The Academy of Natural Sciences probes what's eating historic USS Monitor

07/08/05

PHILADELPHIA--The ironclad Civil War battleship USS Monitor rests in 240 feet of water off the North Carolina coast, but its ultimate fate may hinge on work done in a lab on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

For nearly 140 years, the wreck of the historic battleship lay at the bottom of the ocean, slowly deteriorating. Recovery efforts in recent years have brought to the surface hundreds of artifacts that conservators have set to preserving--or so they thought. But a hidden enemy is mucking up the works.

Sulfur, which naturally occurs in the mud, minerals and organic matter in the ocean, is eating away at the ship's wooden elements, even as these artifacts lay safe in a conservation center in Virginia. Now, The Academy of Natural Sciences has been called in to measure exactly how much sulfur is present so that conservators can determine how to combat the deterioration. Six inch-square pieces of rotting wood from one of the ship's gun turrets are being examined and more are likely to find their way to Philadelphia.

"The wood was buried in the mud for 140 years," said Dr. David Velinsky, an Academy biogeochemist. "In that time, a lot of sulfur became impregnated into the wood of the ship. "What we're doing is measuring for sulfur and carbon to help determine how much of it is in the ship so that conservators can figure out the mechanism for minimizing the impact of the sulfur."

On March 9, 1862, the Civil War battle of Hampton Roads between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) heralded the beginning of a new era in naval warfare. Though indecisive, the battle marked the change in ship construction from wood and sail to iron and steam. The Monitor sank in a storm on December 31, 1862.

David Burdige, professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., said conservators will use the information from the Academy study and their own for other projects as well.

"The work we are doing is to better understand the processes that affect marine artifacts and, more importantly, once they are brought up from the ocean bottom. The latter is particularly important in terms of their long-term preservation," Burdige said.

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