cureforcymophobia

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Month: March, 2012

Salting Out

At 07:00 a.m. on March 23, we arrived in Henderson, Australia, our first sign of civilization in 5 weeks and the finale of our research expedition across the Indian Ocean. At the beginning of the trip, it was too early to mention the idea of land. But in the days leading to the finish line, being on land again became frequent conversation.

Shore

The first views of arriving in Western Australia at dawn.

Jay told me that smell is one of his first sensations upon returning to land. Indeed, when the sun rose over the first sightings of Australia, the scent of maple syrup filled the air as it passed over the bow. Two other immediate impressions were calmness and strangers. We remembered what it was like to walk on level ground and interact with people beyond our small community. As soon as we were moored to the pier, Revelle invited Australian dock agents and its new crew on board. We were no longer alone on the Southern Ocean.

Secured from great ocean swells, we prepared for the commotion of the Henderson shipyard. By day, this meant packing everything out of our laboratories, craning them onto the pier and getting all our boxes into giant storage containers to be slowly delivered on cargo ships back to Woods Hole, Scripps in California and Bigelow in Maine. I discovered that being a good Tetris player is perhaps more essential than brute strength in getting this job done.

Afternoon off

A bunch of the science party got to take the afternoon off from the second packing day. Here we are venturing back into the world on a public bus. Note that there is no water in the background.

By night, this meant showering, wearing different (summer!) clothes, and venturing into the real world where cash is currency, where your legs bring can bring you farther than 200 feet, where more life choices are possible, where music is loud, and where celebration is well-deserved.

So the ultimate conclusion here is that cruise number one in my life was a success. In sailor vocabulary, there is an adjective that describes one who has learned the way of life at sea: salty. Here are the ways that I have become saltier.

I learned that people really make the experience, and they will be my greatest misses as I return home. I learned that if you tie knots five times in a row, they are easier to remember and do again. I learned that perspective needs to be large and flexible on the open ocean, so that even the largest waves can gradually look smaller and smaller through the course of time.

Another key perspective: the countless hours of science and labor that make one graph on a research paper, some of which hours include the roughest events on ocean terrain. Very much at the core of these graphs is the ability to make scientific decisions at sea and in lab. I learned that the unpredictability of the seas, combined with an unrelenting attitude of carpe diem, provide some of the best lessons in decision-making, in learning the how and why of every step in marine chemistry.

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Catching the Blooms

Yesterday, March 20, was the first day of Austral Fall (and Springtime in the U.S.!), as well as was the last pump deployment for Phoebe, Dan and me in our cruise across the southern Indian Ocean. Just after surviving a rather rough day on the ocean, we reached this last mega-station in the morning with clear skies, warmth air, and gentle rolls. Fortunately, this was an easier ending than I could have asked for.

Standing nearly at the finish line of our expedition, I think it gives perspective to remind myself why we spent 5 weeks crossing one of the harshest oceans in the world.

If I really were to get at the root of things, we are all here for the coccolithophore. There is just about as much to coccolithophores as there are syllables in their name (to be accurate, however, there is more to them than the name itself). They are microscopic organisms living at the ocean surface that produce skeletons of calcium carbonate, or calcite. The calcite on their bodies is the same mineral shallow-water corals use to build their famous reefs across the world.

While coral have global recognition, coccolithophores received their fair share of limelight on the Revelle as well. Every Austral summer, the coccolithophore populations at the surface of the Southern Ocean surface explode. These coccolithophore blooms can be seen from satellites. They are strong but fast, magnificent but transient. As a result, while there are many good questions to ask about these blooms, the in-field oceanographer must get the timing right in order find the right answers. Catching the bloom is particularly challenging on a research cruise; it is one limited and expensive shot at a remote and quick phenomenon.

A bigger scientific question, larger than our cruise, is what causes coccolithophore blooms. For Jason Hopkins, Helen’s seafaring scientific companion, that question is at the heart of his research in his first year at University of Southampton. Unsurprisingly, there are many ways the oceanographer can answer this. For instance, from a chemistry perspective (my perspective in training), field scientists might measure the abundance of nutrients in coccolithopohores and their surrounding seawater. Assuming coccolithophores are what they eat, us chemists presume that blooms analogously arise from the presence of certain dissolved elements in the ocean.

