Woods Hole Oceanographic Insti.: Private, Non-Profit Research & Higher Education Facility
For nearly a century, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has been one of the best known and most trusted names in ocean science and exploration. Our scientists and engineers have played a part in many of the discoveries that form the modern understanding of the ocean and how it interacts with other parts of the planet, including human society.
The ocean is a defining feature of our planet and crucial to life on Earth, yet it remains one of the planet’s last unexplored frontiers. For this reason, WHOI scientists and engineers are committed to understanding all facets of the ocean as well as its complex connections with Earth’s atmosphere, land, ice, seafloor, and life—including humanity. This is essential not only to advance knowledge about our planet, but also to ensure society’s long-term welfare and to help guide human stewardship of the environment. WHOI researchers are also dedicated to training future generations of ocean science leaders, to providing unbiased information that informs public policy and decision-making, and to expanding public awareness about the importance of the global ocean and its resources.
Mission Statement: The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is dedicated to research and education to advance understanding of the ocean and its interaction with the Earth system, and to communicating this understanding for the benefit of society.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Who Are They and What They Do
History and Legacy: Over 80 Years of Ocean Research, Education & Exploration
At its founding in 1930, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution joined a thriving ocean science community in the village of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that included the Marine Biological Laboratory and the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the time, the world was only a little more than 50 years removed from the first efforts to systematically study the ocean.
One of Woods Hole’s greatest contributions came even before a single building was constructed: As a result of the discussions and correspondence that surrounded planning the Institution, scientists formed a vision for oceanography that foresaw experts from many fields working together on questions related to the global ocean—one that continues to the present day.
The idea for WHOI dates to the early 1920s and the first of a series of conferences between Frank R. Lillie, then the MBL director, and Wickliffe Rose, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation’s General Education Board. Their discussions resulted in the 1927 appointment of a National Academy of Sciences Committee on Oceanography “to consider the share of the United States of America in a world-wide program of Oceanographic Research.”
The committee, chaired by Lillie, recommended that oceanographic activities on the West Coast be strengthened and that a well-equipped oceanographic institution be established on the East Coast. The committee members, including its secretary, Henry Bryant Bigelow of Harvard University, formed the nucleus of a board of trustees for the new institution. Lillie became president of the board, Bigelow WHOI’s first director.
After considering many sites, Woods Hole, Massachusetts was chosen for its established scientific research community, extensive library facilities, ready access both to the deep sea, to the contrasting conditions north and south of Cape Cod, a small but deep water harbor suitable for berthing oceanographic vessels, and its proximity to several universities.
The Rockefeller Foundation provided $1 million for construction, boats, equipment, and upkeep, $1 million for endowment, and $500,000 for 10 years of summertime operating expenses. Bigelow had conducted extensive studies in the Gulf of Maine using boats begged and borrowed from the Fisheries Commission and often not suited for the work being done.
He knew firsthand the importance of a seaworthy and reasonably comfortable working platform. “The most essential activities of the institution may be expected to center around the work at sea,” wrote Bigelow. That statement eventually formed the centerpiece of the Institution’s longest-lasting (and continuing) legacy, one rooted in seagoing research to further knowledge of the ocean.
In May 1930 the trustees authorized $175,000 for construction of a new vessel, a 142-foot, steel-hulled ketch spreading 7,500 square feet of canvas eventually christened Atlantis. Construction also began on a four-story brick laboratory, which is still in use and today called the Bigelow Laboratory. Atlantis was launched December 31, 1930, and arrived in Woods Hole in August 1931.
Throughout the 1930s, the Institution operated primarily during the summer months. A typical summer would find Atlantis exploring newly discovered canyons off Georges Bank, collecting mud cores for bacteriological studies, taking current measurements at anchor stations, dragging for Gulf of Maine shrimp, collecting plankton, and crisscrossing the Gulf Stream taking water samples and making hydrographic measurements. During the winter, Atlantis generally made a longer cruise or two to the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico.
