Titanic Comes Within Reach in WHOI Presentation
By: Elise Hugus, September 13, 2012
ELISE HUGUS - Bill Lange and Evan Kovacs take a moment away from their analysis of the Titanic wreck site at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab .
For over 100 years, the RMS Titanic languished at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but has never faded from our cultural consciousness. Now, 27 years after Woods Hole Oceanographic scientists brought back the first images of the wreck, over 700 people got an unprecedented look at the famous ship at last Saturday's "Titanic in 3-D" event at WHOI.
Wearing special 3D glasses, images from 4,000 meters below the surface appeared to pop off the screen in a packed auditorium. The dome of the Titanic’s grand staircase, half buried in the sand, unused emergency flares, and the ship’s whistles, lay virtually exposed for the first time.
Gathered during a 2010 expedition funded by Premier Exhibitions (the parent company of RMS Titanic Inc., which has rights to salvage the wreck), WHOI technicians and engineers used two Remus 6000 autonomous underwater vehicles from the Waitt Institute and converted a tethered remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from Phoenix International into a robot capable of capturing extremely high definition 3-D images and acoustic data underwater.
As Bill Lange, director of WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory explained, the ROV was outfitted with eight custom high-definition cameras, which allowed the shipboard operators to switch between recording modes without retrieving the vehicle, a crucial time-saver.
Despite poor visibility due to hurricanes and strong currents, the vehicle brought back images that had never been seen before, including sections of the bow and the area where the iceberg made its fateful impact.
The crew’s main goal was to “produce a better map” of the wreck site since its last survey in 1986, said Lange. With three vehicles deployed over a three- by five-mile area, the team gathered as much sonar and optical data as possible, analyzing the data each night to decide the course of the next day’s survey.
From bow to stern
The images gave Titanic experts the first hard evidence of where the iceberg made impact and how it made its descent, Lange said. Overlaying optical imagery on a replica of the ship, the researchers determined that the bow remained “relatively intact” as it slipped beneath the surface, and put to rest a theory that the ship had broken up into three pieces rather than two.
Stitching 2,500 to 3,000 high resolution images together into each “optical mosaic” gave the public its first glimpse of the wreck site in astonishing detail. Showing rarely-seen top and side views of the keel, stern and bow, Lange also pointed out a small crab among the “rusticles” adorning the ship.
“Underwater images of this quality have never been produced before,” he said. “Our computers were having a hard time handling the file sizes we were working on.”
Though less visually stimulating, the sonar data gave researchers clues about what they could not see.
“By better understanding the sediment [we can figure out if] we are seeing everything,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and chief scientist on the expedition. “The answer is yes. There was very little buried.”
A Titanic legacy
Beyond the “wow” factor, which echoed around the room throughout the presentation, the applications of Titanic research and deep-sea imaging extend from the ocean depths to the far reaches of outer space, said Lange.
Understanding how a brush with an iceberg could bring down an “unsinkable” ship may also help make modern seafaring safer, said Delgado.
Studying the Titanic also adds to understanding of how metals break down in the ocean. Comparing images of the wreck in 1986 with those from 2010 “can teach us a lot about what happens at heritage and maritime legacy sites around the world,” Lange said.
An average of 10 “super-tankers” sink each year, he added, littering the ocean with debris and potentially toxic waste.
“There are wrecks all over the planet in various states of decay,” said David Conlin, the chief of the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center. “Titanic is part of a much larger story about pollution.”
An image of modern-day trash among Titanic wreckage drew murmurs from the audience. “It’s not just [a question of], ‘Why is there a plastic cup on the Titanic,’” said Delgado. “It’s, ‘Why is it in the ocean at all?’ When we dump things like that beer can or more toxic waste, it’s not just a disservice to the ocean, it’s a disservice to our common history.”
But now with a new, improved map of where the Titanic is located, a voluntary no-dumping zone has been established in the area, said Conlin, “the first international marine protection area in the open ocean.”