The following is a conversation between Dr. Mark Abbott, President & Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: We all learn in school that oceans cover more than 70% of our planet. But there are other things to take note of, such as: 50% of the oxygen from photosynthesis is produced in the ocean; 90% of international trade travels by ship, and 44% of the Earth’s population lives within 100 miles of a coast. There is no organization in the world that explores, understands, and appreciates the oceans quite like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. And it’s a pleasure to have with us their president and director, Dr. Mark Abbott. Good evening, Mark, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Mark: Thank you very much, Denver. Pleasure to be here.
Denver: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was founded in 1930. Give us a brief overview of the organization and how it came to be.
Mark: The organization actually is the offspring of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole that started in the late 19th century. But in the 1920s, the director of MBL said, “We need to do more about the ocean.” Scripps Institution of Oceanography was out on the West Coast. He worked with the National Academy of Sciences that produced a report arguing that we needed for the nation another oceanographic institution on the East Coast. And Woods Hole Oceanographic was born.
Denver: A little over a decade after Woods Hole was born, the country found itself involved in World War II, and the organization forged a very close relationship with the US Navy. What were the kind of things you were called upon to do?
Mark: The first was trying to protect the convoys crossing from the United States over to England in the North Atlantic from U-2 submarines. So, we worked to understand how sound was transmitted in the ocean, and worked with the Navy to help understand how that could be used to detect German submarines and protect the surface convoys.
Denver: And is sound and the way it travels impacted by the temperature of the water?
Mark: Absolutely. It’s dependent on the temperature, on the salinity, on the kind of biological organisms that are in there. All sorts of things scatter and help transmit or retard sound transmission underwater.
Denver: And you continue that relationship with the Navy in a whole variety of ways. I know, with the Soviet threat in the 1950s, you were called upon again. Correct?
Mark: Absolutely. In the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t German submarines attacking surface convoys. It was very quiet nuclear submarines coming long distances. The US Navy was in position to understand and deal with that threat. We and other members of the ocean’s community, the private sector, were called upon to work with the Navy to really help them come up with new strategies and new tactics, many of which the Navy still uses today.
Denver: Over the years, Mark, Woods Hole scientists have made some seminal discoveries that have impacted so many different arenas, not the least of which has been our quality of life. What have been some of the most noteworthy to you?
Mark: Many things. I think the first was understanding the deep-sea vents – these vents at the bottom of the ocean that were releasing very hot water and chemicals that really were creating an entirely new life form– what we call chemosynthesis as opposed to photosynthesis – microorganisms that generated energy from chemicals as opposed from sunlight. Now looking at that might explain the origin of life on this planet and perhaps on other planets and moons in our solar system.
You can’t go to the Ace Hardware store when something breaks. A lot of improvisation happens on the ship. But you really build a sense of community. People are all working together to achieve their scientific goals and understand something new about our ocean.
Denver: Much of the oceanography we see on TV is often from the vantage point of a research vessel. Your first vessel was the Atlantis, the profile of which is your institution’s logo. Then there was the Alvin underwater research, and your latest ship is the Neil Armstrong, and the Sally Ride is with your sister organization, Scripps out on the West Coast that you had just mentioned. Give us an idea of what goes on during these expeditions and maybe what they are doing currently.
Mark: When you go to sea, you’re usually within the range of about 20 other scientists. It is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week adventure. People are working all the time. There’s a lot of interdisciplinary research. You have a lot of equipment over the side and in the water. People are making measurements from the ship. It is intense, and it is not a cruise in the way that you think about going through the Caribbean and visiting exotic ports. It is a lot of hard work. You can’t go to the Ace Hardware store when something breaks. A lot of improvisation happens on the ship. But you really build a sense of community. People are all working together to achieve their scientific goals and understand something new about our ocean.
Denver: What are they doing currently, these vessels?
Mark: Right now, the Atlantis is out in the North Atlantic just off the US East Coast avoiding the hurricane that’s approaching the Carolinas right now. The Neil Armstrong is up off Iceland servicing an array of current meter moorings. They are out there working hard. Not in exotic locations. But they’re doing hard work in science and engineering.
Denver: You monitor the ocean with 4,000 floats which are scattered across the globe. What kind of information are they providing?
Mark: These floats- – not only WHOI contributes to them. But the entire nation and the world contribute to this vast array. We have many scientists who are responsible for the deployment and understanding these measurements. We’re using them to understand how the ocean is changing in the same way meteorologists measure the atmosphere to make predictions, understand long-term changes in our ocean circulation and its behavior.
The twilight zone is really an area that’s underexplored. It’s potentially a vast resource of animal life. There are nations that are thinking about harvesting that even before we have the basic understanding. So, we’re out there developing new technology and new science to go out and understand this world.
We’re going to try and make these data available real time for everybody, bring everybody on this voyage of discovery.
