Geotimes Banner

Geotimes is now


Customer Service
Geotimes Search

GeoMarketplace Link

EARTH magazine cover

  Geotimes - June 2007 - Down to Earth with Extreme Scientists

Down to Earth with Extreme Scientists
Celestial Sandman
Staring Down the Eye of the Storm
Capturing Earth's Fire on Film
Polar Perils

Tim Palucka

Tyler Nordgren, University of Redlands
By taking the temperature of California’s dunes, a geologist hopes to better identify features on the surface of Mars.

We left the paved part of Death Valley Road around sunset. I was riding in the last vehicle in a convoy of four: two SUVs, an RV and my Jeep. Planetary geologist Jeff Moersch drove the unwieldy RV that I was supposed to follow, but a plume of sand rendered it nearly invisible. Our ride through California’s Death Valley National Park continued to get worse, from our tires falling into ruts that jolted us sideways to a corrugated surface that shook my bones. When we finally pulled over in Eureka Valley, I could feel my pulse pounding all the way down to my feet.

The first thing I saw was the dark outline of Eureka Dune. Towering to the south of us at more than 200 meters (700 feet) high, it is the tallest sand dune in California. It was also our first target. Our team leader was Moersch, a geology professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, who is working on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover and Mars Odyssey projects. Craig Hardgrove, one of Moersch’s graduate students, and Chris Whisner, a geologist also at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, began scouting for the best site to set up the thermal infrared camera to capture the many angled slopes of the dune.

This dune is not just a pile of sand like you might find at a beach; it is more like a small mountain, with peaks, ridges, bowls, valleys and flat faces angled in every direction. The team’s goal in this first year of a three-year project for NASA’s Mars Fundamental Research Program was to record precise temperatures of various landscapes found in a “geological mass made of uniform particles,” says Moersch — in this case, a sand dune. One factor that affects these temperatures, is the angle at which each section of dune faces the sun. The more sunlight a dune face receives at any time as the sun moves across the sky, the hotter it is, so its angle matters. Other factors that affect the temperature of rocks are size and color. A small particle heats up and cools down faster than a large rock, and a dark rock absorbs more sunlight — and thus more heat — than a light one. By examining a sand dune with uniform particle sizes, distribution and colors, the researchers can be sure that any differences in temperature of the dune’s faces are strictly due to variations in the slope angles. “Then when we look at other features that have not only multiple orientations but also multiple grain sizes, and bright and dark stuff that absorbs different amounts of sunlight, we can take out the slope effect,” says Moersch. Through this process of elimination, they will attempt to isolate each factor that can affect the temperature of a landscape.

Further work will enable Moersch to subtract out color from his calculations, leaving only particle size distribution as a factor. This is important to possibly locating evidence of water on other planets. For example, alluvial fans, which are formed by flowing water, often have widely distributed rocks. A delta, on the other hand, is formed from the accumulation of sediments like sand and silt in slow, deeper waters, such as a lake. Therefore the pattern of rock distribution on a planet could tell scientists if that landscape ever had water, and if so, whether it flowed or pooled in a certain area.

Jeff Moersch (with a model of the rover Spirit) works
on NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover project.

Scientists have long tried to determine if water, thought to be essential to sustain life, ever flowed on Mars. Though rovers and satellite infrared cameras have sent back images of Martian landforms that resemble alluvial fans, what caused these features is uncertain. This team’s ultimate goal is to obtain detailed thermal profiles of alluvial fans on Earth for comparison to such images obtained from areas on Mars. So, in addition to taking thermal infrared pictures of sand, they are also taking images of alluvial formations in California’s desert.

By 10:30 p.m., the camera began its 24-hour vigil of Eureka Dune, powered by the cigarette lighter in one SUV, which ran all night. The dune appeared as a massive red glow in the camera’s LCD screen, indicating that it was still relatively warm. That night the temperature plunged to near freezing from daytime highs of almost 30 Celsius (about 86 degrees Fahrenheit) making me grateful for the borrowed tent and sleeping bag that kept me only mostly warm.

