Diving deep with Alvin'€™s first female pilot

TechKnow talks to Dr. Cindy Van Dover about deep sea exploration and the future of seabed mining

Over ninety percent of the ocean remains unexplored, yet one tiny submarine called Alvin has been plunging scientists into deeper depths of knowledge for over 50 years.TechKnow speaks with Alvin’s first female pilot and Duke University Oceanography Professor, Cindy Van Dover, PhD.

Van Dover says that training to be an Alvin pilot was “the most difficult thing,” she ever did in her life. Observing hydrothermal vents on Alvin made her realize “all the rules we knew seemed to be broken.” She recounts to TechKnow her trial by fire job training, deep sea mining apprehensions, and the lessons she continues to learn from down below.

The following was adapted from an interview with “TechKnow.” It has been edited for length and clarity.

TechKnow: How much pressure did you feel as an Alvin pilot?

Cindy Van Dover: Getting a PhD was easy compared to being trained (to be an) Alvin pilot. It was all on the job training. As a scientist, people’s lives aren’t in my hands, as a pilot, I could kill someone.

TK: What sparked your interest in learning all about the deep sea?

CV:  As I looked at the animals in the shallow water, I thought the strangest animals must be in the deeper water. Then, I discovered hydrothermal vents and there they were, all these crazy strange animals.

Young Van Dover in her office, note the framed photo of hydrothermal vents on her desk. Image courtesy of Dr. Cindy Van Dover

TK: It sounds like your research is taking us into areas of science that we never dreamed existed.

CV: Us collectively yes, thinking about origin of life, life on other planets,  thinking about moving onto societal dimensions of mining, these are things I never imagined working on as a young scientist… The discovering of hydrothermal vents for me was liberating as a scientist because all the rules that we knew seemed to be broken because this chemosynthesis, this reliance on chemical energy, and to have dense life on the sea floor, that was breaking a rule. It kind of freed my mind up to go in different directions so that’s been really fun.

TK: What exactly is a deep sea hydrothermal vent?

CV: They’re hot springs on the sea floor. They’re rich in chemicals that microbes can use, and then those microbes often live inside invertebrate animals and nourish those invertebrates so they’re spectacular beautiful oasis of life in an otherwise barren desert like sea floor.

TK: What else have you been discovering down below?  

CV: We’ve been finding valuable minerals on the sea floor, copper is a big one.

Inside the cockpit of the Alvin sub. Image courtesy of Dr. Cindy Van Dover

TK: How did the mineral discovery impact scientific exploration?

CV: As biologists and ecologists, we think about the damage. We like to think about the resources and the value of the resources on the sea floor. (For example) the metals, but then we also have to think about the environmental impact as we think about extracting them.

TK: How is this all regulated and monitored?

CV: There’s this window of time where we can get policy in place pre-industry…  The environmental management community wants to make sure we think not just about the market value but the existence value, biodiversity and sustainability

TK: It seems technology is advancing far more quickly than regulations?

CV: We’re just scrambling to keep up. Industry is moving very, very fast. They have far more resources than the scientific community

TK: What’s your personal opinion about industry advancement?

CV: I have many places on the sea floor that I love. It was a very precious privileged thing to be able to dive on the sea floor and be the first person there. These are like my babies, the sites I discovered, and the sites that my friends discovered they’re very personal to me. It kills me to think about them being destroyed by mining. As a scientist, that’s not my response… I think I can be objective about answering questions about the sensitivity, the resiliency of these communities. It’s just what’s in my heart rather than what’s in my head.

TK: Can the exploration side of coexist with the mining side of it or is there a clash?

CV: I don’t know there there’s going to be clashes to the extent that scientific and exploration can continue in a region that’s being leased for mining. We can continue doing exploration side by side with industry. It’s when industry is actually doing the extraction, when they’re there with big industrial tools that science won’t necessarily be excluded, except for the aspects where we’re helping with the environmental monitoring. The scientific community will be there, I hope, helping to monitor and understand the impacts of what this mining events will be .

TK: It’s seems like we’re at stage where industry is helping science progress?

CV: Where industry and science come together are fascinating. I’ve changed a lot of my views of the need to exploit and how to work together with industry rather than butting heads. I think there’s some rational things to do. That said, I don’t know what happens down the road when I imagine the big colossus industry takes over and a little voice like mine is just completely lost.

TK: What’s your reaction to mining companies saying we need to mine the deep sea in order to maintain our needs on land?

CV: I think its fine to take metals from the ocean as minerals become scarce on land. But mining the sea floor, yes let’s do it, but let’s not do it so fast. Let’s think about it and the values to the environment. We want to get the balance  and make sure we don’t damage the environment to an irreparable point…I see deep sea mining potentially having very low level impact, but accumulating over time. Maybe it won’t make any difference.  I think we need to know the answer to that.

To learn more about TechKnow’s adventures on Alvin, watch this week’s "TechKnow.”

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