Kevin Eyers' Insights

Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Kevin Eyer

If only I can make my classroom as tremendous of an opportunity as being on a research vessel…Here’s to good teachers everywhere!

Kevin Eyer Shrunken Cups

Kevin Eyers' schrunken sytrofoam cups to take back into the Kingston Middle School classroom. These cups were taken down to almost 3000 m, about 300 times greater pressure than on land. Credit: K. Eyer, Kingston Middle School, V17.

Measuring Fluid Flow in the Seafloor

A Mosquito, developed by UW Marine Geologist, Evan Solomon, is deployed at a methane seep at Southern Hydrate Ridge. The instrument pulls in fluids in the sediments with a tracer. The instruments are recovered annually and the fluid chemistry analyzed, providing calculations of the flow of fluids both into, and out of the seafloor. Credit: UW/OOI-NSF/WHOI' V17.

I have had exceptional luck with card games the last few days. I learned two games, “Cribbage” (a boat favorite) and “Kiwi”, and won them both. Ah beginner’s luck! If only that luck could have helped the ROV Jason on its dive yesterday! We had to turn back to Newport early when Jason’s winch malfunctioned yesterday morning. Unable to repair it at sea, we will set to fixing it when we return to Newport. Because much of the work was halted, card games have been a more common hobby to pass time. Though I am far from bored on this amazing ship, it was nice to enjoy the company of others in a non-science setting.

I was thinking today of times on this cruise when I have felt part of the team and times I have felt inadequate. There have been many moments discussing in-depth ocean science and working on advanced instruments that I have simply been unable to follow. I have felt like the least asset, the weakest link. I bring this up because as an educator, I know my students go through feelings like this all the time. Out here on the ship, I am in a different environment than where my confidence lies, just like many of the students must be in my classroom. I have never taken an oceanography class. I am a general science teacher surrounded by experts in the field, those who have read at least as many science papers this year as I have written science lessons. But I have a tremendous opportunity to be out here, learning from and working with such bright scientists. I can’t let my confidence keep me from taking advantage of every moment I get to be out here. I want to instill these same thoughts in the minds of my students. It’s ok to fall short, to not understand the first time around or the second. Learning takes time, and the worst part, is sometimes it takes more time than you had hoped it would. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. If only I can make my classroom as tremendous of an opportunity as being on a research vessel…Here’s to good teachers everywhere!

August 15, 2017

Today we were met with some obstacles. The winch malfunctioned while ROV Jason was going down for a dive and the crew has been troubleshooting for most of the day. One of the great challenges of working in remote areas is that you can only plan so well, only troubleshoot so much. Working at sea means you will be away from people and supplies. Some scientists work around this by bringing more than one instrument. But what if the spare instruments are too costly, too large, or too heavy? Engineers bring a large amount of tools on board to fix and repair in the event of malfunction. But what if some instruments have ultra specific needs? Do you pay a specialist just to come along in the case of an error?

Today the students and educators were given a tour through the bowels of the ship. We looked at the myriad of buttons in the control room, and the labyrinth of pipes in the engine room. Each component that helps operate the ship is its own engineering feat. Similarly the equipment being used to do the research is complex. Each instrument has specific requirements for success in a high pressure, highly corrosive environment. Imagine you need a bolt made of titanium so that it will be resistant to rusting. The company you can buy it from says that they only have three sizes. You select the size that works best. But now you need a nut and a washer. The nut and the washer have to be that size as well. Another company sells the nut and the washer, but at a high price. It’s just like buying a phone that needs a specific charger. My bolt and nut scenario is a silly example but it demonstrates how lucrative the research industry can be. At any rate, errors occur in every day work. But when its remote, and the equipment expensive, it’s always a stressful ride.

August 14, 2017

Technically my second blog for the 14th, so I will keep it short. Today’s highlight occurred just a few minutes ago. The Jason team and several folks from the science team watched as Jason’s pilot tested the hydrothermal vents for temperature. You could gaze at the mass of organisms for a long time before you truly have a grasp of all the life in that one screen shot: scale worms, palm worms, limpets, sulfide worms, and more. The large black smoker measured at over 300°C! That’s incredible, and apparently 30° higher than last year’s measure. The smokers grow over the year as mineral deposits settle out around the vent hole. You can watch it using time lapse screenshots from the live cam. Chief Scientist Deb Kelley suggested earlier that drawing the vent growth would be a good elementary school project. I love the idea. For older elementary, maybe even middle school students, I could even see drawing the life forms and mapping where and when the organisms grow over the course of the year.