The skies were clear and the sun intense as it rose over the valley’s Last Chance Range the next morning. The camera stoically watched as the cold sand dune heated up again. I joined Moersch and a friend of his, Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif., on a hike up the dune to check the wetness of the sand. We stopped on a slope, and Moersch dug his hand down about 10 centimeters (4 inches).

This is the how deep the heat penetrates the sand during the day, and therefore the temperature that the camera actually records. He was pleased to find the sand was dry. Water would have absorbed additional heat, therefore changing the temperature of the sand and introducing yet another factor into the data.

Moersch knelt, letting a handful of sand grains run through his fingers. This evidently brought to mind a similar demonstration by Carl Sagan, who taught him and Nordgren at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where they were graduate students. Moersch launched into a remarkable imitation of the late astronomer: “Imagine I’m standing on the surface of Mars. I reach down my hand, I pick up a handful of material, I feel the grains running between my fingers, I feel the coarseness of the sand. ...Then imagine that I can do that without even being there. Imagine I could do that from 150 million miles away. Wouldn’t that be interesting?” I realized that this summed up why we were out here — we were trying to, in essence, “feel” Mars from millions of miles away.

The next morning, the sun blazed brightly again and I assumed all was well. But Moersch and Whisner were staring warily at a couple of wispy cirrus clouds in the distance. “The cloud situation is just sad,” Whisner said. It would have been considered a beautiful day anywhere else, but when your experiment depends on a steady flux of sunshine, even the smallest cloud is a problem. The weather satellite feed on the GPS showed more clouds on the way. Collecting thermal data today would be worthless. “We’ll wait until 3 or 4 [p.m.], and then go to the dune.” Whisner said. “Until then, the weather is just going to be hot and angry.”

Jeff Moersch, University of Tennessee
Craig Hardgrove, Chris Whisner, and the author (above) return to camp from “ground truthing” the wind- and rain-swept Eureka Dune.

But by late afternoon the researchers had decided that their time would be better spent by examining an alluvial fan to the north. At about 4 p.m., Hardgrove, Whisner and I hiked to the alluvial fan and staked out areas approximately 28 meters (91 feet) long by nearly 3.5 meters (11 feet) wide that corresponded to a single pixel in the thermal camera’s image.

On Tuesday, Hardgrove, Whisner and I went out to “ground truth” the Eureka Dune — that is, to measure the angles of its various dune faces in order to correlate the day-to-night temperatures with the orientation and steepness of the dune’s slopes. Hardgrove carried a handheld spectrometer to determine if the amount of light being reflected differed considerably from slope to slope, which would have added yet another complication to the data.

Had I not stupidly tried to scale the dune by myself that morning with no water along I might have been in better climbing shape, but my legs were gone. Moersch was at camp, watching through binoculars and directing us by walkie-talkie. Every instruction he gave that included the word “up” made my heart sink — and all the interesting spots seemed to be up. “I see what looks like a slightly lower albedo slope [one that reflects less light] about 200 feet up and to my right,” Moersch said, referring to what looked to him like a slightly darker streak on the dune, and off we went, with the young and thin Hardgrove ascending the slope easily, the slightly older Whisner making steady progress in his bare feet (exfoliating as he went), while I (decidedly older and fatter) at times resorted to crawling on all fours. When we got there, spectrometer measurements showed that the reflectance was nearly the same as the other slopes. Suddenly I heard a low rumble and could feel the sand dune vibrate. I searched the sky for aircraft, but the scientists told me it was a rare phenomenon called “dune boom,” caused by a surface avalanche of sand. A strong wind began sandblasting us and a tall dust devil swirled near the summit. “Luckily we’re not being attacked by that!” Whisner said. “It’s not entirely out of the question that we will be soon,” Hardgrove added jovially. “Dust devils don’t purposely avoid people.”

After measuring the slope’s orientation and the steepness of 13 faces of the dune, along with spectral readings, dark clouds rolled in and it started raining. In the distance, it looked as if the mountain pass through which we planned to exit was getting soaked, so the scientists decided to pack it in. They called the fieldwork off three days short of the projected stay, having gathered only about one day’s worth of good data. Their first field trip in December yielded only two days of data over a ten-day period, so this was not unexpected. I wouldn’t know until later that the weather would clear up the next day and the three researchers would return to Eureka Valley to study the alluvial fan. By the end of their stint in the sand, Moersch had enough thermal data to characterize the Eureka Dune and to begin to write a paper on this preliminary stage of research. But on my last day with the team, I was just concerned with getting out, as we made our way quickly down the dune under a wet sandblast. Soon we were driving the dusty, corrugated road again, with me pulling up the rear, lost in the cloud behind the RV.

