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Dr. Fred Noel Spiess (December 25, 1919 – September 8, 2006) was a naval officer, oceanographer and marine explorer. His work created new advances in marine technology including the FLIP Floating Instrument Platform, the Deep Tow vehicle for study of the sea floor, and the use of acoustics for underwater navigation and geodetic positioning.
Spiess (pronounced SPEES) was born in Oakland, California. He received an undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a master's degree from Harvard University. He received his doctorate in physics from UC Berkeley in 1951.
Spiess was awarded the John Price Wetherill Medal in 1965 and the Maurice Ewing Medal in 1983. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1985. He was a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America, and was awarded their Pioneers of Underwater Acoustics Medal in 1985 for "his leadership and insight in applying acoustics to study the ocean and the sea floor, for his many ingenious scientific and engineering contributions; for his introduction of students, scientists, and many others to underwater acoustics."
After graduating in 1941 from the University of California, Berkeley, he received a commission from the US Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. During World War II, he made a record 13 war patrols on submarines in the Pacific Ocean and was awarded Silver and Bronze Stars for gallantry in combat. He continued in the Naval Reserve from 1946–56 and retired with the rank of captain, serving as the Deputy Oceanographer of the Navy from 1969 to 1974. Spiess' method for reckoning the position of an object from successive sonar contacts is still a standard for training of US Naval Officers.
Spiess joined the Marine Physical Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 1952 and served as director of the laboratory from 1958 to 1980. He served as director of the Scripps Institution from 1964 to 1965.
Spiess is probably best remembered for his role in the creation of R/P FLIP (Floating Instrument Platform), a unique 355-for long research platform that is towed to the work area and then rotated to a vertical position to form a stable observation post in deep water. FLIP has remained in use for more than 40 years primarily for physical oceanographic and acoustic experiments. Spiess collaborated with Fred Fisher and Phillip Rudnick in development of the vessel.
FLIP has been used to study the acoustics of whales and other marine mammals, heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, and the effects of seismic waves on water.
The development of the echo sounder for sea-floor mapping was refined during World War II. Soon research ships crossing the oceans outlined the mid-ocean ridges, fracture zones, and deep-sea trenches. Because these devices sent out broad-beam sound waves from the sea surface, details of the sea floor shape remained obscured by fuzzy smeared out echoes. Ship navigation was so inaccurate that features smaller than a few kilometers across could not be mapped with any certainty. Spiess’ solution to the resolution and mapping problem was twofold; bring the echo sounder close to the sea floor and locate the device within a seabed survey network.
During the 1960s, Spiess and his engineers at the Marine Physical Laboratory of Scripps developed the deep-tow instrument for mapping the deep sea floor from an altitude of tens of meters. The deep-tow instrument used a narrow-beam downward-looking echosounder, side-looking sonars, and subbottom profiling system to map features in unprecedented detail, e.g., geologic observations that approached that of outcrop mapping for land geologists. Evolution of the deep-tow to improve sea-floor mapping saw the addition of a magnetometer, cameras, video, water samplers, plankton nets, and other instruments as more varied seafloor environments were examined.
Spiess recognized that obtaining detailed images of the sea floor was only one component that is necessary for making geologic maps of the deep-sea floor. The position of the deep-tow vehicle must be known to within a few meters, thus leading to the development of the first sea-floor acoustic-transponder positioning system for working in deep water. The acoustic transponder capability eventually evolved into instruments for acoustic geodetic measurements by combining the technologies of seafloor acoustic beacons with shipboard GPS positioning. This geodetic system has been successfully deployed for directly measuring the direction of movement and speed of the oceanic Juan de Fuca lithospheric plate and for documenting movement on submarine landslides.
RISE expedition and black smoker hydrothermal vents
During the mid 1970s, several deep-tow cruises to the mouth of the Gulf of California at 21o N resulted in production of a geologic map of the East Pacific Rise (EPR) spreading ridge axis. The map was then used as the base for conducting diving programs using both French and US manned submersibles. These were the CYAMEX and RISE expeditions; the latter led by Spiess and Ken Macdonald. One of Spiess' projects during the RISE expedition (with Bruce Luyendyk) was to use the manned submersible ALVIN for seafloor gravity measurements across the axis of spreading. The diving expedition ultimately resulted in the discovery of high temperature black-smoker vents for which Spiess and his coauthors received the Newcomb Cleveland Prize for the best paper published in Science in 1980.
- Hildebrand, John A. (May 2007). "Obituary: Fred Noel Spiess". Physics Today. 60 (5): 83–85. doi:10.1063/1.2743137.
- Spiess, F.N. and Type, R.C.. Marine Physical Laboratory Deep-Tow Instrumentation System. Mar. Phys. Lab., Scripps Inst. Ocean. ref. 73-4. 1973.
- Francheteau, J. and CYAMEX Science Team, Massive deep-sea sulphide ore deposits discovered on the East Pacific Rise. Nature, 277, 523, 1979.
- F. N. Spiess, Ken C. Macdonald, T. Atwater, R. Ballard, A. Carranza, D. Cordoba, C. Cox, V. M. Diaz Garcia, J. Francheteau, J. Guerrero, J. Hawkins, R. Haymon R. Hessler, T. Juteau, M. Kastner, R. Larson, B. Luyendyk, J.D. Macdougall, S. Miller, W. Normark, J. Orcutt, C. Rangin, Hot Springs and geophysical experiments on the East Pacific Rise. Science, 207: 1421-1444, 1980.
- Pearce, Jeremy. (2006, September 25). Fred N. Spiess, 86; Helped Design Marine Station. The New York Times, p. A27
- Obituary notice, Scripps Institution of Oceanography News