Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, not-for-profit oceanographic research and educational facility located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

WHOI was founded in 1930 primarily as a research institution for the study of the ocean. Later, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it also became an educational institution where students can earn graduate degrees and undertake postgraduate research in a variety of oceanography-related sciences.

WHOI research is both basic and applied. The institution has been, and continues to be, a pioneer in the development of undersea probes that are piloted by onboard personnel (the best-known example is Alvin, which was used in the discovery of the first undersea vent and the Titanic), probes that are tethered to the ship, and robotic probes capable of independent undersea flight. In addition, WHOI is participating in the establishment of instrumentation arrays that can be deployed on the sea surface and seafloor. All of these technologies are revealing a great deal of information about the composition, behavior, and change of the ocean.

The latter has become very important as the influence of the ocean on Earth’s climate has become recognized.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

As oceanography became an established multidisciplinary science in the nineteenth century, the need for dedicated research facilities was recognized. By the first decade of the twentieth century, oceanographic research was flourishing. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography was established in San Diego, California, in 1903. The need for an East Coast facility was recognized and recommended in 1927 by an Oceanography Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. On the basis of this recommendation, WHOI was established on January 6, 1930.

The founding mission of WHOI, which remains the same in 2008, was “research and education to advance understanding of the ocean and its interaction with the Earth system, and communicating this understanding for the benefit of society.”

By the following year, two research ships had been delivered and research was underway. WHOI expanded considerably during World War II (1939–1945), when many war-related research projects were undertaken (defense-related research, including U.S. Navy-sponsored research on robotic probes, continues in 2008). From 1940 to 1945, WHOI expanded from a scientific and support staff of 92 to over 300.

In the 1950s, while WHOI remained a private institution, internal funds became insufficient to cover the increasing coats of oceanographic research. This led WHOI to compete for public funding. The success of funding led to further expansion, and by 1968 the institute housed over 600 scientists and staff. That year, WHOI became an educational institution when it established a joint graduate program with MIT.

The growing diversity of oceanographic research was recognized in 2000 by the formation of four “ocean institutes” within WHOI: the Coastal Ocean Institute, Deep Ocean Exploration Institute, Ocean and Climate Change Institute, and Ocean Life Institute.

In 2008, WHOI entered its 77th year of operation. In February of that year, Dr. Susan Avery became the ninth director, and the first woman appointed to the position.

Among WHOI’s more public accomplishments have been the discovery of hydrothermal vents on the sea floor of the Pacific Ocean in 1977 (new vents continue


HYDROSPHERE: The total amount of liquid, solid, and gaseous water present on Earth.

MARIANAS TRENCH: A canyon almost 36,000 ft (11,000 m) in depth located in the floor of the Pacific Ocean; it is the deepest point in the ocean.

to be discovered, the latest in 2007) and the discovery of the sunken ocean liner Titanic in 1985.

These accomplishments are a very small part of WHOI’s research, which has grown to include the physical, chemical, ecological, and biological (including microbiological) sciences. Modeling of ocean dynamics, currents, and the relationship between the ocean and Earth’s atmosphere and climate has grown in importance since the 1980s.

As of 2008, WHOI operated a fleet of three ships and numerous underwater manned and robotic vehicles.

Impacts and Issues

WHOI has, and continues to be, at the forefront of oceanographic research. The basic and applied research has led to, as just a few examples, the formulation of paints that decrease the fouling of ships’ hulls with biological growth, increased knowledge about practices that help sustain fisheries, the discovery of new forms of life, and increased understanding of ocean currents, and other aspects of ocean composition and behavior.

Refinement of robotic probes to accommodate more and increasingly sensitive instrumentation and to allow probes to descend to greater depths has now made virtually any portion of the ocean accessible. In the past, a limitation to undersea exploration was the supporting cable used to tether some deep ocean probes to the ship. A cable tens of thousands of feet in length would be too heavy to be supported by a ship’s winch. In 2006, however, researchers at Woods Hole successfully developed fiber optic cables that were capable of both supporting more instrumentation and that weighed a fraction of the existing cable. This has made it feasible to manufacture a tethering cable capable of sending undermanned probes to the Marianas Trench, which at a depth of 6.8 mi (11 km) is the deepest-known part of the ocean.

Research from WHOI and other institutions has also revealed the deterioration of the ocean due to human activities, and has shown that human-related activities are changing the chemistry of the ocean. For example, since the 1980s, the pH (a measure of the acidity of the water) has dropped. Given the immense volume of the global ocean, the finding that the ocean chemistry can be changed is very significant.

A changing ocean is fundamentally important for climate. As of 2008, climate research has become a very important focus of WHOI research.

The increasing link between the ocean and Earth’s climate is increasing the pressure on WHOI to play a more prominent role in U.S. environmental policy. This is creating challenges for an institution whose foundation and existence is based on scientific research.

See Also Climate Modeling; Iron Fertilization; Marine Ecosystems; Oceanography



Cullen, Vicky. Down to the Sea for Science: 75 Years of Ocean Research Education & Exploration at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Woods Hole, MA: Woods Hole Oceanographic, 2005.

Parsons, Tim. The Sea’s Enthrall: Memoirs of an Oceanographer. Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2007.

Sverdrup, Keith A. An Introduction to the World’s Oceans. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.


A vibrant community of bacteria, tubeworms that are unique to the geothermal vent environment and other creatures, exists around hydrothermal vents. The entire ecosystem is possible because of the activity of the bacteria. These bacteria have been shown, principally through the efforts of Holger Jannasch (1927–1998) of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to accomplish the conversion of sulfur to energy in a process that does not utilize sunlight called chemosynthesis. The energy is then available for use by the other life forms, which directly utilize the energy, consume the bacteria, or consume the organisms that rely directly on the bacteria for nourishment. For example, the tubeworms have no means with which to take in or process nutrients. Their existence relies entirely on the bacteria that live in their tissues.

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