Saturday, January 14, 2017

Shout-Out to Our Classrooms!

One of the best parts about being out here is hearing from our shore-side partners!

And I do mean partners! Before setting out on this adventure, Climate Central teamed up with eight science teachers from six different schools...and most importantly, their students. Each of the science classrooms is using the SOCCOM floats to study earth science and how the climate is changing, and we couldn't be prouder of them!

But this relationship is symbiotic! They use our data, but they help us too! How? By adopting the floats! Through the "Adopt-A-Float" program, SOCCOM is allowing elementary, middle and high school students take ownership and participate in the science.

Now that we've deployed the last float, each of our floats has been named by the students, and each of them is successfully collecting data.

Here are the names the students chose and where their floats were deployed:

Float Number            Release   Deployment Location              School                           Float Name
SOCCOM01 12575  12/27/16  1255Z 057.338 S 068.293 W  Princeton Day School     RE Byrd
SOCCOM02 12573  12/28/16  0615Z 059.008 S 068.498 W  Princeton Day School     RF Scott
SOCCOM03 F0569  12/29/16  0348Z 061.991 S 068.818 W  Bear Tavern Elementary Titus
SOCCOM04 12545  12/29/16, 2150Z 064.189 S 069.101 W  Melvin H. Kreps M.S.      Southstar
SOCCOM05 12543  01/01/17  2145Z 066.383 S 074.468 W  Princeton University        Jorge
SOCCOM06 F0567  01/03/17  0056Z 067.258 S 084.231 W  Melvin H. Kreps M.S.      Kirby
SOCCOM07 12559  01/04/17  0738Z 068.289 S 095.441 W  Passaic Valley H.S          Darwin
SOCCOM08 12549  01/05/17  1941Z 069.666 S 109.093 W  Passaic Valley H.S.         Mann
SOCCOM09 12390  01/08/17  2043Z 068.249 S 128.484 W  John Witherspoon M.S.   Bell
SOCCOM10 12551  01/10/17  0522Z 070.651 S 136.483 W  Sandia Prep School         Sundevil Sam
SOCCOM11 12541  01/11/17  1016Z 072.346 S 146.343 W  Sandia Prep School         Sundevil Lion
SOCCOM12 12381  01/12/17  2243Z 075.644 S 156.968 W  Princeton Day School      EH Shackleton

John Witherspoon Middle School's "Bell" begins its journey
You can find all the data from the floats at

It's exciting for the scientists on board the Palmer to find out the names the students choose and hear the questions they ask. Not only do the students get to participate in the deployment of the instruments, but now that the floats are returning data, these classrooms will be using the data directly from the floats (the same data that scientists use!) to understand the dynamics of pressure, pH, nutrients, and phytoplankton across the world's oceans.

Just being an observer on the Palmer has opened my eyes to a variety of new worlds - the macro-world of the Southern Ocean with penguins, seals, whales and icebergs as well as the micro-world of phytoplankton and nutrients that can travel across the world. This isn't my last post, but I hope through this journey so far, I've helped to open your eyes to these new worlds too, whether you're a student in the Adopt-A-Float program or you're a student of our world in any other sense!


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Wait! First let’s talk about batteries and bladders!

I’ve gotten a few questions about how the floats work, and now’s as good a time as any to answer them!

How does the float control its depth in the water? 

Inside the float, near the base, there’s a bladder containing oil—mineral oil to be exact. The bladder has a pump that can either inflate the bladder or deflate it. Since we can’t change the mass, all we can do is change the volume. When the float needs to descend, the oil is compressed, using the pump. That increases the density, and the float sinks. When the float needs to rise, the pump releases pressure, and the density decreases, allowing the float to rise. This of course all means that the float itself has to have a very specific mass.

How long does the float “live”?

Technically, a SOCCOM float has enough battery life to take 268 profiles in the Southern Ocean. If we take a profile every 10 days. That gives us over over 7 years of data! Battery life isn’t the only thing that matters though. During the winters, the float is especially strained. Even with sea ice avoidance software, ice can still damage the float in stormy waters. The SOCCOM scientists will estimate the life of a float to be between 5 and 6 years—weathering 4 or 5 winters before it becomes unreliable or the battery runs out.

What happens when the float runs out of power?

When the battery dies, the float sinks sinks to the ocean floor, but sometimes, it can get washed ashore if it’s close enough to land. That’s why it’s got a sticker with contact information on it:

If someone finds a float, he or she can contact the scientists, and SOCCOM will retrieve and potentially be able to reuse the parts or learn more from the how it fared in the water. It would be great to be able to retrieve all the floats once they’re running low on battery, but ship time in the Southern Ocean is expensive and hard to come by. It’s far more cost-effective to use any and all ship time to deploy more floats, especially because the pollution caused by these floats is far and away less than any other data-collection method. Just think about a ship trying to collect all the profiles that a float collects! Just the fuel cost alone would be far dirtier than a float doing the job.

What uses the energy?

