Susan Avery Uses Natural Distasters as Illustration of Oceanography

From the highest point of the ocean observatory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Susan Avery glances out over the rough waters before she returns to her work collecting data from aquatic samples.

Avery, Director and President of the WHOI, discussed the institution’s work to control damage from oceanic disasters in a presentation on Tuesday at the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology.

Analyzing data collected from various regions underwater, Avery studies climate variability, water resources, atmospheric circulation and precipitation, in order to study the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere. She also also worked to develop new radar techniques and instruments for remote sensing.

In her presentation, Avery described four recent environmental oceanic crises and explained how the WHOI utilized technology to observe and mitigate the disasters’ effects on marine life.

Avery said, “I could have done a whole lecture on climate, a whole lecture of harmful algae blooms [but] we decided to showcase some recent events in the newspaper and how the ocean science and technologies we have interface with it.”

Avery used the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Caribbean Sea to illustrate an example of a crisis her corporation monitors.

Avery explained how oil spills, like the BP oil spill, can cause the proliferation of toxic, oil-consuming microbes in the Gulf Stream.

Some of these microbes secrete harmful substances that create an environment that is uninhabitable for many aquatic species of fish and large mammals and may also cause respiratory problems in humans.

According to Avery, these microbes have also been increasing in number throughout the world due to global warming, causing millions of dollars in damage in coastal regions, such as Massachusetts.

The WHOI is currently working on predicting when and where such “harmful blooms” may occur and is searching for a substance that can safely and effectively diminish these blooms to an ecologically safe level.

In addition to studying these harmful blooms, the WHOI worked off the coast of Japan during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, conducted surveys in the Arctic and contributed to search efforts to find downed Air France Flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

Avery also discussed how the WHOI is planning on improving certain facets of the institution.

“One infrastructure project we are working on is building ocean observatories that give you data using [several] techniques, [which] will transform the way people look at the ocean. It will also mean that more people will have access to the ocean,” said Avery.

Anna Milkowski, Instructor in Biology, said, “I enjoyed [the presentation] from the perspective of just seeing four examples of how the cutting-edge intersection of all disciplines of science plus engineering and high-tech robots and technology helps us understand [the ocean] better.”

Roxanne Barry, Director of Summer and Gap Year Opportunities, said, “The most interesting aspect about the presentation was how it described four different recent disasters and the way the institution is dealing with them so that we can better [prevent such negative disasters] in the future.”

Located in Woods Hole, MA, the WHOI is the world’s largest non-profit oceanographic research institute and aims to advance the global understanding of oceans.

With six different research divisions, the WHOI consists of professionals from multiple disciplines of science, including engineering, biology, chemistry and physics, and is concerned not only with research and development but also with education.