December 2021 Beacon

Alvin Milestone Report

Albert J. Williams 3rd, IEEE Life Fellow

Fig.1 Framed drawing of Alvin

IEEE launched the Milestone Program in 1983 and 218 Milestones have been designated as of September 2021. On September 30, 2021, the IEEE Board voted to accept the Alvin Milestone proposal that was submitted by Albert J. Williams 3rd. Congratulations!  Enjoy the Alvin’s adventures below.

In 1964, a deep-diving three-person submersible was delivered to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to be used for scientific research but initially to survey the ARTEMIS hydrophone listening array of importance to the Navy, the submersible’s sponsor. Alvin, as the submersible came to be called, passed its initial depth certification at Tongue of the Ocean in 1965, but almost before it could start, there was a call to search for a hydrogen bomb, lost in a mid-air collision between a bomber and an aerial tanker over Spain. Three of the unarmed bombs had fallen on land but the fourth fell into the sea. Alvin was transported to Palomares, Spain, where the bomb was eventually located, but the bomb got dislodged during the first recovery attempt. A second relocation and even more careful netting, with the net being pulled over the bomb by Alvin, helped achieve the recovery, gaining recognition within the Navy for the sub.

Fig. 2nd Alvin personnel sphere – Titanium

Navy tasks and geological research were interrupted by an accident in 1968, fortunately with no loss of life, when a cable parted while the sub was starting a second dive at a test mooring with its crew aboard the sub, awaiting launch. The loss of Alvin in about a depth of one mile turned out to yield a serendipitous benefit. The box lunches for the pilot and two observers were still edible after almost a year submerged in the surface water that had flooded the sub through the open hatch. Baloney in the sandwiches and soup in the flooded thermos were not decayed and the apples were still crisp. Microbiologists were surprised but realized pressure is an environmental condition to which specific microbes are adapted and bottom samples won’t grow when brought to the surface unless the pressure, as well as the temperature, is maintained. Their solution was to do microbial studies on the sea floor and revisit the sites to see the results. Some hyperbaric collection chambers were also utilized. But understanding the role of pressure on microbial activity was stimulated by the box lunches aboard Alvin during its submergence.

The rebuilt Alvin came back online in 1971, but Navy funding had dried up for submersible chores. NSF (National Science Foundation) became a principal sponsor under the newly organized UNOLS (University National Oceanographic Laboratory System) to share resources and costs for ships and submersibles. This led to the discovery of hydrothermal vents in which Alvin has, and continues to play, a major role. The East Pacific Rise was of interest to geologists as a possible tectonic spreading center. In 1977, using the ALNAV (ALvin NAVigation) transponder network developed in 1974 for acoustic navigation, a visit to the Galapagos vent site was made with the ANGUS towed camera sled. This was followed the next day by Alvin, which revealed the rich biological activity at this site.

Fig. 3 Alvin in garage aboard R/V Atlantis

Hydrothermal vents were predicted at ocean ridges because new sea floor was being created with magma filling the rift as oceanic plates separated. Temperature anomalies had been observed in the near bottom water above the rift and ANGUS had photographs of large bottom dwelling organisms beneath the slightly increased temperature it measured. But when Alvin descended the next day, the concentration and size of these organisms was surprising. These observations, in 1977, inspired a biological expedition in 1979, along which I was fortunate to be invited. An attempt had been made in 1977 to measure the warm water upwelling from the fractured rubble where these organisms dwelt, but crabs climbed on the propeller blades of the current sensor causing it to not rotate. I had developed an acoustic current meter with no moving parts and was permitted to dive in Alvin, watching the pilot place my array of four vector flow sensors over the plume of 8 C water issuing from the bottom. It was revealed to be upwelling at about 12cm/s. Even then, marine biologists were convinced that the source of energy supporting this benthic life was chemical rather than sunlight generated. Hydrogen sulfide dissolved in the seawater, heated by its diffusion through the hot rubble of the rifting sea floor, was oxidized by bacteria and subsequently ingested or otherwise utilized as food by the giant clams and vestimentiferan worms. Since conditions such as those on the ridge near the Galapagos were probably ancient and broadly available along the 40,000-mile-long mid-ocean ridge on earth, at least since plate tectonics, it may have been the cradle of life when conditions at the surface were too extreme for life to develop. It is possible that similar conditions are present on Europa or other watery moons in the solar system. A major part of present research supported by Alvin is focused on vents including hot smokers and cold seeps.

Fig. 4 Alvin on R/V Atlantis

Alvin was engaged in many other scientific studies as well as an exploration of HMS Titanic.  The engineering developments that permitted these expeditions have continued to a major retrofit completed in July 2021.  In 2014 Alvin was rebuilt with a new titanium sphere incorporating five Plexiglass windows with hemispherical outer faces for increased field of view (overlapping views) and a depth rating of 6500m.  Alvin has had more than 5000 dives and will reach its original design depth target after it completes its tests.

At a dinner, after an OES Providence Section Chapter talk, I was approached by Gilmore Cooke suggesting I propose that an IEEE Milestone be awarded for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution ‘s Alvin. Since I had been present on the WHOI dock when the bedraggled Alvin was craned off the barge that had brought it back from its recovery after 10 months at a mile down on the bottom, and I had subsequently had an Alvin dive to a hydrothermal vent, I agreed to make the proposal. Cooke also suggested that I participate in the IEEE Milestone proposal for the first direct telegraph cable laid from Brest, France to Orleans, Massachusetts, Le Direct.  The OES Providence Chapter was involved and provided a second bronze plaque (in English) that was placed at the Cable Museum in Orleans alongside the French plaque from the OES French Chapter.  This was in 2015.

IEEE launched the Milestone Program in 1983 and 218 Milestones have been designated as of September 2021. On September 30, 2021, the IEEE Board voted to accept the Alvin Milestone proposal. The citation will be cast in bronze on a plaque to be mounted on an outside wall accessible to Woods Hole visitors. There is to be an unveiling ceremony in about 18 months. But I feel pleased to have participated in this project and brought it to a state where it should result in appreciation by the public of a technical accomplishment with scientific and social value.