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Final Frontier
Larry Mayer and his team of ocean-mapping researchers are unlocking the mysteries hidden by the world's oceans.
By Todd Balf

Also read: Where's UNH Ocean Mapping? Everywhere

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In a glacier blue fleece jacket and a UNH baseball cap, Larry Mayer stands on the exposed foredeck of the 420-foot Healy, the U.S. Coast Guard's newest and largest polar icebreaker, looking oddly relaxed. He is in a remote corner of the globe—only a few miles off the low gray shore of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States—but it's a veritable hub compared to where he's going, an uninhabited place several hundred nautical miles north, where the cold is colder, the gray grayer, and the mental hardships from extended stays are so perverse they produce a rare medical condition known as "Long Eye." Science describes this as a vacant stare indicating that the individual is—in so many words—miserable.

Getting there won't be any picnic, either. Mayer's chief-scientist living quarters for the next six weeks aboard the Healy will be spartan; the mess area where he'll eat is often engulfed in the grindingly deafening sound caused by a 2-inch-thick steel hull crashing through sea ice 6 feet thick. Traversing the ship is an obstacle course of skull-cropping bulkheads and exposed hand-over-hand ladders, including the so-called "ladder of death," a slip-and-you'll-be-sorry shortcut. That the ship is stockpiled with an extra year's worth of food rations suggests that it isn't beyond anyone's imagination that the vessel could become icebound, locked in a frozen embrace of bergs and bears and released when and if the Arctic deems it so. At this very instant, only moments after he's come aboard, the weather is deteriorating. A spitting rain smears his glasses and gusts infiltrate his white turtleneck.

And he is pretty much loving every moment of it. He's about to show a National Geographic film crew around for its future series, "Alien Deep," but right now he is thinking about how lucky he felt as a helicopter ferried him to the ship's landing pad. "I've been going to sea for 34 years," he explains. "This"—he gestures happily toward the largely unmapped and unexplored and unloved sea around him—"is why I became an oceanographer."

It's mid-August 2011, and Mayer, the founding director of UNH's Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping, is here along with nine other UNH researchers to embark on a 45-day seafloor survey of a strategically vital section of the high Arctic. The data Mayer and his team will acquire will be instrumental in identifying and negotiating future U.S. boundaries. "We look at a beach and we think that's where the country ends," says Mayer, explaining that the continent in fact often extends unknown distances beneath the sea. Seventy-one percent of the Earth's surface is covered by oceans, and most of it is a mystery. That mystery is what draws the UNH researchers to take long, arduous voyages like this one and spend uncounted hours in the lab, turning the data they collect into detailed marine charts and intuitive 3-D videos.

As the ship prepares to get underway, Mayer knows the icepack is lurking some 100 miles away—but he says he wouldn't be surprised to see it sooner. To the east a massive polar bear just swam past, headed for an exhausted landfall at Point Barrow's headland. Mayer didn't need to see the bear to be reminded how wild this place is. He is surrounded, pretty much everywhere he looks, by seafloor incognita. Even segments of the Alaskan coast near Barrow, an area that is seeing increased science expedition traffic, lack modern charting; some areas haven't been updated since Captain Cook plied these frigid waters in the 18th century.

There's real work to be done, and in the process, the six UNH graduate students in tow are about to get the experience of their lives. That the next generation of hydrographers is performing research here, and not some other ocean research venue like the sunny south Pacific, tells you something about both the scientific seduction of "farthest north" and the Mayer-led team.

"I don't know what the most intimidating thing for me is," says grad student Christy Fandel of Charlotte, N.C., before the ship's departure. "Maybe it's the length of time at sea. We're going to be out a long time." Fellow student Jorge Alavera, a lieutenant in the Ecuadorean navy who has surveyed the Amazon, is struck by how they will be plowing through seemingly immovable objects instead of around them. Fandel, Alavera and their fellow students are in that lovely scientific sweet spot of being in a place where everything is new. "My career was changed because somebody took me to sea," notes Mayer.

