19 Sept 2014
One of the aspects of this cruise that I particularly enjoy are the daily lectures from the science crew. Every day thus far, we've gathered in the library (yes, the boat has a library!) to hear presentations on a topic chosen by a rotating cast of speakers.
Kendra Daley, the Co-Chief Scientist aboard the Thompson has decades of experience working in Antarctica. She shared with us her insights into Antarctic ecosystems and the prominent role that Euphasiids, commonly known as krill, play here. I had just cracked open a new novel, "Antarctica", written by my all-time favorite author Kim Stanley Robinson, so my interest was exceptionally primed to hear this talk. In addition to the sharing the biology that Kendra and her crew have uncovered, she shared some remarkable anecdotes about the challenges of conducting research in such an extreme environment.
John Delaney, the Chief Scientist and long-time proponent of underwater cabled observatories, has delivered several talks so far and they've all been incredibly inspiring. Although he specializes in marine geology, John dreams big and it shows in his presentations. They emphasize the ocean as an integrated system and the life support of our planet, and they bridge even further to worlds beyond, connecting our ocean to the search for life in the other known oceans in the solar system: the great ice-enveloped ocean moons of Europa and Enceladus. I'm sure I'm not the only one bearing confidence that the marine technologies being developed and put into use here will contribute to the search for life in these distant (but not too distant) water worlds.
Giora Proskurowski, one of the leading experts in the distribution of plastics in the marine environment, came on one morning to share his research. Stories about the accumulation of plastic debris in the oceans has made a number of headlines of late, so it was great to get the hard science straight from one of the experts in the field. Giora further delivered commentary on how many of the important problems in oceanography receive different levels of attention within media circles. While gradual warming and acidification of the oceans are a first order priority for much of the scientific community, the issue of plastics pollution – undeniably important but not nearly at the magnitude of warming or acidification – seems to attract considerably more public attention. Giora links this to the tangibility of plastic pollution, something the average person can easily relate to and form a concept of, and contrasts this to the slow (yet insidious) changes posed by warming and acidification, which are less appreciable to the timescales and schemas held by the general public. He proposed leveraging the accessibility of plastics concerns as a sort of 'gateway' to connect the public to some of the larger, and more complex, issues that oceanographers are facing.
One thread uniting all of these themes is outreach. A scientist can make incredible progress in a challenging field, but ultimately we must also grapple with the challenge of outreach: how to translate our research in order to connect and inform the general public. Sometimes this seems like a task more daunting than solving the scientific problems themselves, but the fruits of our labor, I believe, belong to the whole of humanity and steadily drive forward our understanding of the universe we live in.
16 Sept 2014
With every morning onboard, I've awoken feeling more settled into life aboard the vessel, with ever developing rapport with my peers and an ever greater sense of what I'm able to accomplish with my time here. Since my last entry, the days have been filled with unique and enriching experiences. Here, I'll briefly outline some of the highlights.
The installation of the shallow two-legged mooring at the Axial Seamount is a tremendous engineering feat, and I've been privileged to watch everything go into place the last couple days. Everyone was a little tense as the team really pressed against the capabilities of the vessel while installing the anchors and cables down to the depth of 2600 meters. In the end, the steady minds from the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory prevailed and all of the elements came into place.
Tuesday morning was highlighted by an exciting ROPOS dive, in which the submersible robot finished the installation of the profiler. Although my watch didn't start until 0800, I got up an hour and a half earlier to watch ROPOS descend into water against the backdrop of the sunrise. The bright lights of ROPOS glowing through the beautiful blue water was a truly gorgeous sight. Then the magic moved to the ROPOS control room: in a dark room packed with monitors, the high-definition cameras mounted on the robot transmitted its descent through the water column. The descent down to the bottom at 2600 meters took 2.5 hours, but boring it was not. Amidst the perpetual falling "marine snow" – the slowly falling organic detritus – life could be seen through the whole descent. Fish, shrimp-like crustaceans, and some very interesting jellies took their time before the camera. If something interesting popped up close enough, I could grab a still from one of the cameras and log its appearance.
