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Keith von der Heydt '71: Oceanography causes alum to put his career on ice

Keith von der Heydt '71, on the job in the Antarctic.

From an island just off the Antarctic Peninsula, 130 meters (245 feet) below the sea surface, Keith von der Heydt '71 will be exploring one of the most uncharted areas of the earth's surface.

The location is 64 degrees 46' S, 64 degrees 03' W at Palmer Station, the smallest of the U.S. Antarctic Program sites operated by the National Science Foundation on the Antarctic continent. His mission is to help install PRIMO, the first cabled underwater observatory being designed for long-term deployment in the Antarctic depths.

PRIMO, short for the Polar Remote Interactive Marine Observatory, is being developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the largest independent oceanographic institution in the world, and the group responsible for the efforts that uncovered the Titanic in 1985.

PRIMO consists of a shore station, with two miles of electro-optical seabed cable connected to a winch system on the seafloor. From this cable, a buoyant vehicle housing many instruments is able to cycle up and down in the water column to measure physical, chemical, and biological processes in unspoiled, and sometimes dangerous, uncharted territory.

"The cool thing is that our data and control system will be directly accessible to us and, to some degree, the public over the Internet," says von der Heydt, who is a co-principal investigator on the original proposal for PRIMO with WHOI colleagues. "The beauty of this system is that it will be controlled from desktop computers at WHOI via land, satellite, and submerged communications links."

Von der Heydt first entered what he calls "the wild and woolly world of hands-dirty oceanography" at WHOI during the summer of his senior year, invited by civil engineering professor Adrian Richards. At the time, von der Heydt recalls, Richards had a grant to use the submersible ALVIN to research mechanical properties of marine sediments. Von der Heydt assisted with the testing of a radio densitometer that was designed to be pushed into sediment by ALVIN's mechanical arm during a six-week cruise in the Cape Cod Bay area.

"It was the kind of experience for a newly minted engineer that demonstrated why oceanography can be called a 'contact sport,'" von der Heydt says. "I was clearly of limited assistance, having no practical marine experience, but what Professor Richards offered me was the opportunity that turned into an unusual and occasionally downright exciting career."

The following spring, WHOI hooked von der Heydt. "I was visiting an ex-girlfriend at Cedar Crest College when I got a call on her dorm phone line," he says. A team of WHOI researchers wanted him to help assemble and test heat-flow measuring instruments on a six-week sea expedition in the Caribbean. "They wanted me there the next day, so I said, 'Sure, why not?' and left that night."

Thus began von der Heydt's career in the geology and geophysics department at WHOI. He transferred into the ocean engineering department in 1978. Since then, he has traveled the globe, spending a total of more than a year at 10 Arctic ice camps. "I took acoustic measurements through 2-4 meters of ice. ... It was my Arctic experience," he jokes.

The visible part of an iceberg is only 10 to 12 percent of what's underneath.

Now, his work on the PRIMO project carries him to the opposite pole. "There is no land mass in the Arctic (North Pole), so working on the PRIMO system, which will be just offshore of the tremendous Antarctic (South Pole) land mass, is a welcome change."

Von der Heydt is responsible for engineering the control and communications functions of the PRIMO system, which will be installed in the spring of 2006 on the -1 degree Celsius ocean floor, about two miles offshore from Palmer Station.

The PRIMO project has already yielded new discoveries. Von der Heydt and a research group used a bathymetry survey this past spring in the Palmer Station area to find "seafloor sites that are somewhat protected from icebergs where the observatory could be installed," he says. The resulting chart, the first done in the area, revealed a number of undocumented rocky pinnacles that are potentially hazardous to cruise ships and supply vessels.

"Earlier charts depended on very sparsely made soundings which did not accurately show the bottom topography," von der Heydt says. "The part of an iceberg that you see is only 10 to 12 percent of what's underneath, and this can be very dangerous because there is potential for it to roll over unexpectedly as portions melt or break off, changing its center of gravity."

Electrically powered by Palmer Station, PRIMO's instruments will collect data that measures the salinity, temperature, current, motion, clarity, light, chlorophyll, acoustic background, and other biological properties of the water. It will also video capture organisms.

"Our goal is to improve our understanding of the ecological relationships and of what impact we're having on this pristine environment that, like the Arctic, is now changing," von der Heydt says. "With public access, we can interest people on an educational level and inspire them to contribute themselves."

--Heidi Schwartz

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Fall 2005

Posted on Wednesday, October 19, 2005

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