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.

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.

"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."

Meanwhile, things can get interesting once underway. In 2004, the Healy got stuck in 30-foot-deep ice above 80 degrees north latitude. The dispiriting options included a call to the Russians for help (they own the world's most powerful icebreakers) or a prolonged Shackleton-like stay on the ice waiting for a thaw. Eventually, after 10 hours of body-rattling collisions, the ship bucked and rammed its way through. During the most recent Arctic mission, the Healy pounded against an ice ridge 36 times over the course of two hours before finally rumbling through. Days earlier, as a result of accumulated ice damage to equipment on both vessels, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 flew in crucial repair parts, airdropping three packages on an adjacent ice floe. One scientist puts the working conditions this way: You don't have to be crazy to do science in the Arctic, but it helps.

An Arctic voyage is also an opportunity. So on this trip, as with several previous ones, Mayer has invited "riders" who are doing all manner of ancillary science projects: everything from high-Arctic bird inventories to ocean acidification readings to video intelligence on the ice conditions ahead using hand-launched, hand-caught 2.5-pound Raven drones left over from Afghanistan. He also coordinated a rendezvous with Canadian scientists aboard the icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent—each vessel taking turns breaking ice for the other's experiments.

While Mayer makes it clear that mapping the seafloor is the main goal, he's plainly pleased at so much going on under his watch: he wants to cram in as much science as possible. In the hydrographic universe he is well known for his mantra: one survey, many uses. Here in the Arctic, the variation might be: one big ship, many, many uses.

His inclusiveness extends to another presence: the media. The team's work does not take place in a vacuum, Mayer believes. Public outreach is part of UNH's mission, and, in addition, more opportunities arise when the world knows what they're up to. Mayer is a natural: a good storyteller and a concise and self-deprecating explainer. He also comes across as a regular guy. In the Anchorage airport, he has the high-speed McDonald's run down cold. The veteran science producer for the National Geographic film crew was flummoxed when a guy named Larry left him a message saying he'd be there to pick him up at the airport in Barrow: "I went back to check the record—I thought it had to be a different Larry. I've never had a chief scientist offer to come get me at the airport before."

WHAT NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICand others are increasingly interested in is the newly opening Arctic and the impact that Mayer's work will have in delineating who owns what. The mapping of millions of square kilometers of Arctic seafloor is the result of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gave Arctic-abutting nations 10 years to map their Arctic seabeds. The big question for scientific teams from Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark and Norway is how far into the Arctic their respective continental shelves extend. Using multibeam sonar technology and analysis of seafloor samples, each team will put together a claim based on data from dozens of cruises. Next up may be the hardest part: reaching a multinational political agreement over a resource-rich portion of the world.

It seems the 21st-century version of settling disputed borders involves not armies but mapmakers. Mayer regards that as progress—an exercise that is civil and often collaborative. That said, the work isn't entirely without tension. In 2007, the Russians used a mini-sub to plant a flag on the seafloor underneath the North Pole. After he returned from the expedition, a Russian polar scientist was quoted in USA Today as saying, "I don't give a damn what all these foreign politicians there are saying about this... The Arctic has always been Russian." Soon thereafter, Mayer and Calder were at Boston's Logan Airport preparing to board a plane for their polar cruise when a woman hustled up to them, having noticed their U.S. Arctic military-style parkas. "Are you going up to the Arctic to stop the Russians?" she asked. "Yes, ma'am!" replied Mayer, snapping to.

Even the naming of things can lead to vigorous debate. On a 2009 cruise, a 3,280-foot seamount was discovered by Canadian and U.S. vessels in tandem. The find was significant, but naming it required consensus. Ultimately, Mayer nominated "Mt. Cooperation." The Canadians eventually countered with the Inuktitut word Savaqatigiik. (Asked what it means, Mayer says with a smile: "Cooperation.")

"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."

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.

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."

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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