Palucka is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Back to top

Megan Sever

Jim McFadden, a research meteorologist and hurricane program manager at NOAA’s Aircraft Operations Center in Florida, has been flying into — and out of — hurricanes for nearly 40 years.

Jim McFadden has penetrated the eye of a hurricane 535 times. And, he is quick to point out, he has exited the eye 535 times. “It’s important that these numbers match,” he says with a chuckle. He has come close to death on numerous occasions and really close at least twice — all in the name of research. This year marks his 39th as a NOAA hurricane hunter.

McFadden doesn’t have a typical 9-to-5 job. A day frequently begins with a call from the National Hurricane Center in Miami, requesting that he and one of his research teams based at the NOAA Aircraft Operations Center (AOC) in Tampa, Fla., fly into a storm. Typically, one of his teams flies first around the storm and then makes several passes through the storm, which can be up to about 320 kilometers (about 200 miles) in diameter. Many of these missions involve up to 10 hours of flying over the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea, making for very long days. The team’s goal is to learn more about storm behavior to improve forecasting models that can aid populations in preparing for severe weather — even oncoming disasters.

McFadden has been investigating hurricanes since 1965. With a bachelor’s degree in geology and a doctorate in meteorology, he immediately went to work for the Sea-Air Interaction Laboratory of the U.S. Weather Bureau (now part of NOAA), in Washington, D.C., studying how the air and the sea behave during hurricanes. When this lab relocated to Miami, Fla., in 1967, McFadden followed, becoming a hurricane hunter in 1968.

“My first time [penetrating the eye of a hurricane] was really quite a disappointment,” McFadden recalls. He and his crew of 16 to 20 scientists, pilots, navigators, technicians and others were flying a research mission near a hurricane when they “got the call” to fly directly into the storm. “So we flew into it, and it was kind of … normal, for lack of a better word,” he says. “I expected to encounter heavy turbulence, to get bounced around and then enter this beautiful, calm eye. But it wasn’t like that.” Instead, he says, “we hardly bounced at all. I’ve been on far more turbulent flights than that, including my last commercial flight from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale.”

But every storm is different. How much turbulence a flight encounters depends on whether the storm is intensifying or weakening, McFadden says. Some tropical storms while intensifying into hurricanes have produced far worse turbulence than a Category-5 storm that is no longer intensifying but could have had sustained winds greater than 250 kilometers (155 miles) per hour.

The worst storm McFadden ever penetrated was supposed to be a Category-1 or Category-2 storm when the team flew in, but then it grew. On Sept. 15, 1989, the team penetrated what had become Hurricane Hugo near Barbados at about 460 meters (about 1,500 feet) above the ocean. The hurricane eventually struck Charleston, S.C., as a Category-4 storm and caused more than $7 billion in damages. Winds should not have exceeded 177 kilometers (110 miles) per hour when McFadden’s crew first tore into it, but they were battered by wind speeds of more than 320 kilometers (about 200 miles) per hour “that bounced us all over,” he says. “Then we encountered something we’d never seen before: a mesovortice, which is like a mini-tornado in the hurricane’s eyewall.” In the middle of all this an engine shut down. “We were all over the sky. We fell 750 feet before we brought the aircraft under control,” he says. That was the last time that the team ever entered a hurricane at 460 meters (1,500 feet) as a first penetration. “We learned our lesson, and now we don’t penetrate lower than about 5,000 feet [1,525 meters].”

Although facing down Hugo was a harrowing experience, McFadden says he is thankful his team discovered the mesovortices. “We came out alive and learned something new,” he says — all in a day’s work.

