The Greening of Military Secrets
With the cold war over, Earth scientists are picking up the benefits of data, research projects, and hardware developed for the military
WASHINGTON — THE United States Navy has been eavesdropping on the oceans for years. Its underwater listening devices, sprinkled on continental shelves around the globe, are so sensitive that an ensign in the Bahamas can hear a submarine rev its props in the Barents Sea.
But the sub-spying business isn't what it used to be, so Navy microphones are tuning in a new kind of undersea clamor - whales.
Not to mention volcanoes, and lava, and deep-sea thermal plumes. While ship tracking continues, the Navy's vast Underwater Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) is devoting more and more time to civilian environmental research. By recording blips and beeps they used to ignore, SOSUS operators are providing ocean scientists whole new worlds of data, such as the track of a single whale from Cape Cod to Florida.
``There's a saying that, in the cold war, the Navy threw away more information every year regarding whales than the civilian marine-mammal community has gleaned in its entire existence,'' says Bob Smart, coordinator for military-technology conversion at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Thus what was once secret black becomes green.
The SOSUS example is not an isolated one. With the end of the cold war, many US national security resources, from skilled researchers to radars, are being redeployed to the war to save the world's environment.
Earth scientists, for instance, are filling their workstations with newly declassified geophysical data the Pentagon has collected for decades. As a result, study of such virgin areas as the Arctic icecap is being significantly advanced.
Technology honed by billions of dollars of cold-war effort is being redirected to civilian environmental cleanup. The military, after all, has much experience processing the most toxic waste of all: plutonium.
The course of this defense-to-environment conversion does not always run smooth. The Pentagon's desire to keep secrets remains strong. But there is no question that the end of the US-Soviet confrontation has provided a windfall to those who study the earth. ``It would have been beyond environmental researchers' wildest dreams to get the money to build systems like SOSUS in the first place,'' Captain Smart says.
And no wonder - the Navy spent upwards of $15 billion over three decades to build its network of microphones linked by cables to shore-based listening stations. For the money it got a marvel of defense technology. By filtering out the natural noise of the ocean with advanced signal-processing techniques, SOSUS is able to identify the characteristic swish of individual ships' propellers. It can detect sounds from thousands of miles away, as sound waves travel tremendous distances through channels made by water layers of different temperature and salinity.
Using the system for earth science involves isolating and keeping the previously discarded sound waves made by natural events. The Navy began making such data available to civilian scientists in the early 1990s, and it has already opened new worlds for some. Marine-mammal specialists, for instance, used SOSUS data last year to track an individual blue whale - nicknamed Old Blue - for 43 days. The Navy met with marine-mammal scientists in California in late March and now plans to make whale studies a primary thrust of SOSUS research.
The most spectacular civilian SOSUS success to date, however, involves an undersea Pompeii. In June 1993, geophysicists used SOSUS to detect and quickly locate a volcano erupting on the ocean floor 1-1/2 miles down. Research ships rushed to the scene, off the coast of Oregon, and lowered robot cameras to record lava flows and shimmering columns of heated water. It marked the first time scientists had ever seen such an eruption in its early stages, up close. ``Now we have a `time zero.' We never had that before,'' says Robert Embley, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) hydrothermal vent project.
Detecting ocean volcanoes
Study this summer will further examine how heat and chemicals rise from the Oregon geothermal vents and dissipate into ocean water. More than 80 percent of the earth's volcanic activity occurs at sea, and through SOSUS scientists are already detecting far more of it than they could with their previous sensors. ``The events are just too small for land-based seismometers,'' Dr. Embley says.
SOSUS isn't the only big Pentagon system that has environmental science applications. NOAA scientists also covet a powerful Air Force over-the-horizon (OTH) radar on the coast of Maine. Though only recently completed, this expensive piece of electronics is now something of a drag on the Defense Department. Since its primary mission - detection of Soviet bombers or cruise missiles heading for the US from the north - is less relevant, the Air Force wants to close the radar to save operational costs. A sister facility in California is already closed.
Lame-duck Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine has kept the OTH radar open so far, and earth scientists have been able to use it to determine the pattern of winds over the Atlantic by looking at the choppiness of open-water waves. Such data can greatly aid in detecting storms and optimizing routing for cargo ships and fishermen.
The OTH radar helps plug a large gap in scientists' knowledge of surface weather conditions, says Thomas Georges of NOAA. Without the OTH radar information, it would be harder to produce accurate models of global weather activity. He proposes to convert the radar to a national science facility. He figures it would cost $2 million to $5 million a year. ``That's not really a huge sum,'' Dr. Georges says, especially considering the $1 billion-plus the facility cost the Air Force to build.