In oceanography, things often follow a chain. Knowing the cause for coccolithophore blooms might help explain their greater effects on the oceans. Given the size of these blooms, these ocean-based effects could have consequences for other parts of our planet, like our atmosphere or climate. Coccolithophore communities, especially in bloom period, are huge storage houses for carbon in several forms. There is carbon in their calcite shells. There is carbon in their organic  tissue. Where it ends up—in the ocean or as an atmospheric greenhouse gas—is a motivation for many, including myself, to study the coccolithophore’s role and, also importantly, to learn how to pronounce their name.

In Between Work and Science

Now that we have completed nearly the 5 full weeks of this cruise, I can begin to reflect on how much I have learned about the proper usage of free time at sea. It is both a treasured and telling type of time. When work happens every day, possible at any hour, and when Saturdays and Sundays are just another work day, free time is not to be taken for granted (although it is still to be taken lightly).  At the same time, when the resources of fast internet, Youtube, and real-world space are virtually non-existent, creativity becomes a very important surrogate.

Ping-pong brackets

The massive family tree and scoreboard of contestants in this year's ship-wide ping-pong tournament on Revelle.

One of the greatest creations has been the Revelle ping-pong tournament. It has now mustered together most of the science and ship’s crew, forging allegiances and adversaries that would have been unfathomed otherwise. The ping-pong table is situated at the center of the Main Lab on the ship, and at all times of day a passer-by just might hear the sounds of bouncing balls, cheers and groans amidst the drones of filtering pumps and seawater chemistry analyzers.

In the tournament, there are two brackets: one for advancing winners and one for advancing losers. For the first place of the winners tier, Mike, a graduate student at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, is slated to take on Eddie the oiler (an engineer’s companion). As both are highly adept and reputable players within the Revelle league, it is difficult to predict who will take the final victory for first place. These tournament games are not short of their own twists and turns. The losers’ bracket has its share of talented players, as well, who just had one bad day or just could not cut it against their first opponent. Among them are Phoebe and Patrick. As the eldest female and male ping-pong players on board, Phoebe and Patrick have banded together in challenging the entire ship in team tennis outside the Tournament.

While ping-pong goes on, several other things happen as we alternate through different breaks. Every other night is poker night, where I have learned the complexities of reading people, memorizing the rules of cards, and adopting new traditions. I would say that there is slightly more stress and more at stake (5 dollars, to be precise) at the poker table, but then again, there are some who really, really want to win ping-pong, too.

Finally, there is no shortage of board games here. Sometimes rolling waves make it impossible to survive a game of chess or Scrabble. But cards are popular, and far more manageable. I notice that people’s different passions come out with cards, for there are so many different games and so many strange games, for that matter. For some, the best kick comes out of the Bean Game, which is reminiscent of Go Fish, but at its heart a game of farming and trade, capitalism and communism. For others, the classic 52-card deck makes for a good afternoon or evening. Most importantly, there is always someone else around, so solitaire is almost never the likely choice.

The Meaning of “Mega”

At sea, it helps when life has some semblance of a pattern. There are many types of routines on board: work shifts, snacks, and even poker matches. For many scientists here, routines are dictated by the pattern of sampling stations. The most distinct pattern for me is the mega-station day, which occurs every other day. It is an event named as such for being a conglomerate of all the non-CTD deployments. Because so many different groups participate in these events, they have become regularly synchronized collection frenzies for the much of the science crew.

Matt, the resident technician

This picture belies the general fast-paced, fatigue-inspiring work of the mega-station. Ironically, it is the Resident Technician who is rarely so stationary.

There are 5 main ocean deployments in one mega-station. Usually, the first on queue is Helen’s snowcatcher, which takes a quick dip to a specific depth before returning. Following Helen are Ben, Sara and Angel, who collect bottles of seawater to measure trace metals. Next are the lengthy pump casts, which Phoebe, Dan and I send down to about 800 meters. Our thorium deployment follows quickly after; it uses the 12 Niskin bottles from the CTD rosette to retrieve seawater for thorium analysis.