When flying around and through hurricanes, researchers measure temperature, pressure, humidity, and wind speed and direction — factors that help determine a hurricane’s intensity and are fed into databases for forecast models. They also release “dropwindsondes,” which are data collectors attached to parachutes that float down to sea, gathering and reporting the same information at varying heights throughout the storm while the researchers track their positions with GPS. All the data are sent to the National Hurricane Center in real time.

Weather-measuring technology has been improving for decades, McFadden says, allowing researchers to collect better information to feed into ever-improving models. Recent advances in Doppler radar, GPS, high-speed satellite communications and more sensitive instruments have allowed researchers to make hurricane track forecasts — which tell where the hurricane is going and when it will land — more accurate by around 20 percent. That might not seem like a lot, he says, but just a small improvement can save tens of millions of dollars. Recent estimates have suggested that it costs over $1 million per mile of coastline for residents and emergency responders to prepare for a hurricane strike, according to NOAA. “So if you can cut back from 300 miles to 275 miles in in the warning, you can save a bundle on preparation costs. The bang for the buck is there,” McFadden says.

Where science is still lacking somewhat, McFadden says, is in the intensity forecasts. Telling how strong or weak a hurricane is going to become and how quickly, he says, is still very difficult, “but we’re getting there.” In fact, he says, “you should see vast improvements this year.” The team will be starting a major data collection effort this season to attempt to improve intensity forecasts, he says. Specifically, he says, the team will use Doppler radar in the tail to collect, process and transmit derived wind fields within the core of all stages of a storm, from tropical depressions to tropical storms to early stages of the hurricane. That radar data will be incorporated into new hurricane forecast models from which intensity forecasts will result, he says.

Researchers have also made vast improvements in both observations and models that tell how changes in ocean temperatures, ocean behaviors and atmosphere related to wind shear and dust concentrations affect intensity. Additionally, they now have a better grasp of internal hurricane processes, such as eyewall replacement, which occurs when the powerful wall of winds that circles the eye weakens and is replaced by a secondary wall, according to the NOAA Hurricane Intensity Research Working Group (see Geotimes, May 2007).

These new developments might be required sooner than most would like. Researchers predict that the number and intensity of hurricanes could be well above average this year. Meanwhile, McFadden and his crew will be flying into unfriendly skies, trying to collect data to better anticipate the behavior and intensity of storms. Just this past February, his team lost three out of four engines in a storm over the Atlantic, more than 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) off the coast of Newfoundland. They had been cruising at about 915 meters (about 3,000 feet) above the ocean, taking simple wind measurements, when the engines became choked with salt and shut down. The plane plummeted to almost 250 meters (about 800 feet) above the water before they were able to restart two of the engines and level out. McFadden says the incident wasn’t related to a storm; it was just bad luck.

So is McFadden ever scared when he finds himself once again climbing back into a plane to patrol a storm? “Well,” he says, “you’re always a bit apprehensive about what you’re going to encounter.” On the first penetration, he says, “you’re all hyped up, and as you hit the first turbulence your stomach is in your throat. There are moments when you wonder if you’ll survive. Then you’re into the hurricane, and you start your work and forget about what you’re going through — just like a football player who is nervous before the game, but once the game starts, all he thinks about is the next play.” Once they enter the storm, McFadden says, all he thinks about is collecting and transmitting the best data so that people on the ground know what to expect in case a hurricane is to barrel down on them.

In winter months, when the hurricanes aren’t stirring in the central Atlantic Ocean, McFadden and his team study storms over the North Atlantic and the Pacific. During the Atlantic’s hurricane season — June 1 to December 1 — however, McFadden is always on call. He might be summoned back to work at 2 a.m., or he might not go home that night at all. But far from being exhausted, he says he is invigorated by the fast pace. He says even his wife doesn’t seem to mind, and his four children, now grown, have become used to it.

At age 73, after almost 40 years flying into hurricanes, McFadden is still not ready to retire. “He told me long ago that when he leaves this job, they’ll have to take him out in a coffin,” says Lori Bast, a public affairs officer at the AOC. McFadden “is not a thrill-seeker or adrenaline junkie, but he is very enthusiastic about every part of the job,” Bast says. “He loves everything he does, the research, the flying, the people … If you’ve got everything above checked, then you’re in the right job. He’s just a great guy — a great colleague and friend.” McFadden says he has no plans to retire and is looking forward to an active hurricane season this year. “How could I ever find something that could compete with the excitement of this job?” he asks. So on he goes, hunting hurricanes.