Although the descent down was enthralling, when ROPOS hit the bottom the real action began. The robot had brought down with it a tool basket of sorts, with lengths of cable to connect the mooring to the powered junction box nearby. ROPOS scurried around, driven and manipulated by a team of skillful Canadian operators. Working by telepresence in the crushing depth was captivating; when lunch time came and my shift ended, I was very hesitant to leave the work behind.
To top it off, early in the afternoon I had the honor of being personally trained by Chief Scientist John Delaney on a very important piece of equipment. This device has long been invaluable to scientists of every ilk; uniting physicists, chemists, biologists and even mathematicians. That's right; today I also learned how to operate an espresso machine.
14 Sept 2014
We are underway, making way! The atmosphere onboard tangibly shifted as we departed Newport and began the 22-hour steam out to Axial Base. I anticipate that this expedition will serve as somewhat of a "Science Vacation" for me. Although I am between academic quarters and temporarily setting aside the laboratory research that I occupy myself with on land, I am still fully immersed in a science-oriented environment: construction of a ocean observatory, a laptop full of academic papers, and a vessel loaded with rich, scientific minds.
In addition to learning many new things about oceanographic operations, I've learned a few new things about myself: although I've logged hundreds of seatime hours from a previously job without ailment, today I discovered that I can still succumb to seasickness! A little rest and plenty of water later, and I feel much better.
It's been very interesting to hear the stories from the science and engineering crew. Before we stopped to re-tension one of the cables for the two-legged mooring, the ever-knowledgeable Skip Denny gave a few of us a tour of the fantail, and oriented us to the equipment about to be put in place. It was very humbling to hear the numbers on the new heavy-duty winches and other equipment; they tended to grandiosity in both mass and cost. The staggering logistics involved in the deployment of this mooring reinforced my respect for the engineering disciplines.
Later in the afternoon, we caught an entertaining talk by Ed McNichol in the library. Ed has decades of experience in video documentation, and has served as a contractor in numerous oceanographic expeditions. He gave a dialog about one of his personal interests, the legendary explorer James Cook, followed by an expertly-produced presentation on three of the different models of deep sea exploration. Along with his assistant Caitlin, they'll be putting together some of the high-quality footage captured during this trip. I'm really looking forward to what they'll produce!
The evening was capped with a late night CTD (conductivity, temperature, density) cast shortly after midnight. As the package disappeared underneath the water, a few of us made it up to the observation deck to keep an eye out for the transit of the International Space Station overhead. We didn't catch the station, but we did take in the sight of the golden half-moon rising and reflecting over the endless expanse of the sea.
13 Sept 2014
Thus begins the adventure! Although the VISIONS '14 cruise has been in action since July, I and other members have joined the crew for Leg 5 in Newport while other members from Leg 4 debarked for the terrestrial life.
The turnaround was very busy, with a hurried exchange of personnel and equipment. It's been a pleasure to begin to meet some of the exceptionally talented and knowledgeable individuals aboard. I can only place a few names to faces so far, but I expect that after the next few weeks we will know one another very well.
As the Thompson is not slated to go underway until 1600, the cohort of new science personnel, myself including, are acquainting ourselves with the boat and its customs while we brainstorm projects for the cruise. As we have been kept aware, this particular cruise is not so much student-oriented as in past expeditions. The operations aspect is highly engineering focused, due to the installation of the RSN components.
As an aspiring biologist and bioinformatician, how can I contribute to this expedition? Participation is a function of my own initiative; as a fellow crew member succinctly stated, "This is your oyster!" There are many possibilities: an ongoing project involving the cataloging and documentation of the marine macro fauna observed at the axial summit, a video documentation of the two-legged mooring and profile to be installed, and more. I'll be certain to keep the ideas circulating throughout the next few days!