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/ March 14, 2013
Binky The Seal Is NYU’s Latest Multimillion-Dollar Researcher

NYU’s alumni list has no shortage of famous scientists. From Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, to Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, our university’s geniuses can certainly hold their own. And now, we’d like to introduce you to one of our best and brightest, a newcomer doing incredible work at NYU: Binky, the ringed seal.

Binky, one of several seals participating in a Courant Institute research project in Greenland, dives down 140 meters up to five times a day, with a telephone glued to his back. In Greenland’s remote Ilulissat and Sermilik fjords, Binky has become a crucial member of NYU’s research network, doing work that most scientists can’t even dream of.

“He’s much better than us at doing this,” said David Holland, professor of Mathematics at NYU’s Center for Atmosphere Ocean Science, who led the research.

Holland, who started teaching at NYU over a decade ago, conducts experiments out of his cavernous, multi-million dollar fluid dynamics lab—a glass-windowed room that’s hard to miss on the corner of Waverly and Greene Streets.

“My science life is this lab, where I conduct my experiments and computer simulations,” he said. “But, really, I work on a planetary scale.”

On the roof of 750 Broadway, which is directly across the street from Holland’s lab, is a solar-powered satellite signal receiving location, where an antennae and computer detect signals sent from Binky and Holland’s other seals, and reports them back across the street to his PC.  The signal records the animals’ location as well as the surrounding water temperature, salinity, and depth.

Greenland’s fjords, which are too dangerous for scientists to reach by boat, provide a wealth of information on sea temperatures and the potential scenarios for global sea rise—research that is the first of its kind in the field.

“There are all these nested questions,” Holland said. “But if you really dig into it, you come up with the ability to project, within the next century, how sea level will change.”

Native hunters make the often-dangerous trek onto the ice do the seal tagging, which was approved by a rigorous animal welfare research committee at NYU.

“NYU pays the hunters to do it [tag the seals],” Holland said, sitting in his lab on Waverly under a large inflatable globe. “They glue the device on with epoxy—it weighs less than one percent of the seal’s weight. Every time he [Binky] comes to surface, he makes a phone call that goes to satellite cross the street.”

The project, funded by the NYU Abu Dhabi Research Institute, is a small one compared to the massive enterprise Holland and his team undertook two years ago—a $15 million Antarctic ice drilling expedition funded half by NYU Abu Dhabi, and half by NASA. The high cost of the project went to things you may not immediately associate with research at NYU: helicopters, air force jets, and runway construction among them. And tragically, the cost was not just monetary—three members of the group’s support team died when one of the one airplanes crashed in Antarctica.

“We were drilling for seven years,” said Holland. “It took so long because at first we kept failing.”

Despite difficult setbacks, Holland’s team has made major contributions to the field of fluid dynamics and predictions on global sea level rise. His research on glacier formation and seawater temperatures is helping to predict exactly what will happen to these environmentally valuable regions as climate change progresses.

And his polar research is just the glacier tip of Holland’s lifelong fascination with ice.

“I was always interested in ice from playing ice hockey,” he said. “So it was just a natural extension.”

Photos by Sophia Melas

Video courtesy of Professor Holland