The 1991 Heard Island Feasibility Test

MV Cory Chouest the ship used for the experiments detailed below.  Image credit: US Navy (public domain, via Wikipedia).
MV Cory Chouest, the ship used for the experiments detailed below. Image credit: US Navy (public domain, via Wikipedia).

Batten the hatches and hang on to the hand rails, because this installment of science at/on/near Heard Island is going to be a wild ride! We’ll explore a paper entitled The Heard Island Feasibility Test,[1] and along the way we’ll make ports of call in climate science, oceanography, and physics. I encourage you to check out a copy of the paper, either at your local (research) library or online. It’s really well-written! There’s also a pre-experiment lecture given by the study’s lead author which is freely available online, and details the rationale behind the study and the expected results.

In 1991, scientists were concerned about global warming. They were very interested in measuring the ocean temperature—oceans can store much more heat than the atmosphere, so while the atmosphere may not warm quickly in a changing climate, the oceans are likely to capture most of the heat. Additionally, water has a high heat capacity (the amount of energy it takes to raise its temperature by a degree), which is why it takes so long to bring a pot of water water to a boil on the stove.

Measuring the ocean temperature seems fairly straightforward: put a thermometer in the ocean, and log the temperature. Scatter a bunch of stations around the world and it’s done, right? Wrong.

The problem with using a thermometer (or many thermometers) to measure the ocean temperature is that there are many small-scale features which can influence the measured temperature. The variability of these measurements is likely to be quite high, and they each measure only a small place— extrapolating to the whole ocean isn’t necessarily justified.

How, then, can a measurement be made which yields an average temperature over a huge volume of ocean?

Sound. Ocean temperatures can be measured with sound. This is an amazing world in which we live!

In water, the speed of sound will vary depending on temperature, pressure, and (to a limited extent) salinity, and be in the ballpark of 1.48 km/s. With variations in speed of 4–5 m/s/°C, a +5 m°C (0.005 °C) change in temperature results in a -0.1 s change in travel time over a 10 Mm (10,000 km) path.[1] Have an acoustic source emit a signal, measure the signal at a distant receiver, and the time delay will yield an apparent average speed of sound. Shifts in these speeds due to warming of about 5 m°C/yr would theoretically produce measurably earlier arrival times.

Speed of sound measured at various depths in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii.  Image credit:  Nicoguaro (CC-BY-SA); data from the 2005 World Ocean Atlas.
Speed of sound measured at various depths in the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. Image credit: Nicoguaro (CC-BY-SA); data from the 2005 World Ocean Atlas.

One potential problem with all this is the part about receiving a sound signal 10 Mm away from its source. However, the temperature and pressure profile of the ocean cause a minimum in sound velocity at a depth of 500–1,000 m (for mid/low-latitude oceans). This low-velocity region, termed a SOFAR channel acts as a waveguide or a duct, where sounds within it tend to stay within rather than dispersing.[2] Low-frequency sounds (50–100 Hz)are not attenuated or absorbed much by the water, so long-distance reception of these sounds might be possible.

The feasibility test was designed as a proof-of-concept for ocean-wide acoustic reception. Using powerful low-frequency transducers on loan from the U.S. Navy, the scientists would be able to send the signals and have receivers around the world listening for them.[3] Unfortunately for the scientists, the transducers could only operate to a depth of 300 m. That meant that a high-latitude site needed to be found, where the SOFAR channel—that special place which enables long-distance reception—is much closer to the surface.

Heard Island was chosen as a transmission site, because the direct sound paths (mostly, but not entirely, great circles) would reach across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

No major field work is complete without a little drama, though. Late in the planning and preparation phase, the US National Marine Fisheries Service notified the researchers that permits were required to mitigate threats to marine mammals from the powerful sounds. The Australians (Heard Island is an Australian territory) required the permits too. A second vessel was chartered and biologists were assembled to monitor marine mammal activity and fulfill the responsibilities associated with the permits.

The two ships sailed as originally scheduled on January 9, 1991, but neither the American nor Australian permits had been issued. With a scheduled transmission start of January 26th, there wasn’t much room for delay. Fortunately, the permits arrived just in time: January 18th and January 25th. I bet the scientists were very tense during the voyage from Perth/Fremantle (Australia) to Heard Island.

An unscheduled 5-minute equipment test the day before the first scheduled transmission was received in Bermuda, and shortly thereafter at Whidbey Island (near Seattle, and almost 18 Mm away). Basic feasibility was already shown!

Signals were sent in a 1-hour-on, 2-hours-off pattern. Some of the transmissions were a continuous-wave (CW) 57 Hz tone (to avoid 50 Hz and 60 Hz power noise), while others were a mixture of several different frequencies near 57 Hz. For details on these transmission modes I refer you to the paper.

Transmissions for the experiment were aborted on the 6th day—ahead of schedule—when a gale and 10-m swells caused one acoustic source to be lost from the string and fall to the ocean floor. The other sources were badly damaged. Conditions in the Southern Ocean can make field work there very difficult.

One thing I found surprising, but makes plenty of sense upon consideration, was that rather than staying in one fixed location, the ship towed the sources along at 3 kt (5.5 km/h, 3.5 mph). This makes sense once you think about the wind and waves in the Southern Ocean, and how, to maintain control of the ship, the vessel must be underway. Being broadside to the swell in a high sea is extremely dangerous.

In this experiment, the receivers were sensitive enough to detect the Doppler shift from the ship’s movement. In fact, the Doppler shift combined with the known path of the ship (from GPS) allowed the azimuth of the signals to be determined. For many of the signals, it was on the expected heading (not quite a great circle due to the non-spherical Earth and the inconsistent depth of the SOFAR channel). At Whidbey Island receiver array, though, the signals arrived from a bearing of 215°, not the 230° predicted. In that case, the signal appears to have taken a longer path southeast of New Zealand, rather than through the Tasman Sea and between Australia and New Zealand.

Fortunately for all involved, there was little impact noticed on the marine mammals.[4] Despite the low observed impacts, the authors make recommendations for the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate project to reduce adverse effects to marine life. Using shorter-range transmit/receive pairs, the total power needed can be reduced significantly. Additionally, with temperate waters having a deeper SOFAR channel, the transmitters can be bottom-mounted at depths of around 0.5–1 km, which will help physically separate them from the near-surface-dwelling marine mammals.

In short, the Heard Island Feasibility Test was a resounding (pardon the pun) success. Ocean acoustic temperature measurement is possible, and measurements were made in the North Pacific for a decade, from 1996–2006.

This paper was a really interesting one, and fairly accessible (scientifically) to someone not in the field of signal processing or oceanography. I enjoyed reading it, and suggest you take a look at it if you’re at all interested. My summary here has skipped over large parts which detail the nature of the propagation and the signal processing aspects.

[1] Munk, W. H., Spindel, R. C., Baggeroer, A., Birdsall, T. G. (1994) “The Heard Island Feasibility Test” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 96 (4), p. 2330–2342. DOI 10.1121/1.410105

[2] This phenomenon is analogous to atmospheric ducting of radio waves, which can cause TV and FM radio stations to be heard far beyond their normal range, and for weather radar to pick up ground clutter far from the station.

[3] This sounds almost analogous to the upcoming VK0EK ham radio expedition to Heard Island, where radio operators (including myself) will have stations around the world listening for their signal.

[4] Bowles, A. E., Smultea, M., Würsig, B., DeMaster, D. P., Palka, D. (1994) “Relative abundance and behavior of marine mammals exposed to transmissions from the Heard Island Feasibility Test” J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 96 (4), p. 2469–2484. DOI 10.1121/1.410120