Frontiers of Science: To Still the Waves

To Still the Waves

In the Gospel of St. Mark, we read of an incident where Jesus used His miraculous powers to calm a storm at sea. He had spent a full day preaching to the multitudes, and at eventide He was asleep in a ship being piloted by His disciples across the water. When a storm suddenly came up and the boat was almost swamped, the disciples awoke Jesus, thinking they would surely drown. Then we read that “he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.” (Mark 4:39.)

The ability to still the waves of the sea is something that man has long sought. Every year hundreds, even thousands of people lose their lives in the wake of storms spawned over the oceans. In 1900, for instance, a mammoth hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, killing 6,000 persons; while in 1972 a much milder storm in that area caused two billion dollars’ worth of damage.

Can such storms be controlled? That is a question that plagues the minds of a number of scientists dedicated to reducing the yearly toll of lives and property damage wrought by the hurricane’s destructive winds and waves. It is difficult to say whether they will ever succeed. But one possible strategy used by simple coral polyps may hold some promise.

What do coral polyps have to do with hurricane control? To find out, let’s consider some salt water aquariums I have in my home. Thriving in these tanks are several sea anemones that I have collected from coral reefs. Whenever I move them about or disturb them, I notice that they give off a thick, slimy mucus. This usually creates a mess that I must clean up immediately, to protect the sea horses from getting caught in it and eaten by the anemones. And, indeed, this is one purpose of the mucus—to help the anemones capture food. Another purpose of the mucus secretion is to enable the anemones to clean themselves and get rid of sand and other debris that may settle on them.

Now there are many ocean creatures that react to disturbances in much the same way as anemones. Coral polyps, in particular, give off tremendous quantities of mucus when they are disturbed by wave action. And scientists have recently discovered that this mucus makes its way to the surface, where it undergoes certain chemical transformations to form a protective acid film that floats on the water. This acid film actually retards the effects of wind in creating waves. As a consequence, the disturbance created by the waves is reduced, and the delicate coral polyps are somewhat protected from further disturbance that could do physical damage to them.

Taking a lesson from nature, scientists are experimenting to see whether a similar approach can be used to tame the fury of hurricanes. And some of these scientists are not much older than you! At the 30th Annual International Science and Engineering Fair held in May, 1979, at San Antonio, Texas, William Blair Murray of Huffman High School, Birmingham, Alabama, was the winner of the American Meteorological Society’s Special Award for the best atmospheric science exhibit. His topic was “Using Chemical Sea-Surface Films to Suppress Hurricane Development.”

Although the ultimate purpose of William’s project was to calm the winds of hurricanes, the method he proposed was not to directly reduce waves, as the coral polyps do, but to reduce evaporation from the ocean and to isolate the growing storm from its energy source. But as with the polyps, certain acids did prove to be very effective in this isolation process; and they also dissolved away when they were no longer needed.

Once again we see how science progresses by finding useful relationships among subjects that at first glance do not seem to have much in common—from anemones in an aquarium, to waves over coral reefs, to death-dealing hurricanes. As one Nobel-Prize-winning scientist has put it:

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” And so we find scientists, young and old, striving to subdue the ravages of nature for the good of their fellowmen and in similitude of the Savior on the “frontiers of science.”

[illustration] Illustration courtesy Providence Lithograph Company

[photo] 1 A satellite photo of Hurricane Dolores, a violent storm at sea on July 22, 1979, as it approached the western coast of Mexico. (Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service.)

[photo] 2 Disturbing these sea anemones living in a marine aquarium will cause them to give off a slimy mucus. (Photo by Sherwood B. Idso.)

[photo] 3 The coral polyps that comprise this sea fan will also give off mucus secretions when disturbed. (Photo by Sherwood B. Idso.)

[photo] 4 A closeup view of a sea fan, showing the individual coral polyps with their tiny tentacles extended. (Photo by Sherwood B. Idso.)

[photo] 5 Sea surface films off San Jose island in the southern Gulf of California that have been created by intense biological activity beneath the surface. (Photo by P. M. Williams, University of California, San Diego.)

[photo] 6 A scientist inspects instruments designed to measure the effects of weather in creating waves over a coral reef off the coast of Papua, New Guinea, and the power of biologically produced surface films to reduce them. (Photo by Guntis Grauze.)