August 13, 2017

The 13th was very eventful. I’m actually writing this blog on the 14th since most of the highlights of the day happened right up to and through the duration of my watch in the ROV control van (which runs till midnight). We arrived at Axial Seamount in the afternoon, first at the slope base where we took some water samples and then at the caldera. Axial is a fantastic specimen for study. It is very active, erupting three times since 1998. It is relatively accessible, being only 30 miles or so off shore. Finally, it has quite a few active hydrothermal sites.

At Slope Base we took several water samples at various depths with an instrument called the CTD. The abbreviation stands for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth, variables that are common points of interest in oceanography. Essentially the CTD is an array of niskin bottles, bottles that are designed to capture samples at certain points in the water column and seal off so that you can get precise reads on what water is like at the different depths. We will be testing a variety of things including dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll concentrations. We also sent our Styrofoam cups down in the water to look at the effects of the immense pressure on objects deep in the ocean. The cups went down 2600m. Recall that 100m is about the length of a football field, and imagine going 26 football fields down in the water! I decorated 3 cups: one with Kingston Middle School’s logo on it, one with Gordon Elementary School’s logo, and one with the Visions ’17 cruise logo. After the cruise I will give each school their cup and keep the last for my own souvenir.

While we were working on the water samples from the CTD, the galley crew were working on a fantastic-smelling barbecue. We are treated well on this ship. After an excellent steak dinner the real show began.

The descent to the caldera began a little before my shift began. We brought down a new HD camera as well as an osmotic sampler to replace last year’s camera and sampler. When the hydrothermal vent first came into view it was really spectacular. It is really neat to look at pictures and video of hydrothermal vents in general, but there is something special about seeing it in the dark of the ROV control van. All of us watching in silence as the ROV revolves around the vents. We had some trouble placing the HD camera in the position we wanted. We plugged it in to get a better idea of what the camera would be looking at. I had another moment thinking to myself, “Wow.” Here we are, positioning an HD video to live stream hydrothermal vents in the caldera of a volcano at the bottom of the ocean, sending the signal to the mainland, to a satellite and back to our research ship. Oh and how are we positioning the camera? With a robot on the ocean floor that is sending high quality images back to us. Science and technology are amazing things. During a lull I took a picture of me at my station giving a thumbs up to the camera. The hydrothermal vent is in the background.

August 12, 2017

There was more downtime than usual today, which was probably beneficial for health reasons. Over the last few days we have been assisting Theresa, a graduate student, in putting together an instrument called “The Mosquito”. The instrument measures the movement of water through sediment by drawing the water up through long titanium needles. When deployed, the needles are driven into the sediment in one quick motion like a mosquito pricks the skin (hence the name). Titanium is resistant to oxidation and thus a useful material for underwater instruments, but unfortunately it is not the strongest of metals, and the needles of the Mosquito have had a history of bending. If the wrong site was chosen, or the Mosquito not properly assembled, the whole project could be ruined. We built two, in case one broke. Theresa and another student, Michelle, had put in a lot of meticulous work getting the two ready for action.

So last night we were up late biting our nails as Theresa cautiously chose a site for it to dig in. The site needed to be flat and hopefully free of carbonate and other material that could bend the needles. The first broke, but fortunately the second was successful. The rest of the next morning was devoted to completing the rest of the dives. 

In the evening I worked with Co-Chief Scientist Orest preparing the mass spectrometer, a device that can identify gas concentrations, in this case, in fluids seeping from the ocean floor. Controls are very thoughtfully set up. It is really fascinating to look through all the steps that must be done before the devices are deployed. I mostly helped with making the electrical connections watertight. Being out on the back of the ship exposed to the air and water is so refreshing. I wore the life vest and hard hat as required out back when working with the heavy equipment and joked with the crew that I felt very official.

August 11, 2017

Today we had dives going on in the morning with a lull in the afternoon. Much of the equipment was ready to be deployed so I went with the grad and undergrad students up to the bridge to meet the first mate Eric and learn about how the ship is driven. While all of the mechanics of driving the ship are computerized, the captain and first mate still make occasional use of a paper map for navigation. We learned how distress calls are broadcasted and heard stories of pirates and sea life. One thing was clear, modern security systems have made life on the seas much safer.