If it is sunny enough, an additional optics cast happens too. Barney Balch, the chief scientist here on Revelle, leads this operation. During the cast, he submerges an Ocean Color Profiler to measure light hitting the instrument from below (deeper) and from above (shallower). Because the Calcite Belt, our expedition’s theme, has a unique appearance in water, these optics casts help us understand whether calcite-producing organisms might be living in the water.

For many of us, mega-stations make for the most tiring and eventful days. But, there are important reasons to combine these sampling efforts. First and foremost, as we are a proper research cruise, each science group is interested in a central theme, the Calcite Belt, from a different but complementary angle (e.g., thorium or trace metals). By analyzing the same seawater through mega-stations, we might be able to tell a bigger, more collective story of the Southern Ocean, as well.

Phoebe on deck

More commonly, a mega-station looks like this. This is Phoebe being very attentive from the main deck during a pump cast. She is looking up toward the winch deck from which the deployment wire descends.

I suspect that a secondary reason is the camaraderie. When you have to wake up at 3:00 a.m. because the ship arrived ahead of schedule, at least everyone else is pretty exhausted, too. Moreover, each deployment is a team effort. My role in the pump cast is to lower them into the water using a winch, while on the main deck, Phoebe, Dan and our gracious helpers (usually Jason and Patrick) attach them to the wire.

The team is larger than the scientists alone. Because I cannot actually see the pumps from my winch, it is up to another to “be my eyes” (in Phoebe’s words). On this cruise, my eyes are Matt, the Resident Technician, who communicates to me how I should be wiring out the winch based on his view of what is happening on deck. Other possible titles Matt might receive are the Winch Companion, Knot Instructor, Safety Dictator and, most importantly, the Board-Game Adversary. He is present for every cast on the mega-station, and connects our science to their technical operations on deck. It is through this crucial team member that we are aware of the greater team that we belong to in doing science on the Revelle.

A Lesson in Lip-Reading

Revelle engines

One of six engines that power Revelle. They are so defeaning that it is dangerous to walk through this room without ear protection.

There is one thing that I will never be able to accomplish in 5 weeks on the Revelle, and that is learning every feature of the engine room. The engine room occupies the lower levels of the ship below the main deck. Cluttered and cavernous, one might just be able to uncover as much in the compartments of this lower deck as there is to uncover from the seawater we collect on this cruise. That means years of discovery.

A mix of extreme environments characterizes the space of the engine room. For some, it might be the prime space for salsa dancing; indeed, my first time on this part of the ship was to practice salsa dancing with Jay, one of the chefs.  For others, namely the engineers, it houses the most important and most sensitive controls on the entire vessel.

I first entered into a fairly quiet quarter consisting of giant monitors and logbooks of endless ship stats, as well as several characteristics of normalcy – swivel chairs and an ocean-themed calendar. However, like most things on the ship, detail is key; even here were constant reminders of  the environment’s delicacy. Everything was planned against failure, every electrical wire numbered by origin. The phone beside the calendar was powered by voice in case power blacked out.

Leaving the atrium only heightened the stakes of what was around me. The first corridor was a wall of switches that controlled every quarter on the ship. One random wave roll followed by one random stumble followed by one random catch on a switch could have great consequences. To avoid this possible event, my tour guide John, a new engineer from right outside Cape Cod, instructed me to walk on the right side of the hall.

The next stop was the thruster room. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, our ship is steered and propelled by three thrusters that spin underwater. Standing directly in front of their internal counterparts, this was my closest point to the legs of the ship.

Seawater flows through the seachest in order to cool the engines as well as make freshwater. Freshman engineers are often asked to get the keys to the seachest, but no such thing exists. I would fall for that too.

The tour seemed built for suspense, for my final stop was most extreme: the engines themselves. First off, proper attire was required for entrance, including earmuffs to stifle the oppressively loud noise of the engine, and a warm coat to stifle the oppressively strong AC vents that cool the hot engines. Knowledge here works differently; it is passed through lip-reading. Aside from the six engines that supply power on board, a maze of organized pipes circulates seawater, freshwater, fuel and fuel waste in and out of the room. I will need to fill my deficiency in lip reading before I work my way out of this labyrinth.

