Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine biologist specializing in the use of acoustic engineering to map the deep ocean, has just been named a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur "genius" award. In the current issue of Mother Jones, environmental correspondent and award-winning science writer Julia Whitty profiles Benoit-Bird and her pivotal contributions to marine science-particularly her work revealing the complex marine food web in the largely unexplored deepest parts of the ocean (the deep scattering layer).
Today, MacArthur honored 23 scientists, teachers, writers, and other innovators as fellows, giving each $500,000 over five years, no strings attached. Benoit-Bird, who's based at Oregon State University, uses sophisticated sound imaging to "see" movement within the marine food web, from the tiniest microorganisms to the largest of marine mammals. Utilizing technology first used by the military and then the oil and gas industry, Benoit-Bird's research not only enriches our understanding of the marine ecosystem but also helps explains how a catastrophic oil spill might impact it on a massive scale. As Whitty writes:
Some early observations of the effects of the Gulf catastrophe suggest the daily vertical migrations of the animals of the deep scattering layer may be blocked when they encounter plumes of oil and contaminants. If so, then trapped below a plume, the DSL fish and invertebrates would be unable to access their prey. Trapped above, they would be unable to escape their predators. Trapped within, they would probably die-and in their deaths, poison those who eat them. For the ocean, any loss of productivity in the deep scattering layer would be the biggest cataclysm of all-impoverishing the surface waters, depleting the coasts, cascading across the boundaries between ocean and land to denude both natural and human economies.
Julia Whitty's "The BP Cover-Up" is part of Mother Jones' ongoing coverage of the BP oil spill and its aftermath. Find out more about Benoit-Bird's research and her fellowship at macfound.org. Congratulations, Kelly!
For an interview with Julia Whitty or to contact Kelly Benoit-Bird