Two days ago, when we were at the site just off the continental shelf, large flocks of birds waited patiently around the ship hoping for food scrap. When I pulled out binoculars I was amazed to find they were albatross. I didn’t know albatross flocked in groups on the open ocean. I’d always assumed they were solitary. I asked Eric if he noticed any patterns over the years of when certain animals frequented the surface. He mentioned he often saw tuna in Hawaii.

In the evening the elevator came up with the camera and current meter, and with it a few marine surprises. We discovered a pyrosome, a colonial plankton similar to salps and a common sight on our dives, in the elevator. In the picture, Zach, a grad student, is holding the pyrosome. While it looks gelatinous like a jellyfish, we found it rubbery to the touch. We also found a sea star and remnants of a clam, small traces of the intense life from the ocean floor.

We are preparing for a dive now. I assisted in securing the elevator as it came back from the last dive and in the last hour helped to strap the instruments down for the new one. We used cable ties to keep the packaging easily accessible to Jason and notched the cables so that they will be easy to break. And now back to the control room…

August 10, 2017

Last night I had my first watch in the control van, 8:00 pm to 12:00am, taking notes on the movements of the ROV Jason. I watched the marine snow fall as the ROV descended about 600 m at the Endurance Offshore site (on the slope that sinks to the deep from the continental shelf). My job as data logger was to make a regular written log of the significant moments on the dive. This assists those looking back at the dive in finding specific moments to analyze. Imagine a couple of cargo holders connected together and decked out with computers, wires and monitors. That’s the control van. It’s pretty cool right? One of the cameras is literally controlled by an x-box controller.

I had to hand over the data logging to the next shift before Jason reached the ocean floor. Overnight Jason swapped out an old BEP (Benthic Experiment Package) for a fresh one, and several old cables for new cables. The BEP we lowered down was a junction box, which can hold data and instruments for measuring parameters. It was covered in smooth plastic to keep fishing lines from accidentally snagging the equipment.

I assisted in the morning, tying coiled cable to a junction box on deck using separated strands of jute, which is similar to twine. The idea is that, on the ocean floor, Jason needs to pull off the cable. To avoid pulling it all at once and tangling it, we tie each turn of the cable to the junction box with the easily broken strand of jute. In the afternoon, I assisted with preparing the mass spectrometer for calibration. Here again meticulous steps had been taken anticipating errors that could occur. I’m always amazed by the layers of safeguards that each piece of equipment features. It really demonstrates how fickle engineering can be. The only way to tackle it: thoughtful planning, plentiful practice, and careful adjustment every step of the way.

August 9, 2017

We set sail at around 0900. It was hard to tell that we were moving. That is until we left the harbor. Then you could tell. For landlubbers and first-timers such as myself, movement at sea took some adjusting. No seasickness thankfully, but I will admit to sitting outside several times today just to watch the waves and recalibrate. I guess our sensors are not the only thing that need that re-adjustment sometimes.

The ship, R/V (Research Vessel) Roger Revelle is fantastic. Between yesterday’s tours and today’s safety talks, I feel like a master. I know at most 10% of the ship. Most of the heavy scientific work takes place on the back deck (stern-side). The control room, on the starboard side, is where the scientists and I spend most of our time.

Today we went out to the continental shelf, where we intended to perform three dives with the ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) Jason on the continental shelf. I watched the team lower Jason off the port side and down into the deep. (I should interject here and say I recognize 80 m is not that deep to ocean scientists, but as someone whose idea of a dive is touching the bottom of the deep end at the YMCA pool, 80 m is deep.)
The equipment was heavy, and the constant motion of the ship from wave-action made it a daunting task. Four crewmembers worked to control the swinging of the ROV using ropes. Gently the ROV lowered into the water.

After a few minutes, I went off to work on my graduate school application. I came back to the control room to find the mission aborted. Scientists said there was such a huge amount of biological action (marine snow and plankton) on the ocean floor the visibility was too poor to do much of anything. We brought Jason back up and were quickly on our way back to Newport to retrieve a cable left at the dock. A quick dinner and the next thing I knew we were lowering Jason back into the water. It was on this second dive that I took this picture. My description of the picture is below: