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An Ear to Ocean Temperature|
Controversial Project Will Shut Down at End of 99
By Kenneth Chang
June 24 A controversial project to track ocean temperatures using sound has proven it worksthe measurements are precise within one-fiftieth of a degree Fahrenheit. Its findings will revise our understanding of the oceans.
But the next step is to shut it down.
The Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate project will unplug and remove its transmitter off the California coast at the end of the year. A second transmitter, off Hawaii, will operate through the end of 1999 before getting pulled from the water.
ATOCs original goalextending the system to every ocean to track the progress of global warmingremains unrealized. Even a modest follow-up to the $40 million project appears unlikely. Researchers say they dont have the money. They also appear weary, and wary, of the effort needed to obtain another round of permits.
When Environmental Issues Collide
ATOC is the story of what happens when a scientific project to collect data on one high-profile environmental issue (global warming) runs headlong into a second, hot-button environmental issue (saving the whales).
In the early 1990s, scientists proposed the ATOC projectessentially the worlds largest thermometer.
The idea is simple: Put a loudspeaker on the ocean floor and play a sound. Then listen for the sound thousands of miles away. Sound travels faster in warmer water, slower in cooler water. By measuring the time between when a sound is made and when its heard, scientists can determine the average water temperature along the sounds path.
A few months before the transmitters were to be installed in 1994, the project became a topic on a marine mammal forum on the Internet. The resulting maelstrom stirred up the media and Congress.
It was a shock to us, says Robert Spindel, director of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington and member of the ATOC team. The power of the Internet has a very dangerous side.
Part of the problem was a misunderstanding of how loud the speakers are.
Its not that loud, Spindel says of the ATOC sound source. There are whales that make sounds louder than this.
Part of the problem was ignorance, on everyones part. No one really knows what marine mammals hear, which frequencies are damaging or how sensitive their ears are.
The resulting wrangling between ATOC scientists and the environmentalists delayed the project by a year.
Reaching a Compromise
By measuring how long it takes sound to travel through the ocean, scientists can measure its temperature to within one-fiftieth of a degree Fahrenheit.
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