Sever is an associate editor with Geotimes.

"A new eye on hurricanes," Geotimes, May 2007

Back to top

Carolyn Gramling

Tom Pfeiffer/VolcanoDiscovery
Volcanologist and photographer Tom Pfeiffer (here, surveying a lava flow from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano in April 2007) is not afraid to get close to a volcano to get the right picture.

In February 2000, the southeastern crater of Sicily’s restless Mount Etna erupted again. Hoping to record its fury on film, volcanologist and photographer Tom Pfeiffer took shelter under a heavy concrete overhang and snapped away while chunks of hot volcanic rock rained down around him. “I thought it was reasonably safe,” Pfeiffer says.

His shelter, called the Torre del Filósofo — the Tower of the Philosopher — was a mountain hut just 450 meters (about 1,480 feet) below the volcano’s summit, marking the bottommost edge of a fiery no-man’s-land. About one kilometer (more than half a mile) away from his perch, a new crater was now shooting bright fountains of lava into the air.
Pfeiffer says, “It was an excellent observation point.”

Furthermore, the overhang, built to provide villagers with comfort and shelter during the mountain’s frequent eruptions, served as a shield from searing showers of pebble- and baseball-sized rocks. Such rocks, called volcanic “bombs,” eject from the volcano as still-molten magma but cool into solid rock before they hit the ground. “The bombs were raining all around us,” Pfeiffer says.

But these bombs were not the only danger. Partly protected from the rain of rocks by the strong winds whipping around the mountain, Pfeiffer and a few other intrepid scientists and photographers emerged from the hut and witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event, he says. Just before them, the ground opened and a lava fountain, “a broad column of yellow, orange and red fire,” shot hundreds of meters (about half a mile) straight up into the air, he says. Just as suddenly, it changed direction, forcing the group to dodge back under the shelter. “I was so excited that I couldn’t handle the camera at that moment,” he says. “So I just gave up and watched.”

Pfeiffer’s passion for volcanoes began more than a decade ago, when he was an undergraduate studying mineralogy at the University of Kiel in Germany. In addition to geology, he had another burgeoning desire: “I had this idea that I wanted to offer tours to explain geology to everyday people who had an interest.” While still in school, he happened upon an advertisement from a conference organizer in Greece who was looking for a geology student to conduct tours of nearby Santorini, the island marking one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history. He left classes behind for half a year to guide groups around the extinct volcano.

Santorini, he says, is particularly fascinating because its eruption around 3,600 years ago “had a major impact on both the geography of the island and probably on the course of history in that region.” During his tours, he says, he explained the basics of the geology and volcanology of the island, but he also tried to engage his groups’ imagination, to get them to “see” how the rocks formed.

For five months, Pfeiffer led tours full time. Then in 1998, he met a professor who invited him to study volcanology with him at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He took the professor’s offer, and eventually wrote both his master’s and doctoral theses on the eruption at Santorini. Meanwhile, he says, he offered tours of Santorini part time through his Web site. “I had no customers the first year,” he says. “Then, two in the second, then seven. After three years, I had my first full group of 12 people. By then, I already knew that I wanted to do this.”

Tom Pfeiffer/VolcanoDiscovery
Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano in the Eastern Rift Valley in Tanzania is the only volcano that erupts natrocarbonatite lava, which glows a dull, faint red because of its unusually low temperature of about 600 degrees Celsius (more than 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Now, Pfeiffer and a team of six like-minded volcanologists from all over the world have established VolcanoDiscovery (, to lead geological study trips, walking tours and expeditions to some of the world’s most famous volcanic landscapes, from Hawaii to Indonesia to the African Rift Valley. While VolcanoDiscovery generally spotlights areas with volcanoes, Pfeiffer’s team also leads safaris and tours to landscapes that merely have been shaped by volcanoes, such as Santorini, or the world’s largest lava lake, Nyiragongo, found in central Africa.

Leading tour groups is quite different from braving the elements to catch spectacular eruptions on film, he says reassuringly. For one thing, not everyone actually wants to see an erupting volcano up close, he notes. For another, being on-the-spot for an eruption is clearly “something we can never promise.” Capturing eruptions at their most dramatic is largely a matter of timing and luck, he says. “When it comes to [photographing] volcanoes, you need the right weather and to be in the right place.”

For his tours, however, “we have to follow all the rules of access, good sense and experience,” he says. “I would not always do what I’ve done alone with a group.” That means staying reasonably far from the no-man’s-land regions near volcanic summits that he might brave as a photographer. While sneaking up on a lava fountain with a camera provides “a sense of adventure,” showing enthusiasts the impact of a volcano’s fury or even just the beauty of a nature walk offers another kind of satisfaction, he says. “I’d probably get bored doing the same thing over and over again,” Pfeiffer says. “But this has so much variety, and involves meeting people from very different origins. The human aspect is great.”

Pfeiffer has returned to Mount Etna many times over the past decade. In October 2006, he took a cable car up to the summit with a small group to see a new vent that a guide said had opened early that month. “We were among the first people to see a new lava flow — you could still see the earth that had been pushed aside by the rising lava,” he says. “It was great luck for everybody.”

Luck — and patience — are key to catching a volcano in the act, Pfeiffer notes. “It’s something you cannot plan. With volcanoes, you never know.”

Gramling is a staff writer for Geotimes.


Back to top

Kathryn Hansen

Chris Malzone; NOAA Climate Program Office
Chris Malzone has risked being trapped beneath polar ice many times, including in the Arctic Ocean (background image: north of western Russia).

Chris Malzone remembers his last dives well. Four years ago, he was on a research mission off California’s coast when it happened. Running out of oxygen, Malzone was forced to drop the weights that were keeping him submerged and quickly ascend from 32 meters (105 feet) below the surface. “I barely made it,” he says.

This mishap, and the many other equipment failures that preceded it, are the kind of risks that many divers face daily. But “humans are not made to be in the water [where] physics is against you,” Malzone warns. People tend to forget how “dangerous a sport it really is.” For Malzone, however, diving has been much more than a sport. The growing need for scientists to conduct research under the waves inspired him to become a diver. Conducting research under ice is “an extreme way of doing science, but it’s a blast and it’s beautiful,” he says.

Speeding down the California interstate on his way from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, Malzone reflected on his polar adventures during a phone interview. As he dodged police radar, he also described how his near-fatal diving mishap led him to hang up his fins. Although today he still likes living a bit on the edge, his diving career has since morphed into a safer, yet still exciting exploration of the ocean from the surface.

Malzone developed an appreciation for the ocean while growing up fishing and surfing in Santa Cruz, Calif. He also became fascinated with its geology because it “works on such an enormous timeframe,” he says. “You can leave and come back to it next year and little is going to change.” After obtaining a degree in geology, Malzone realized he could morph scientific research and his love of the ocean into a career as a science diver.

Malzone plunged into Arctic diving when he was a graduate student working for Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, where he handled acoustic technologies such as side-scan sonar — a device that can map the seafloor using sound waves that bounce off of objects in the oceans. Malzone had been looking for a topic for his oceanography master’s thesis when he heard an upcoming Arctic expedition was short a diver. Malzone jumped at the chance to be onboard — and found his subject on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Chris Malzone
On his diving expeditions, Malzone has encountered diverse ocean life, from passive penguins (including this one on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf) to not-so-friendly seals.

Enormous icebergs scour the seafloor as they move, cutting trenches that are a few kilometers long and 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) wide. In their wake, the icebergs leave behind pillars of sand, or berms, up to 15 meters (about 50 feet) high — as if giant fingers had dragged through the sandy bottom. But whether the icebergs’ movements also devastate the seafloor’s ecology was uncertain. During four expeditions to the Arctic, Malzone, along with researchers at the Geological Survey of Canada, watched the seafloor transform from the bare sand left behind in the wake of icebergs to a thriving landscape covered in vegetation and repopulated by fish. The team found that the cycle was complete within a few years. “It was fun to watch that thing evolve, geologically and biologically,” he says.