The turn of the decade, however, brought profound change to oceanography. During the war, the U.S. Navy realized that many of its operations were intimately dependent on the environment in which ships operate, and oceanographers found themselves consulted more frequently on matters of national defense.
One of the first Navy-sponsored programs of research at Woods Hole concerned the composition of different paints to prevent marine fouling on ships, a project for which the Navy commended associate director Albert Redfield for helping them save an estimated 10 percent of their fuel budget. Another project involved the intensive study of the effects of salinity and temperature on the transmission of underwater sound and its application to anti-submarine warfare. Many other research activities with direct application to naval problems followed, the largest of which was the investigation of underwater explosives.
After the war, there was a period of uncertainty about oceanography’s future. For a while it appeared that the Institution might return to the pre-war routine of busy summers and quiet winters. But both the direction of oceanography as a science and its economic situation had changed, as had the demand for advanced research in the U.S.
Throughout the Cold War, the Navy supported additional research that spawned greater knowledge of planetary and marine processes. Extensive work in physical oceanography led to better understanding of the Gulf Stream as well as the distribution of physical and chemical properties in the North Atlantic Ocean. Acoustic methods stimulated by wartime research allowed geophysicists to extend their knowledge and understanding of the structure of Earth’s crust under the ocean basins. Interest in meteorology led to the development of a strong group at Woods Hole making observations on trade wind physics and dynamics.
In 1950, the U.S. Congress established the National Science Foundation (NSF) to promote national efforts in science and engineering. WHOI’s first support from NSF came in 1952 for work on summer plankton blooms in Long Island bays and for eight training fellowships. Over the years, NSF’s share of Institution support grew slowly and steadily until it surpassed Navy support.
But the Navy remained pivotal in two areas: ship-based oceanography and underwater vehicles. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Navy supported development of a manned submersible for scientific research. Eventually named Alvin for one of its prime advocates, Allyn Vine, Alvin continues to take geologists, biologists, and chemists deep beneath the surface of the ocean to observe processes and phenomenon firsthand that would be difficult or impossible to study otherwise.
The Navy also continues to support sea-going ocean science through the construction of oceanographic research vessels. WHOI’s two Global Class research vessels, R/V Knorr and Atlantis are both operated by the Institution on behalf of the Navy, which paid for their construction. Another in the long line of research vessels operated by WHOI is scheduled to be delivered to the Institution in 2015.
WHOI’s leadership in ocean science and engineering has resulted in a long line of notable discoveries and advancements in knowledge of the ocean. These range from the distribution and role of microbes in the marine environment to development of revolutionary new tools and techniques to study the ocean to the discovery of life in the deep ocean near hydrothermal vents to a deeper understanding of the nature and impacts of hydrocarbons in the ocean.
In addition to scientific research and technical innovation, education has been a critical part of WHOI’s mission over the years. The first formal education program was a summer research experience for undergraduates initiated about 1955. Postdoctoral fellowships followed in 1960, and the long-running flagship of WHOI’s education program, a Joint Program in Oceanography with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was begun in 1968 to grant doctoral degrees to students interested in pursuing a career in ocean science or engineering.
Today, the WHOI community numbers over 1,000, including scientific and technical staff, ships’ crew and officers, and a variety of scientific, service, and administrative support staff, as well as about 130 Joint Program students. All of these individuals contribute to a common goal: to help advance research and understanding of the ocean and its role in shaping and sustaining the planet. It is not a mission that WHOI takes lightly, now or at any time over the course of its history. The ocean is too important to all of us.
Key Discoveries & Accomplishments
For nearly a century, Woods Hole scientists and engineers have played a part in many of the discoveries that form the modern understanding of the ocean and how it interacts with other parts of the planet, including human society.