The tour seemed built for suspense, for my final stop was most extreme: the engines themselves. First off, proper attire was required for entrance, including earmuffs to stifle the oppressively loud noise of the engine, and a warm coat to stifle the oppressively strong AC vents that cool the hot engines. Knowledge here works differently; it is passed through lip-reading. Aside from the six engines that supply power on board, a maze of organized pipes circulates seawater, freshwater, fuel and fuel waste in and out of the room. I will need to fill my deficiency in lip reading before I work my way out of this labyrinth.

Sixty Degrees South

Today, we touched the southernmost point of our trajectory through the Southern Ocean, the closest we’d get to Antarctica–16:00 marked 60° South, and when that hour arrived the science crew celebrated by donning giant orange body suits (i.e., mustang suits) on the stern. It’s something that might be a Southern Ocean tradition of sorts, but I haven’t yet confirmed the origin of the idea.

Hours later, we were on our way back North. Two and a half weeks have now passed, and all the research groups on board just had to send a progress report on our cruise to the National Science Foundation. With all the hours outside collecting seawater, wet and cold, and inside doing chemistry, still wet but warmer, my group has managed to gather some initial data.

60 South!

On the stern of Revelle, suited up for the southernmost point of our cruise. I'm not sure why everyone wore mustang suits, but some things are better left unexplained. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Durham).

My research on sinking ocean carbon requires two types of data collection: (1) short-term, which I collect during the cruise, and (2) long-term, which will I collect months from now. The reason for the timing is the element thorium-234 (234Th), my principal tool for understanding sinking carbon. Like other radioactive elements, 234Th turns into another element, protactinium-234, which shortly turns into uranium-234, all at fixed pace. It is the nature of radioactive elements; they must change identity in order to become more stable. Each time one 234Th atom changes (the proper term is decays), it releases a unit of non-hazardous radiation: a beta particle. Thus, by counting beta particles in a seawater sample, I can infer the amount of 234Th that is supplying them.

I analyze Thorium once at sea and again after 6 months. The reason is that with every seawater measurement, there is a natural presence of beta particles that do not come from 234Th. If I count these extra particles, I will overestimate the amount of 234Th in my seawater. So in order to rule out these particles from my samples, I cannot just use what I have been measuring on Revelle. Instead, I must wait until all of the seawater 234Th has decayed, which takes just about 6 months, and then re-measure the samples. The count at the end of 6 months measures the extra beta particles, allowing me to remove them from my initial count.

We take great time and care to measure thorium properly because it can tell us something about the amount of organic carbon sinking to ocean depths. As an element, 234Th sticks to organic carbon particles as they sink. Measuring the radioactivity of 234Th, therefore, gives us clues to the existence of the organic carbon it is stuck to in seawater.

To some, it might seem indirect to use Thorium to get to carbon, and there are indeed other ways. But each creative path provides a nuanced understanding of the bigger picture, and the convergence of these paths, if possible, is the true reward. In fact, there is one other person who is investigating carbon here: Helen Smith, a graduate student at the University of Southampton in England. Her proper role in the scientific mosaic of Revelle is the snowcatcher, a device that she uses to collect all the sinking particles at a specific depth range underwater. What her catcher finds reveals not only the amount of carbon that might be sinking through the ocean depths, but also its shape and form. We are both curious to see how our two methodological paths might ultimately merge in future analysis.

Making Dreams Come True

If Revelle had five anatomical senses, the ship’s bridge would be its sight. The bridge is the room that sits on the highest level of the ship and houses the eyes of the vessel. For scientists like me, it’s a novelty to spend time in this room. Although it is slightly tricky for the newcomer to find his/her way there, it is not all too complicated. As long as you keep finding a stairway going up, you will end up at the bridge.

Night visitors will be initially engulfed in darkness on their way up. The official inhabitants of the bridge (the Captain, the three Mates and the Able Bodied Seamen) must be on constant watch for other vessels on the sea, and more commonly in the Southern Ocean, for icebergs. At night, the ship is its own source of light pollution in the open ocean, so everyone on the bridge works in near-total darkness.

