Big Discoveries and Bold Excursions

As the flagship of Scripp’s fleet, the Revelle is the youngest and most technologically advanced of the four ships.The ship has been on 86 scientific expeditions across four oceans since it last left San Diego in 2006.

The Revelle’ had such an unusually long absence in order to efficiently schedule the Revelle’s expeditions, said Bruce Appelgate, associate director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“We don’t want to transit our ships unless we’re doing science,” Appelgate said. “It just so happens there’s been a lot of work in the Western Pacific, Indian, and Southern Oceans.”

Most of this work was scheduled around those oceans, although the Revelle has traveled as far as the Atlantic Ocean and even made a research stop in the Antarctic. By scheduling these expeditions close together, the Revelle didn’t have to return to San Diego, thereby saving fuel and providing scientists in those areas with much-needed resources. Now that it is at homeport, Scripps will be spending time updating the ship with new technology.

At nearly 110 years old, Scripps Institution of Oceanography is one of the world’s largest and oldest centers for oceanic studies. Established in 1903, Scripps Institution was founded by William E. Ritter as a home for oceanic research. To this end, Scripps currently operates the largest fleet of research vessels of any institution and invites scientists from other institutions to utilize their resources.

“We send our ships to where the scientific research is occurring,” Appelgate said. “Those areas are defined by the funding agencies — [for example] the National Science Foundation or the Office of Naval Research. [These agencies] fund individual scientists to go out and collect data and make observations.”

Due to this funding, Scripps has grown to house four research vessels, which carry scientists from across the globe to research sites in the oceans. Although a lot of the science focuses around the Pacific Ocean, Scripps vessels have been all over the world.

Research Vessel Melville, Scripps’ oldest operating ship, was taken to Chile earlier this year for scientists to study why the Chilean earthquake of 2010 did not rupture the seabed, while the 2011 earthquake off the coast of Japan did — resulting in a powerful tsunami.

The New Horizon, went last year to the north Pacific Ocean so scientists could study the effects of plastic pollution in the ecosystem. The Robert Gordon Sproul, the second youngest ship of the fleet, made an expedition along the coast in 2010 for researchers to study the effects of human-produced sound waves on marine life. The data gathered will help create more eco-friendly sonar techniques for Naval ships.

This recent research has been significant in the development of technology and the understanding of our environment, but it’s only the latest news out of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Since the institution’s establishment in 1903, Scripps researchers have discovered new marine life, charted new undersea mountain ranges in the Pacific, and mapped out ocean currents useful for fishing and naval navigation alike.

Scripps’ origins can be traced back to 1891, the year UC Berkeley administrators gave William E. Ritter $200 to fund biological surveys along the coast of California. At the time, Ritter was a biology lecturer at Berkeley. Ritter proceeded to purchase a tent and laboratory equipment and founded a crude, portable research base where he and his students used to carry out biological studies up and down the Pacific Coast.

In 1903, a group of affluent San Diegans invited William E. Ritter to make San Diego the permanent home of his program, forming the Marine Biological Association of San Diego. Among these San Diegans was newspaper magnate Edward W. Scripps who, in addition to fully funding Ritter’s program, donated his private yachts for use as research vessels in 1904.

Ellen B. Scripps funded purchase of the institution’s first legitimate research vessel in 1907, after one of her brother’s former yachts was shipwrecked the year before. In 1912, the UC Regents acquired the Marine Biological Association renaming it Scripps Institution for Biological Research of the University of California, later changing it to Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1925 to reflect the station’s widening focus. By this time, the powerful Scripps fleet had begun catching the attention of scientists in a myriad of other fields, including geography and environmental science.

In 1939 and 1940, the research ship E.W. Scripps made multiple trips to the Gulf of California. The first expedition in 1939 mapped out the waters of the gulf, examining the currents, phosphate levels and temperature patterns of the water. Incidentally, the researchers were able to make contact with Seri Indians, a tribe that lived in the islands in the gulf, and prove that they were not cannibals despite popular belief at the time.

The ship’s second Gulf of California Expedition was led by Roger Revelle, the scientist who later became the director of Scripps from 1950 to 1964, for whom Scripps’ current flagship is named. This expedition focused on the geography of the surrounding lands, making observations about the rock formations that helped in understanding the geological history of the area. In 1950, a joint expedition between Scripps and the U.S. Navy aboard the research ship Horizon and the navy ship PCE(R) 857 lead to the discovery of the Mid-Pacific mountain range at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The scientists also confirmed a theory of Charles Darwin’s about atoll formation due to the upward growth of coral reef and provided key support for Darwin’s evolutionary theory, contributing to its widespread acceptance.

Researchers also found that the seafloor was not old and smooth as they had expected. The data they collected raised questions about the spreading of the seafloor that the theory of plate tectonics — a theory that is taught almost universally in science classes today — would answer.

It should be noted, however, that not all the Scripps missions are purely research-oriented. The 1970-71 Antipode Expedition, the maiden voyage of the Roger Revelle, was funded in part by the U.S. Navy to survey 25 sites for deep sea drilling. Likewise, the purpose of the 1976-77 Indopac Expedition was not only to capture live benthic amphipods, shrimp-like creatures that live on the ocean floor, but also to identify potential drill sites across the Philippines Basin, where the amphipods were most frequently found.

The Scripps fleet will grow in 2015 with the addition of the currently unnamed AGOR28. The new ship is currently under construction in Dakota Creek, D.C. It will recieve full funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research. In return for this, Scripps scientists use their vessels to assist in researching ways to develop efficient tools such as GPS and sonar location for use by the Navy, among other developments.

Even though the AGOR28 has yet to be chartered for expeditions, researchers at the Scripps Institution are enthusiastic about the new ship’s potential to facilitate research trips, Appelgate said.

“Scripps’ research vessels have been involved in just about every important discovery in the ocean since we started sending research vessels,” Appelgate said.

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