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Davis, California

Monday, June 17, 2024

A dean and his submarine

At a glance, Jim McClain’s office décor is not particularly revealing of his love for the ocean. A general map of the seafloor covers the wall opposite of his desk, while the movie poster for Endless Summer: In Search of the Perfect Wave occupies the wall to his left. One shelf of his bookcase seems to be dedicated entirely to family photos.

But from among these framed pictures, the professor of geology and oceanography and associate dean of the College of Letters and Sciences selects one that is wedged in between the wall of the shelf and a turquoise rock – an image of him smiling as he lowers himself into the hatch of the submarine Alvin, taken just prior to his descent 18,000 feet under the sea.

As a geophysicist, most of McClain’s work involves deploying instruments off of ships or using instruments on ships to study the seafloor. He works mainly with ocean bottom seismometers to record earthquakes, and occasionally uses air guns to make his own controlled explosions.

“Ultimately the way the Earth works controls civilization’s advance. Understanding how the Earth works, even in a remote ocean basin helps us plan for its activity such as earthquakes, volcanoes and its weather,” said McClain on the UC Davis geology website.

Geologists work with a lot of rock samples and sediment cores. However, researchers also consider the contexts that rocks are found in as important as the samples themselves. To search for this, they use cameras, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and submarines.

“Going down in the sub is totally cool. Most submarines fit two scientists and a pilot,” McClain said. He has gone on seven dives so far.

Though McClain has enjoyed a number of his dives, he does complain that spending extensive time in the personnel sphere with two other divers can get unbearable, especially when there’s no room to stretch or loosen up. The personnel sphere is only seven feet in diameter.

“The inter-tangling of limbs is inevitable. Big people like myself are not always the most popular diving partners,” McClain said.

It can take two hours or more to reach the bottom of the ocean, depending on location. McClain said the scientists usually turn the lights off and let the submarine sink to the seafloor in the interest of conserving battery power.

“It’s always incredible. A good deal of the creatures that we encounter on the way down are species that we have never seen before,” he said.

Due to the prodigious cost of these dives, it is rare for people other than researchers to board the submarine. For example, if the National Science Foundation decides that they will fund 200 days of dives, then those days are divvied up among members of the scientific community. An undergraduate student might get invited to come along if they were working with the professors. McClain recalls going down to the depths of the ocean with photographers on a few occasions, and even once with a poet.

McClain has had numerous diving experiences, but one sticks out particularly clearly in his mind. He and his crew discovered a very recent volcanic eruption on the seafloor.

“The rock was absolutely shiny because it had just frozen. There were bacterial mats and other things that almost looked like snow nestled into low spots in the rocks. It was so cool scientifically, because it was totally unexpected,” McClain said. After taking some samples, they found that the undocumented eruption had occurred within the last month or two.

McClain majored in physics at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo for his undergraduate education. He grew up in the central coast near the Monterey area, and as a result, did a lot of surfing and spent much of his time on the shore. He has always been interested in the ocean, the Earth and earthquakes.

“The main thing that kind of turned my head towards geology in particular was going to Hawaii and being there for an eruption that had occurred about six days before. A ranger came up to me and told me that the massive hill standing before me had been created just days earlier. Ever since, I’ve been really interested in geology,” he said.

McClain had debated changing majors at Cal Poly, but a professor told him to keep things simple by doing geophysics in graduate school. He took his advice and did just that, attending the University of Washington for his graduate degree.

In his spare time, McClain enjoys being with his wife, three kids and two-year-old granddaughter. The family goes on boogie-boarding outings and whitewater rafting excursions, although none of his family has ever gone to sea with him. He used to be an avid surfer, and spent most of his lunch breaks catching waves off the coast of La Jolla while doing his post doctorate at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. He enjoys all types of seafood, and is fond of calamari and octopus.

“I have yet to find seafood that I don’t like,” he said.

McClain loves teaching geology and other courses in oceanography, though he admitted that the oceanography minor is quite challenging for most students.

“The problem with the oceanography minor is that it’s very technical. For most undergraduates, it’s the toughest math that they’re ever going to do. But it’s manageable, and lots of people do it. I’m one of the people that makes it tough,” McClain said.

But McClain stresses that it’s important to realize that oceanography actually goes well with a number of different majors. For example, he said that oceanography is very relevant to international relations today.

“There have been a number of conflicts pertaining to sea resources and sea boundaries. Who owns them? Who decides them?” he said.

In his opinion, it would be a good idea to create an oceanography track that would be more accessible from a policy standpoint. For now, though, the department is working on another project.

“We’re hoping to create a new major called marine and coastal science. The tricky thing about creating it is that it bridges three different colleges, and that’s never been done before,” McClain said.

EDMOND HARE can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


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