Military surplus hardware could be a tremendous boon to scientists, who always seem strapped for funds to buy equipment. But stored military data might be even more useful. The basis of earth science is careful, continuous measurement, and in the course of its day-to-day activity the US military has collected enormous amounts of routine geophysical data from all over the globe. Submarines are constantly measuring water temperature to find thermal ``blankets'' (walls of water of differing temperatures which confuse radar) to hide behind; air bases measure wind speed to aid in takeoffs; ground units in the desert note weather as an aid to stealth and survival. Perhaps only another scientist can understand the longing these troves must inspire in the academic breast.
Two problems stand in the way of scientific access to military data, however. The first is simply finding out what information the government has and where to go in the vast national-security bureaucracy to get it. The second is secrecy. Much data, particularly that produced by spy satellites, remains classified. A government-wide Environmental Task Force is now sifting through records to see what should be declassified, but most of the scientific information that has become public was released on an ad hoc basis.
``Some [military] groups are willing to work with us. Some just do not feel that it is part of their mission,'' says Harold Geller, an official at the Consortium for the International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) in Washington.
CIESIN is a nonprofit group that studies how Defense Department data can be made available to global-change scientists. Among its successes so far is an Arctic geographic data base that includes previously secret Navy measurements of ice-cap thickness. With help from a Defense Department grant, it is now targeting three other sites where the Pentagon is data-rich: the Persian Gulf, the coast of northern Russia, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Military data can help fill holes in the development of comprehensive knowledge on these regions, Mr. Geller says. Persian Gulf circulation studies done when Saddam Hussein released oil during the Gulf war would be very valuable, for instance.
But Pentagon vaults do not contain all the secrets of the earth. ``I don't think there is any silver bullet they have that will really alter the views of global change researchers,'' Geller says.
One thing some scientists have discovered is that Pentagon officials are more prone to release information if the request comes from someone who used to wear a uniform. From 1988 to 1992, retired Adm. John Bossler, now a geodecist at Ohio State University, headed a panel on the declassification of military data for the American Geophysical Union. In particular, the AGU wanted information from the Navy's Geosat satellite, which can measure ocean floor topography via tiny variations in gravitational effects. Since this data is used to help target ballistic missiles, the Navy was reluctant to help.
The Navy still won't release Geosat data from the northern cruising zones of ICBM subs. But talking admiral-to-admiral, Bossler eventually obtained the release of Geosat data below 30 degrees south, covering some two-thirds of the world's ocean area. He also pried loose Swath sonar records, though he failed to get some seismological data from the Air Force that he wanted. ``Things are now loosening up quite a bit,'' Bossler says.
Besides hardware and data software, a third area where defense investment is paying off green is in technical research. US national labs are eager to convert processes or products developed during the cold war to commercial purposes. Thus projects to help study or clean up the environment are among their fastest-growing budget items. Lab scientists are finding that toxic waste cleanup or the compilation of global weather models is a Big Science challenge on the order of nuclear physics.
At Lawrence Livermore national lab, for example, an underground imaging method developed to study the results of nuclear weapon tests is being adapted to tracking pools of pollution. Electrical Resistance Tomography (ERT) involves passing small amounts of electric current through the ground between two poles, to produce a ``picture'' of the soil and what it contains.
Last year Livermore researchers used ERT to guide injected steam and cleanse pooled gasoline where four tanks had leaked in the late 1970s. Without ERT the clean-up would have been as difficult as merging onto a busy freeway with your eyes closed, says Roger Aines, a Livermore scientist who helped develop the process. The ERT-steam-cleaning combination might be particularly useful in removing pooled solvents at military bases that are slated to be closed down.
Another Livermore project aims to neutralize hazardous waste entirely. Mediated Electrochemical Oxidation (MEO) uses chemical reactions similar to those in a battery - only working in reverse -
to destroy organic wastes. The end results are safe substances such as carbon dioxide and water. National labs came up with MEO years ago to treat dangerous wastes left over from nuclear-weapons manufacturing. In conjunction with a commercial firm, EOSystems, Livermore is now promoting the process as a safe and cheap alternative to current hazardous waste disposal methods.
``The typical way to deal with hazardous organics in the past has been just to incinerate them. But transportation and storage costs are not trivial,'' says Zoher Chiba, a principal investigator on the project. In addition, Dr. Chiba notes, growing public opposition now often makes incineration unpalatable.
All these things - the radars, the waste processes, and the data released to scientists - don't mean the Pentagon is about to become an arm of EPA. Consider the case of the national labs: They may be eager for environmental dollars, but some three-quarters of their funding still comes from defense sources. There is a line item in the Defense Department budget to ease military-to-environment defense conversion, but so far it has totaled only about $400 million. Most of that funding has gone to clean up polluted bases.
But sums that are chump change to the Pentagon are lottery winnings to earth scientists. Capt. Smart of NOAA points out that his agency's whole budget is smaller than the amount that the Pentagon budget was reduced last year. Science, he says, offers a real opportunity to continue to make use of assets that the nation constructed at great expense and effort and which are now, basically, otherwise junk. ``Do you walk off and leave a multibillion investment that can do something useful?'' he asks, ``Just leave it and walk away?''