The Oceanographer Who Figured Out the Salty Brine Explosion

Arthur Spivack uses science to investigate the natural world.

When police and the bomb squad found no evidence to explain the cause of the mysterious explosion beneath the sand at Salty Brine State Beach a year ago this month, they turned to a quiet scientist at the University of Rhode Island.

Arthur Spivack describes himself as an oceanography generalist who uses chemistry and physics to understand the big questions in the natural world. He is often called upon by his colleagues to provide insight into particularly onerous scientific questions. So when the director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management asked for URI’s assistance at the beach, he jumped right in. And it didn’t take long before he had the answer.

Spivack usually spends his days solving mysteries that take place deep in the sediments beneath the seafloor. He travels aboard massive research ships to the middle of the oceans to drill into the sandy bottom to collect core samples of sediment, which he analyzes in his laboratory in Narragansett. The chemistry of the water trapped between the grains of sand, for instance, helps him reveal how climate has varied through many millennia. “The ocean is the key to understanding how carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have changed through time,” Spivack says.

An ice dancer during his student days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Spivack is also studying the microbes that live deep in the sediment. He says that the biomass of microbes living in the seafloor, some of which may be thousands of years old, is greater than the mass of all the other creatures living in the oceans. And because of the extreme environment in which they live, those microbes are helping Spivack understand what kind of life may exist on Mars.

He used the same scientific methods to investigate the beach blast. After collecting several core samples up to five feet deep at the site of the explosion, Spivack and his graduate students analyzed the chemical composition of the gases in the sand. Due to the corrosion of an underground cable at the beach — a process that generates hydrogen — they found hydrogen levels more than 10,000 times higher than usual. And since hydrogen needs little energy to ignite, a spark of static electricity could have caused the explosion. Mystery solved.

“It was really simple chemistry,” Spivack says. “But the risk of it ever happening again is extremely low.”