UW 'gummy bear experiment' asks, will it crush?

Nov 7, 2011

When you’re sending scientific equipment 18,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, sometimes it can be fun to show the world what that kind of pressure can do to a gummy bear or a Styrofoam cup.

So, scientists from the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory – who have been on expedition in the South Pacific near Samoa to study massive underwater waves – attached a camera to snap photos of objects being crushed under the weight of the ocean.

However, reports UW spokesperson Sandra Hines, “the glass sphere that held the camera was defective, cracked and burst. They recorded some images on earlier dives.” Since the ship is still at sea and not due home until mid-November, she didn’t know how many underwater photos they had.

Tale of two experiments

The lead scientist on the expedition, Matthew Alford, reported on the team’s blog that the “gummy bear experiment” or, as it was officially dubbed, the “Will it crush?” experiment was designed to capture people’s imagination much as the YouTube hit “Will it blend?”

“We think this is a pretty intuitive and fun way to get people more involved with ocean research and some of its challenges – as well as to learn about the ocean,” wrote Alford on theexpedition blog. “We aim to broaden the concept to allow kids to suggest items to be crushed, and to guess what will happen to them.”

You can see in the above photo just what happens to a cup and a couple of bears when subjected to pressure at the bottom of the sea that is over 500 times what it is at the surface.

The real experiment, however, might just be cooler anyway.

Waves as tall as 3 Space Needles

According to a press release by Hines: The expedition ran from Oct. 24 to Nov. 5 to learn more about these big waves that roll along unseen thousands of feet below the ocean surface.

“The considerable heat moved around the globe by these waves and released when they break, just like waves at the surface except underwater, has profound implications for ocean circulation and climate,” Alford explains on the Wavechasers website.

These underwater waves in other parts of the world, she writes, have also been known to cause submarines to hit the bottom or breach the surface.

The expedition, funded by the National Science Foundation, is at the Samoan Passage because that is a choke point in deep ocean circulation, according to the website describing the expedition. A “veritable river” of bottom water all the way from the Antarctic flows into the passage. Six million tons of water flow through the passage each second, which is 36 times more than the world’s largest river, the Amazon. Water pushing through the constricted passage becomes very turbulent, internal waves are generated and temperature and other water characteristics are altered.

“The overall goal is to understand these deep processes and the way they impact the flow, and to develop a strategy for eventually monitoring the flow through the passage,” Alford says.

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