

A second major innovation in the late '90s involved measuring "backscatter." Harder materials reflect more sound energy than softer ones. As a result, researchers are starting to have not just the "where" but the "what" of the seafloor. Now the challenge is to decipher what, precisely, the shapes represent, which is where Colin Ware, director of UNH's Data Visualization Research Lab, and his interactive, 3-D elements come in.

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