Final Frontier
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Perry Smith/UNH Photographic Services
Colin Ware's Data Visualization Research Lab (VisLab) produces applications that range from 3D interactive visualization systems for ocean mapping to a ship simulator with a 180-degree panoramic display. His animation revealing the complexity of ocean currents is on display at the Smithsonian.

MAYER'S ONLY DETOUR from the deep came 30 years ago when he was a finalist to become an astronaut. Even if he had joined NASA's first class of mission specialists, it's doubtful his thinking about what constitutes the final frontier would have changed. It's a point of contention with oceanographers that so much of the nation's attention in the last 50 years has been directed to the exploration of space. Mayer estimates that only 10 percent of the world's oceans have been mapped at the highest possible resolution. In final-frontier terms, he believes the technological challenge is every bit as daunting (and inspiring) in the deep ocean as in deep space. "Bob Ballard [the National Geographic explorer] once said to me that the difference is that people look up and they think 'good,'" says Mayer, "and they look down and think 'bad.'"

Mayer is doing his best to remedy the situation. In the Gulf, for example, a UNH team led by Weber identified several other abandoned wellheads with previously unreported leaks. The fact that so little is known about the Gulf floor prompted an obvious next step: a grant application to map the Gulf. "There are 27,000 abandoned wellheads in the Gulf," says Mayer. "How many are leaking?" It would take about 120 days and cost $3-4 million to find out. But whatever the answer Mayer gets on his Gulf proposal, the centers won't want for projects anytime soon.

A more immediate goal is a project called Integrated Coastal and Ocean Mapping. The idea is to collect and analyze mapping data across multiple agencies, reducing costly, time-consuming redundancy, says Mayer. The idea is both simple and crucial: map the ocean once, but use the data many times. He thinks the work might be as important and demanding as anything he's ever done, requiring both hard science and a host of diplomatic skills.

In the Arctic, Mayer's survey work for the Law of the Sea Treaty may be nearing completion, but the region's emerging focal point as an oil and natural gas hot spot could mean his work has only just begun. The next phase, the development of the Arctic, is sure to be more complex. It's not hard to imagine that his team's tools and experience could play a role in the future. His experience with assessing the habitat damage in the Gulf makes him concerned for the future of the remote and fragile Arctic. "What if something like what happened in the Gulf happened in the Arctic?" he asks. "Even a small spill would be an absolute catastrophe."

LUNCH MONITOR: How do blue whales swim when they're feeding? The prevailing view was like a bus in traffic: lots of stops to gulp krill and water. But using radio transmitters and the Track Plot program devised by Colin Ware, scientists found that the whales swim more like roller coasters.

BY THE CONCLUSION of the 2011 Arctic expedition last summer, the group had surveyed a remarkable 18,200 square nautical miles of seafloor. Over the span of six cruises they found undersea mountains, inspected long, shapely ridgelines and described the 200-foot-deep scours of drifting icebergs. It is a remarkable achievement, but there are things beneath them they can only guess at; their surveyed corner of the Arctic Ocean is a mere fraction of the "great alone." In other words, mysteries prevail, and where there are mysteries there is a reason to return. That, and the North Pole thing—they didn't, after all, get there—at least not this time.

Mayer's drive to explore—mysterious, possibly, to those not so afflicted—is most easily understood on the morning of the scheduled rendezvous with the arriving Healy. The scientific party was just waking up, having already packed the night before. There was, however, still that smidgen of uncertainty, it being the crazy Arctic after all, that the ship wouldn't be there when they awoke. When Mayer got up, he looked out a window to the gray northerly horizon and saw, captured in a brilliant dab of the freshest, fiercest light, a huge ship in wait, the possibilities endless. ~

Todd Balf '83 is at work on a book about America's first Arctic hero, the 19th-century explorer and author Elisha Kent Kane. His recent magazine work is compiled at byliner.com, a website specializing in nonfiction narrative writing.

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