Denver: Let me ask you about one of the ocean’s hidden frontiers, which is the” twilight zone.” Where is the twilight zone? And what do we currently know about it?
Mark: The twilight zone is part of what we’re calling Project Audacious. It’s being run out of the TED Organization. Ray Dalio is one of our primary funders for the twilight zone. Ray is head of Bridgewater, but he’s also a passionate advocate for the ocean, trying to create excitement, not only in the United States but around the world, for the ocean and its importance. The twilight zone is really an area that’s underexplored. It’s potentially a vast resource of animal life. There are nations that are thinking about harvesting that even before we have the basic understanding. So, we’re out there developing new technology and new science to go out and understand this world. But what’s different about the twilight zone project is we’re not going to do it just for scientists or just for government agencies. We’re going to try and make these data available real time for everybody, bring everybody on this voyage of discovery.
Denver: How far down is the twilight zone?
Mark: It’s the area between about 600 to 3,000 feet. It’s called the twilight zone because you sort of see sunlight but you can’t really photosynthesize. Plants can’t grow down there. It’s a vast area. It’s thought that there may be 10 to 100 times more biomass living material in that part of the ocean than we harvest every year.
One of the advantages of the ocean is that you can grow protein very well. It doesn’t take as much water. It doesn’t take as much energy as chicken or beef or pork or whatever. People want to get protein. The ocean is a great place to do it. But that means you’ve got to feed the fish that you want to harvest. So, you say, “Where do I get that?” People are starting to look and say, “Maybe some of that’s in the twilight zone.”
Denver: And as you just mentioned, there are some threats that it could be commercially exploited.
Mark: One of the advantage of the ocean is that you can grow protein very well. It doesn’t take as much water. Doesn’t take as much energy as chicken or beef or pork or whatever. People want to get protein. The ocean is a great place to do it. But that means you’ve got to feed the fish that you want to harvest. So, you say,” Where do I get that?” People are starting to look and say, “Maybe some of that’s in the twilight zone.” The little organisms that live down there are an inch or so shorter. They’re not very big. They’re nothing you would put on your plate. So, people are looking to harvest that to feed to these vast aquaculture farms.
The way we sample with ships… you can go and look at a small area for three, four, six weeks. Then you’re not there; things change, and you say, “What happened?” It’s like walking into a forest for a week or two, studying a very small area and saying, “Now I understand the entire forest.” Robotics allow us to be in the ocean all the time everywhere, and that’s really opening up new windows of understanding. So, the robotic revolution has really changed our ability to observe and understand our ocean.
Denver: As you observe and measure life in the twilight zone, it probably helps that Woods Hole is a leader in underwater robotic systems. How is this changing the way you go about your work? And what new possibilities are emerging as a result of advanced robotics?
Mark: That’s a great question, Denver. The way we sample with ships, you can go and look at a small area for three, four, six weeks. Then you’re not there; things change, and you say, “What happened?” It’s like walking into a forest for a week or two studying a very small area and saying, “Now I understand the entire forest.” Robotics allow us to be in the ocean all the time everywhere, and that’s really opening up new windows of understanding. So, the robotic revolution has really changed our ability to observe and understand our ocean. The next wave that’s coming are the really small consumer sort of things. What we saw in your smart phone, bringing these smaller, cheaper devices and even increasing the amount of samples that we have to work with. We really are in the century of under-sampling of our ocean. We want to change that.
My vision is to make the always-on, always-connected ocean. We see this in our daily life. It used to be, if you wanted internet access, you had to go to a government lab or a university. Then you had it in your home. Now you have it in your pocket. That kind of revolution, we want to bring that to the ocean.
Denver: I guess with these sensors as you say… very powerful, very small; we can really be in constant touch with the ocean.
Mark: My vision is to make the always-on, always-connected ocean. We see this in our daily life. It used to be, if you wanted internet access, you had to go to a government lab or a university. Then you had it in your home. Now you have it in your pocket. That kind of revolution, we want to bring that to the ocean.
Denver: This technology has been vital in your work of discovering shipwrecks and buried treasure, such as what some have referred to as a Holy Grail of shipwrecks. That being the San Jose off the coast of Colombia. It’s been down there for over 300 years. How were you able to detect it?
Mark: Again, working on behalf of the Colombian government, we use what’s known as a Remus vehicle. It’s an underwater robot. It has a whole range of sensors, and it’s able to map the seafloor, and using the data that it collected, we were able to find conclusively evidence of that shipwreck.
Denver: Let me ask you, Mark, some general questions about the ocean that I think are probably on a lot of listener’s minds. Ninety percent of the heat from global warming has been absorbed by the ocean. How is that showing up– impact in the ocean waters, ocean life, ecosystem of the ocean?
