Ocean-dwelling creatures like whales, seals and walruses don’t freeze in the icy waters thanks to their thick layers of insulating blubber. But how do scrawny sea otters stay warm? Their furry coats trap air which also works as an insulator, and researchers at MIT think that approach could help keep humans warmer under water, too.
Wetsuits are certainly an effective way for humans to venture out into the ocean without freezing, but the thick neoprene material they rely on to trap body heat can also be restrictive, making it harder to move. And if you’ve ever watched otters diving in and out of the water at an aquarium, you know that manoeuvrability definitely isn’t a problem for them.
After running countless tests and simulations to determine just how an otter or beaver’s fur coat is able to trap pockets of warm air when they enter the water, the team at MIT came up with a formula to calculate exactly how long and dense a layer of fur needs to be to effectively trap air based on the speed of a diver entering the water.
Using this knowledge, a radically new type of wetsuit could be created. Instead of a thick layer of insulating neoprene foam, a thinner, more flexible material covered in millions of tiny artificial hairs could be worn, making it easier for divers, or surfers, to move around in the water. Would they look like furry monsters as they dove in and out of the water? Yes, they would. But they’d be warm, without feeling like they have been wrapped in a bulky, soaking wet heating blanket.