Science in a Time of Crisis: WHOI’s Response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: A multimedia presentation featuring scientists and engineers who continued the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution legacy of oil spill research by providing an objective insight into the immediate and potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Discovery of Hydrothermal Vents: In 1977, scientists made a stunning discovery on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that forever changed our understanding of planet Earth and life on it.
Discovery of RMS Titantic: What is the RMS Titanic?: The Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic was a passenger and mail ship that hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City on April 14, 1912. The ship was carrying more than 2,200 passengers and crew. As a result of the collision, the ship sank in the early morning hours of April 15, taking with it over 1,500 people, making it one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
Titanic was a massive ship—883 feet long, 92 feet wide, and displacing (or weighing) 52,310 long tons (a long ton is 2240 pounds). It was 175 feet tall from the keel to the top of the four stacks or funnels, almost 35 feet of which was below the waterline. The Titanic was taller above the water than most urban buildings of the time. At the time, Titanic was the largest ever movable man-made object. The press labeled the ship “unsinkable.“
For more, see the History of the Titanic Feature.
What is its legacy?: Few disasters have had such far-reaching effects on the fabric of society as the sinking of the Titanic. Besides altering the way the North Atlantic passenger trade was conducted, the loss also affected basic attitudes about social justice. In some cases the effects of the changes were immediate; the routes followed by passenger liners were shifted to the south four days after the disaster and an ice patrol was instituted during that same year. For marine science, the discovery of the wreck was the beginning of an era of engineering and technology to explore the deep sea.
Alterations in steamship routes: On 17 April 1912, just two days after the sinking, the liner Carmania sailed from New York on a route 110 miles south of the route it would have followed before the Titanic sank. The United States and Great Britain had negotiated this change by telegraph. On April 19th, the U.S. Hydrographic Office announced an even more drastic change—liners were to follow courses 270 miles south of that followed by the Titanic, increasing the length of the New York to England trip by 9 to 14 hours. This swift shift of the sea lanes was but one symptom of an overall change in attitudes about technology. If the “unsinkable” Titanic could go down so easily, no ship was safe.
Lifeboats for all: Another transformation in the weeks following the Titanic disaster concerned the number of lifeboats carried on passenger ships. The British Board of Trade regulated the number of lifeboats carried aboard British passenger vessels, and its simple rule was that any vessel weighing more than 10,000 tons must carry 16 lifeboats. The Titanic exceeded this requirement, carrying 16 wooden lifeboats plus 4 collapsible boats; all the lifeboats combined could carry just under 1,200 people, or about half those onboard. The regulations of the United States and Germany were tougher, requiring sufficient lifeboats for about two thirds of the total capacity on a ship the size of the Titanic. Since few expected the Titanic to sink, little thought had been given to use of the lifeboats.
In 1914, the International Conference on Safety Of Life At Sea agreed on a treaty that called for every ship to carry sufficient lifeboats for all persons on board. It also mandated lifeboat drills, and that sufficient crew members be trained in manning the boats. Never again would so many die for lack of proper equipment.
In 1913, two U.S. Navy cruisers monitored the ice and a British vessel conducted some preliminary research on the movements of ice. In April of 1914, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters undertook the first official ice patrol. From 1915 until the present, the International Ice Patrol has continued its mission. The only gaps occurred during the two world wars.
Today, all commercial ships crossing the North Atlantic still radio in their positions and ice sightings, without regard to nationality. This makes the patrol one of the longest running and most successful international efforts in existence.
The rise of deep sea engineering and technology: The 1985 discovery of the Titanic by the joint WHOI & IFREMER teams, and the 1986 WHOI expedition marked a turning point for public awareness of the ocean and for the development of new areas of science and technology.
The development of towed sled vehicles to image the seafloor was only the beginning. In addition to towed sleds, today’s robotic vehicles include tethered remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and completely autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). The latest is a new hybrid Remotely Operated Vehicle or HROV, is able to operate in two modes—remotely controlled and autonomous. The HROV has been able to travel to the deepest trenches of the ocean.