Mark: Another wonderful question, Denver. That’s an area that’s obviously right at the heart of a lot of our science. We’re seeing it in the reduction of sea ice in the Arctic as the ocean gets warmer. We’re starting to see hints – I wouldn’t say the evidence is there yet – of changes in ocean circulation. But we’re always also seeing a lot of changes in where fish and crustaceans live.
There was a fishery now off Rhode Island/ Massachusetts called the Jonah Crab. Ten years ago, it was zero dollars’ worth of a fishery. Now it’s $60 million. These crabs have moved north, taking advantage of changes in ocean circulation. So fishermen are already seeing changes in patterns of their harvest. So, they’re looking for different kinds of species now than they did 10, 20 years ago. These are really profound effects. It would be interesting to see how this all unfolds.
Denver: I think many people think we’re seeing a good number of changes in the weather. Are we getting better at predicting hurricanes and other weather events?
Mark: I think absolutely, we are. In large part is because the computer models are just much better. The computers are faster. But we are incorporating more physics. Better understanding of the atmosphere. But now, much better understanding of the ocean. Clearly, when we look at hurricanes, the ocean is providing that energy to feed the hurricanes that we see. When hurricanes go over warm water, they get more energetic. But there’s a coupling. As the hurricane sits there, it’s mixing the ocean, cooling it off. And that understanding is really being revolutionized not only by better models, better physics, but by better observations, a lot from our ocean.
Denver: Sometimes people– such as myself– have this naïve notion that the ocean floor is relatively flat. And it’s probably because that’s what I experience when I go to the beach. But nothing could be further from the truth. What is the ocean floor actually like?
Mark: It is amazing. It’s interesting that we probably have better maps of Mars and Venus than we do of the ocean floor. This makes it challenging in many areas. For example, the MH370 Flight that we still haven’t been able to find. The maps are just not very good. We’ve had US Navy submarines run into sea mouths that nobody knew were there. It is a vast, rugged area. It looks like California or the Himalayas. Canyons, mountains. It’s not just this boring, flat mudflat.
We see the plastic waste on the beach. You see plastic bags. You see entanglements of sea turtles and marine mammals. Those are all terrible things that happen. But the other part are the plastics we can’t see, what we call the microplastics.
What’s troubling about that is that material can get absorbed by small marine life and then move up the food chain. The impacts, we don’t know yet. The big stuff – the big plastic materials – we see that. I’m worried that we’re not paying attention to the much larger and perhaps more dangerous problem of the microplastics.
Denver: That bubble burst there, I guess. Let’s talk about plastics in the ocean. This issue just seems to have crystalized in the last couple of years. Particularly with the Great Pacific garbage patch which is an area about twice the size of Texas. What are these plastics doing to the ocean? And what needs to be done to clean it up and to stop it?
Mark: This is in the last 5-10 years, a whole topic that’s really risen to the fore. We see the plastic waste on the beach. You see plastic bags. You see entanglements of sea turtles and marine mammals. Those are all terrible things that happen. But the other part are the plastics we can’t see, what we call the microplastics. The small plastic beads that are in your toothpaste that we didn’t know about. Or the plastic beads that are used to make larger lawn chairs and baskets and things. That material is also getting into the ocean.
What’s troubling about that is that material can get absorbed by small marine life and then move up the food chain. The impacts, we don’t know yet. The big stuff, the big plastic materials, we see that. I’m worried that we’re not paying attention to the much larger and perhaps more dangerous problem of the microplastics.
Denver: Very interesting observation. You at Woods Hole have revenues close to one- quarter of a billion dollars. What’s the business model, and what are the main sources of those revenues?
Mark: We’re a private research institution. So, we’re not part of a government lab. We’re not part of a university. We are the world’s largest institution devoted to ocean research that’s a private company. Most of our revenue comes from grants and contracts written by our 150 scientists and engineers. They’re writing their own proposals, usually in collaboration with other scientists either at Woods Hole or elsewhere. They’re businessmen and women. They are entrepreneurs. That’s where most of our money comes from. The rest comes from our endowment or private philanthropy.
As budgets get tight, you want to bet on sure things. We need much more of that sort of venture capital entrepreneurship mentality where people say, “I’ve got this great idea,” or, “I’m a young scientist who may not have the track record, but I’ve got this great idea.” We really want to fund that not even out-of-the-box. There is no box. That is what really has propelled Woods Hole Oceanographic for the last 88 years, and we’d like to do more of that.
Denver: What would you do if you had more money, you think?
Mark: I think that’s always – you can always do more with more money. I think what we really want to see is more funds, particularly on the private side, to help do more risky science, more exploration and discovery. I think the entire nation in its research and development enterprise has become much more cautious. As budgets get tight, you want to bet on sure things. We need much more of that sort of venture capital entrepreneurship mentality where people say, “I’ve got this great idea,” or, “I’m a young scientist who may not have the track record, but I’ve got this great idea.” We really want to fund that not even out-of-the-box. There is no box. That is what really has propelled Woods Hole Oceanographic for the last 88 years, and we’d like to do more of that.
Denver: I could see that. That’s probably one of the limitations of having all these contracts, that you’re obligated to do certain things, and you don’t have that money that just lets you explore and do different things. And that’s where so often, the great breakthroughs come.
Mark: Absolutely. I would say 20, 30 years ago, that was not the case, that the federal government understood fundamental investments and to allow ripe, curious minds to explore things, was going to pay off in ways that you couldn’t imagine. We’re a lot more cautious now than we used to be.
Denver: Let me ask you about your corporate culture, Mark, starting with teams and collaboration. Seems to me that Woods Hole was well ahead of the game in seeing the benefit of bringing together diverse teams. Describe what you believe to be the distinctive features of how your teams work. And what has the organization done to create such a collaborative culture?
Mark: Part of it, and I alluded to it earlier, being out on a research ship, you have to work together. You get physicists, chemists, biologists; and that’s just inherent in the DNA of ocean science. But at Woods Hole Oceanographic, since we’re all focused on that; we’re not doing undergraduate teaching. We’re not part of a large university that has other activities, be it engineering or liberal arts. All good things, but we really focused on understanding the ocean as a system; that really empowers a lot more team building. Because to attack the science, you’ve got to all work together.
The second part is, the ocean’s a hard place to work, so you need that engineering as well. It’s not something you can, again, go to the hardware store and buy an ocean sensor. You work to design and build that with really strong technical staff. It’s rooted together that to achieve your science, you depend on others, and you have to all work together.
Denver: Along those same lines, you have put an emphasis on eliminating barriers to innovation. What are those barriers? And what have you done to bring them down?
Mark: I think a lot of the barriers are, again, in the way the funding flows. It flows to individual proposals. It tends to reward now more conservative, less risk-taking science that innovation really depends on– where there are no requirements. You’re out there exploring a whole range of opportunities. So, by focusing our private fundraising on those kinds of opportunities, we hope to provide more of that to our scientists and engineers, providing open-data access as a policy to the institutions…
Denver: Speak a little bit about that. That was a big, big move on your part.
Mark: Well, I think this is part of a national trend, but we’ve also seen that by sharing data, you can remix and come up with new understanding. We’re really starting to put that infrastructure into play so that we really become more of a data and knowledge-driven institution. I like to say, WHOI is really the premier ocean-sensing institution in the world. We really go out and measure and then understand. Getting all those data sets together in an integrated way allows people to find new patterns and new relationships.
Denver: Just to underscore that point, as of last year, all your research now is available online, right?
Mark: That’s the plan. I would say that there’s some that still lives in notebooks, in people’s laboratories and offices. But definitely, that is the goal. That is where we’re headed.
Denver: Let me close with this Mark. With all we’ve talked about, what do you and your colleagues up at Woods Hole, worry about the most as it pertains to the health of the ocean and the vital role it plays in sustaining life on this planet? And what opportunities, perhaps ones that have recently presented themselves, get you the most excited and are a source of hope and inspiration to you?
Mark: You talked about them earlier, Denver. The two are the changes in our ocean ecosystem. It really is the lifeblood of the planet. In terms of food, in terms of all the things we depend upon, and I worry about our ocean ecosystems becoming a lot less healthy, species going extinct, changes that really disrupt fishermen’s lives. And I worry then about the whole area of sea-level rise and severe storms; looking at what kind of infrastructure that we have on our waterfront. Even down here in lower Manhattan… If Sea levels rise, and we start having more storm surge, what happens to all of that infrastructure that we built with billions and trillions of dollars?
The opportunity I think though is really one of changing again how we sense and observe the ocean. Don’t make it this mysterious planet that’s just far away. Really start making that data available everywhere, so that we can really begin to understand what’s going on. Not just a photo on the cover of a magazine that shows some degradation of environment. Really get everybody to see what’s going on and help us all participate. I think that robotic, data-centric mindset is really going to transform how we work together and how we begin to see this as an ocean planet, not just a set of individual countries on land.
Denver: Almost like a person. Once you understand them better, you do treat them differently. Probably the same holds true for the ocean.
Mark Abbott, the president of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. How can people stay informed about your work or support it if they should be so inclined?
Mark: That’s easy. Just go to our website, www.whoi.edu. There are all sorts of materials out there. There’s a special website about the twilight zone. You can sign up and become a member of our associates or corporation. There are all sorts of opportunities to help support our young scientists and engineers… and even our more senior ones who have great ideas.
Denver: You have one rich website. That I can attest for. Thanks, Mark. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Mark: Thanks very much, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.