A century after the Titanic sank, the shipwreck at the bottom of the Atlantic still has its place in research and academia.
(From Wicked Local / Rehoboth) — Just last month, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod released new detailed images of the wreck created during an expedition to create an archaeological map of the site, which can be seen online. One University of Massachusetts Dartmouth program includes a course on the Titanic and another undertakes advanced underwater research.
Robert Ballard, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, is well-known as the first to discover the wreckage in 1985. The oceanography program at URI still uses some of the most advanced technology to study the seas.
“All of this kind of came out of the Titanic work that he did,” URI oceanography researcher Dwight Coleman said of Ballard, a colleague for 15 years.
Right now, URI’s oceanography program is working with a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, vessel in the Gulf of Mexico that is studying ocean ecosystems and how they’re faring two years after the BP oil spill. URI is helping them manage data, run day-to-day operations, and record and broadcast video.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, based in Falmouth, has been a major contributor to what the world knows about the Titanic.
In 2010, the institution’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory participated in an expedition to the wreckage site, along with archaeologists from NOAA and the National Park Service, among others. The president of RMS Titanic, the only company legally permitted to recover objects from the wreck, called it “arguably the most technologically advanced scientific expedition” to the site.
Woods Hole’s crew used optical and sonar images taken by three underwater vehicles to stitch together more than 200 detailed photos — called optical mosaics — that appear in the April issue of National Geographic.
The expedition two and a half miles under the ocean’s surface also allows researchers to study the way wreckage deteriorates under water. By comparing data collected in 2010 and 1985, when the wreckage was found, the researchers could study long-term changes to the ship, as well as the marine life that has made the Titanic home.
Information was gathered from three underwater vehicles that moved like lawn mowers in straight back-and-forth patterns over a three-by-five-mile area. David Gallo, Woods Hole’s director of special projects and co-leader of the 2010 expedition, compared the breadth of the information to Google maps and being able to zoom in on Central Park in New York right down to a tulip.
“We didn’t want to miss anything,” Gallo said.
Gallo spent a month at the Titanic site, about 380 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. At times, he said, researchers would look through cameras on the underwater vehicles at something on the ship, and something emotionally grabbing — maybe a doll or a deck where people would have last seen their loved ones — would make the whole ship go quiet.
“It’s an amazingly powerful site,” Gallo said of the wreck, which he called “a tiny little speck” in relation to the ocean above and around it. More than once, Gallo said, he would look out at the sea at night and think of what happened at the same spot a century earlier.
“It’s really unbelievable,” he said.
UMass Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford is also doing advanced underwater research. Recently, it sent a 6-foot vehicle called a glider — so-named for its slow but steady motion — toward New Jersey. It was to take four weeks to get to its destination, but after an issue arose, a UMD crew is being sent to pick up the glider off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.
But another glider sent toward New Jersey late last summer sent back some useful information while Hurricane Irene passed through, said Wendell Brown, a SMAST professor. A glider relayed data that showed how the hurricane was kicking up cold water from the ocean floor that ended up weakening the storm more than many forecasters predicted, Brown said.
UMass Dartmouth even teaches a Titanic course as part of its Second Half program for retirees. Julie Cleare, a former professor at UMass Dartmouth teaching the course, has a background in psychology. But she has also had a love of the sea and, in particular, the Titanic.
The six-week course, which starts May 1, includes a study of three movies about the Titanic, each with a different focus, and a musical, Cleare said. It will also look at human elements of the disaster, such as class differences and how communication among ships has changed since.
The course, which was first held last fall with 30 students, is timely for a topic that continues to fascinate people. “You can’t open a magazine or newspaper without reading something about it,” Cleare said.