But diving in the frigid Arctic is not without risk. Malzone had been trained in all the intricacies involved with diving in a dry suit, a rubber skin that divers wear to help provide insulation from frigid waters. But the suits do not protect the hands, which inevitably became miserably numb, he says. The Arctic also poses dangers beyond cold temperatures. It had no facilities where equipment could be maintained, which led to numerous mechanical failures, Malzone says. Underwater, low visibility and quickly moving currents added to the risk. The currents occasionally carried ice over the hole through which the divers had entered, sealing off their only way out. They had no alternative but to wait for the ice to clear.

Malzone then headed to Antarctica, where science divers were needed to determine the ecological effect of trash dumped into Winter Quarters Bay offshore of McMurdo Station — a U.S. research community located on the southernmost tip of the continent accessible by ship. The first station at McMurdo opened in 1956 and, for decades, the U.S. Navy ran a base there. Disposal of trash, however, posed a problem. Between the 1950s and 1970s, employees hauled the Navy’s garbage to the edge of the ice, which they expected would break free and carry their trash out to deep waters. The ice did break free, but the trash immediately fell into the bay.

Although Malzone doesn’t dive under the ice anymore, he is never too far from the ocean. He often tests underwater sonar equipment, such as this SeaBat 8125 surveying a pipeline.

Malzone and colleagues mapped the location of the trash pieces and monitored species repopulation over time to find out the extent of the garbage’s impact on the underwater environment. Diving into the bay, Malzone saw everything from tractors and bulldozers to barrels of human waste, which they called “doo barrels.” Surprisingly, the aquatic wildlife adjusted somewhat to the trash within a few years, even using some of it as homes, “but it’s a horrible way to dispose of trash,” he says. In 1991, the station enacted the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and a wastewater treatment facility has since been built in attempts to limit pollution.

Antarctica gave Malzone “the best diving I have ever done in my life,” he says. Compared to the Arctic’s flat landscape and murky waters, Antarctica’s seafloor terrain is volcanic and visibility in the water is excellent, allowing divers to see objects up to 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet) away. The newer facilities at McMurdo station also meant having better-maintained, safer equipment.

Still, Antarctica posed dangers of a different, flippered kind. On one occasion, a large male seal swam right up to Malzone, turned upside down and uttered strange noises. Malzone’s diving companion caught the entire episode on film. Malzone says that a biologist who later viewed the footage told him that the divers “got lucky,” as a seal inverting its body is a sign of aggression. Another time, while working on top of the ice, a seal that Malzone described as a cross between a seal and a rottweiler, armed with rows of teeth, edged over the ice and tried to go after the team. Fortunately, seals are built for speed in the water, not on land, and Malzone escaped unscathed.

Such dangers beneath the polar ice convinced Malzone to conduct research aboard a vessel. He now works at the California branch of RESON Inc., an international company that develops sonar technologies. He is testing applications for a device that maps the seafloor and schools of fish at the same time. Instead of the single beam of sound that traditional sonar employs, this sonar can shoot out more than 500 beams at one time. The sonar can find the fish because a fish’s swim bladder is filled with gas, which is less dense than water and can reflect some of the sound.

Because of habitat loss and overfishing, says Malzone, “our fish stocks are apparently in peril.” It doesn’t help, he adds, that the “methods for mapping fish are really outdated.” He hopes the mapping technology he is developing will promote sustainable fishing by providing fishers with more accurate fish population estimates.

During his two decades as a diver, Malzone has witnessed great changes in the deep-water habitats he explored, from polar life rebounding after ecological trauma to the decline of fish diversity, and survived many perilous situations. So, would he dive into the ocean again? Sure, he says, but most likely just for fun — and in tropical waters.

Hansen is a staff writer for Geotimes.

Back to top


Advertise in Geotimes

Geotimes Home | AGI Home | Information Services | Geoscience Education | Public Policy | Programs | Publications | Careers

© 2014 American Geological Institute. All rights reserved. Any copying, redistribution or retransmission of any of the contents of this service without the express written consent of the American Geological Institute is expressly prohibited. For all electronic copyright requests, visit: