The Navy developed a souped-up sonar that could track an object’s motion over hundreds of miles by using a lower frequency of sound that would not be distorted over long distances. It also reduced the time between sound pings. Older sonar could only detect the fish that happened to be swimming right under the research vessel, but the technology perfected during the Cold War can follow a distant shoal as it moves around. “No one had ever seen what a 20-kilometer-long fish shoal looked like before,” Makris said. “And not only did we see what they looked like, we could watch them evolve over time.”
Makris has discovered shoals of fish off the coast of Manhattan that were just as big as the island itself. He can also distinguish between different species of fish due to the different ways they reflect sound waves.
The flow of technology hasn’t been all one way. The U.S. Geological Survey was founded in 1879 to study the land in the rapidly growing country. Part of the mission of the modern USGS is to monitor earthquake activity both in the United States and around the world. Sensors deployed by the USGS pick up the massive vibrations caused by earthquakes—or other disturbances to the Earth’s crust.
Earlier this week, USGS sensors detected suspicious seismological activity in North Korea. Further analysis showed that it originated in an area previously linked to the underground detonation of nuclear warheads. Geologic information about the Earth’s crust indicated that a naturally occurring earthquake was extremely unlikely there. The data, coupled with other intelligence, indicated that North Korea had, in fact, successfully detonated a nuclear weapon.
“I think there’s great value in monitoring the environment very pervasively,” Jeanloz said, whether someone is looking at levels of pollution in the atmosphere or normal seismic activity to detect earthquakes and potential nuclear blasts. “In large part, it can serve as a complement to what is traditionally thought of as arms control.”
Take a project known as HIAPER (High-Performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research), pioneered by Steven Wofsy of Harvard. He and his team stuffed a Gulfstream V jet chock-full of instrumentation and flew the plane several times between the North and South poles gathering detailed atmospheric information. They found that, as the Arctic Ocean melted due to global warming, it was emitting high levels of methane gas that would ultimately increase the rate of melting and lead to more methane emissions. While his mission collected valuable information, Wofsy noted, it could easily have gathered other data relevant to monitoring nuclear test ban treaties.
“Under a dual use framework, you could get funding from different parts of the government to sort of leverage the environmental benefits,” Wofsy said. “It’s a good idea, it’s visionary, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.”
Of course, including additional data to analyze still costs money, and securing cash from budget-limited funding agencies isn’t easy. The problem isn’t the technology, Jeanloz says, it’s the political will to pay for such “dual use” endeavors.
The trick is getting government agencies to expand their thinking. An arms control treaty sounds like an opportunity to keep our neighbors in line, rather than a chance to learn more about pollution and global warming. And as long as the environmental monitoring is seen as merely an add-on or a bonus feature, it will get jettisoned when money gets tight or the anti-science movement gains momentum.
Certainly preventing a nuclear attack or other nefarious actions is important to global security. But understanding and protecting the environment is just as crucial to global security. If we don’t understand how the world works, how chemicals travel through the air and water, patterns of earthquake activity, or even how massive shoals of fish move and evolve, then we can’t prevent, prepare for, or adapt to a changing environment. Linking environmental research to national security reinforces the idea that trashing the world around us is detrimental to our country’s well-being. That is the real opportunity and the real shift in the way technology is used.