In fact, the only lights that do exist at night are the dim red digits and blinkers on the control panels. This is because the bridge also happens to be the functional brain of the Revelle, where the principal navigational decisions are executed. The controls reveal many insights about the ship’s track on what is perhaps the most visibly confusing part of Earth’s surface. Among the many features on the bridge are two radar panels that detect icebergs, other ships, and even storm events at varying resolutions. Other displays show the ship’s track and coordinates. Most surprisingly, there is no steering wheel. The ship is completely propelled by three thrusters at the port stern (back left), starboard stern (back right) and bow (front), each of which has an individual control. Direction and propulsion, therefore, are controlled by just the right force on each thruster.

Heard Island

I wish I had a picture here of Aurora Australis. Unfortunately, its sight is so fleeting and my camera is so unfit for the darkness that is unlikely I ever will capture it. However, here was yesterday’s daytime spectacle: Heard Island, a well-protected island of Australia (not near Australia, just owned by it). You can just discern some peaks below the cap of clouds.

Because the windows of the bridge offer almost a 360-degree view of the open oceans, news of important sightings originate here—and for some, our Southern Ocean dreams come true, day and night. In the daytime, these dreams have included our passage by the Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Islands, and two sightings of pilot whales. At night, these include the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, and most famously, the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights). My New Year’s Resolution for 2011 was to see the Northern Lights, which I failed to achieve by 11:59 p.m. December 31. My first experience of the Southern solar phenomenon came last night—green, wispy and true, which surely triumphs this failed resolution.

In the realm of celestial phenomena, there are two more visions that the bridge might be able to provide over the second half of our cruise. The first is to see color in the Aurora. The second is to see the seemingly mythical, but actually existent (according to several first-hand sources), green flash that sometimes occurs on the horizon at sunset. For those confined to a set square footage for 5 weeks, perspective and visions of bigger dreams are an essential part of the cruise that I believe the bridge has to offer.

Lessons in Cleanliness

The Revelle passed through the Kerguelen Plateau today, a Southern Ocean landmark of several qualifications. For one, this underwater feature extends from one of the only island clusters in this vast expanse of open ocean, the Kerguelen Islands, which happens to include Heard Island, a strictly regulated marine protected area and natural heritage site owned by Australia. If you do in fact wish to visit this island, take care to diligently study the “Environmental Code of Conduct for Visitors to Heard Island” before setting foot.

From an academic standpoint, the waters above the Kerguelen Plateau are a landmark for being one of the unique iron-rich areas of the Southern Ocean. Iron in the ocean is like gold on land: it is scarce, but it is valuable.

The reason, like most reasons in my field, comes down to the base of the marine food chain: phytoplankton. Like plants, these ocean surface critters manufacture organic matter from sunlight and carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Just as we are told as youngsters that the iron in green vegetables makes us strong, this same element is vital to phytoplankton, as well. Especially in this part of the ocean, scientists believe that iron that is the ultimate nutrient for phytoplankton; it is the prized ingredient that makes them grow, produce and prosper. And it is this prized ingredient that generates particles of organic matter in seawater, waiting to be collected by eager scientists like us.

Clean room

Inside the clean bubble where inhabitants live a life of science in sterility. Note the one window looking out, a reminder of the dirty world in which the rest of the Revelle exists.

For all the attention it gets, iron is actually very dilute in the ocean. While the Kerguelen Plateau is considered to be rich in iron, it only exists in trace amounts. The iron in our blood and the iron virtually everywhere on this ship are likely more concentrated than what you’d find in most parts of the ocean. This presents one massive problem for trace metal oceanographers: how to prevent the small amounts of iron in collected seawater from getting contaminated with everything else on this ship.

On the Revelle, the triumphant answer is the “clean bubble,” a special space used just to process trace iron from the sea. When moving onto the ship, I was surprised by how much it was a literal bubble, as opposed to a figurative bubble. The clean bubble was constructed by the six trace metal reps on this vessel: Phoebe Lam, Dan Ohnemus, Ben Twining, Angel Ruacho, Sara Rauschenberg, and myself (kind of). The process of construction starts with an ordinary, iron-laden room and transforms it into a room-within-a-room with the following clean features: contact paper lining every desktop and shelf, walls of plastic sheeting, a HEPA blower ejecting all dirty particles from the air, and finally, special slippers to ensure only the cleanest walkers inside. It is here in this bubble that one may measure ocean iron with a clear conscience.