The lithium-metal battery inside the float powers three things: the bladder pump, the iridium satellite communications, and the sensors. About one half of the energy goes toward the pump; one quarter goes toward communication, and one quarter for the sensors.

P.S. We're about to deploy Sundevil Lion, named by Sandia Prep School in Albuquerque, NM!

Here's a photo of the float:

... and a photo of us together!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

How Do They Work?

By now, you know that these SOCCOM floats open incredible windows into a vitally important part of our climate system, the Southern Ocean, but how exactly do they do that?

Let’s take a look. First off, there are the sensors.

Here’s a photo of the top of one of the floats with the sensors labeled.

To start, take a look at the temperature and salinity sensor. That’s the black tower that has the tall holes in it. Salinity is measured by measuring the water’s conductivity. If the water has higher conductivity, that means there are more ions in the water, which means a higher salinity. If you know the temperature and pressure, you can calculate an exact number for the salinity of the water from this device.

The temperature probe is actually called a “thermistor” not a thermometer. The traditional mechanics of a thermometer use mercury, but a thermistor is actually a resistor (a metal, ceramic or polymer) whose resistance changes very precisely with temperature. Put thermo- and resistor together, and what do you get? Thermistor!

The reason why the pressure sensor is labeled differently is because you can’t actually see it! It’s behind all the other sensors, but it measures the pressure of the water around the float, and from that you can calculate the depth.

Because the float has these three sensors (T, S, and P), scientists will say that this float has a “CTD,” which stands for Conductivity, Temperature and Density, and that’ll get you your bread and butter parameters that you need to know about the water in every profile.

The pH sensor is connected to the temperature and salinity sensor by a tube that pumps water over from the temperature and salinity tower. That means the pH sensor is measuring exactly the same water that just had its temperature and salinity taken. This pH sensor is called an “FET,” which stands for Field-Effect Transistor. You might know that transistors can be used to precisely measure voltage, but what you might not know is that the voltage this sensor measures is directly proportional to the pH of the water! The tricky thing with this sensor is being able to package it in a way that we can get reliable data at different depths, temperatures and salinities. This particular sensor has just the right packaging to keep it going no matter what kind of punch Southern Ocean packs!

Next up is the oxygen sensor, over on the right. It’s an optical sensor, and it works by shining a blue LED into the water. The fluorescence properties of the water are determined by number of O2 molecules around. With no oxygen content, you’ll have maximum fluorescence, but any oxygen molecules in the water will quench a certain amount of the photoluminescence.

The oxygen sensor is kind of a variation on the nitrate sensor, which is short, and looks a little bit like a whistle. Instead of just blue light, the nitrate sensor sends many different frequencies of light into the water and measures the absorption spectrum of the water across the different frequencies.

Last but not least are the backscatter and chlorophyll sensors which we’ll talk about together because they’re wrapped up in one package down at the bottom of the float. (Why are they at the bottom? Because they’re heavy, and we want the float to stay vertical as it rises and sinks!)

Here’s a photo of Steve Riser with Southstar, named by Melvin H. Kreps Middle School. Down by his foot is the chlorophyll and backscatter sensor. The chlorophyll sensor optically measures something called chlorophyll fluorescence, which is slightly different from chlorophyll itself. When we deploy the floats, we calibrate that sensor using samples that we’ve collected from the larger rosette-shaped CTD.

Here’s a photo of that CTD. There are two parts to it—the 24 bottles around the edge, and the sensors at the bottom. This photo was taken right before it went out that door and sunk to a depth of 2000 meters. At different depths, the scientists will close the bottles, one at a time, in order to capture water from different depths, all the while monitoring the sensor readings from the ship.

The cable that holds the CTD from the boat is conductive, so as the rosette sinks, we can watch the data come in from the sensors, meter-by-meter. If there’s something particularly interesting at any depth, the scientists can actively “fire bottles,” or close them, capturing the water at that depth, on its ascent.

The CTD can also be sent all the way to the bottom of the ocean (which sits at around 4000 meters below the surface). Sometimes the scientists like to do “deep casts” like this. We’ve done that twice now, sending along some styrofoam cups. At 4000 meters, they’re under a heck of a lot of pressure. Oceanographers tend to measure pressure in decibars because it just so happens that the numerical value for pressure in decibels is close to the numerical value for depth in meters!

Take at look at this poor old Styrofoam cup!

Next up: we’ll take a look at exactly what these measurements tell us about the Southern Ocean!


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Ending 2016 at Rothera

As we approached, the British base, Rothera, we got our first taste of ice-breaking. It was thin sheet ice that stood between us and the Brits, the kind that took only a bit of pressure break. A long dark
crack shot down the ice in front of us. It widened quickly as we sailed forward.

The wind is fierce. I and a few of the scientists, including Stephen Riser, stood at the bow of the ship. Our hats, hoods, mittens, and heavy coats were doing their best to protect us from the chilling wind
that came straight to our faces and made our eyes tear up.

Every few minutes, we'd pass a pair of seals lying on the pancaked ice. They'd awaken from their peaceful nap in the summer sun, look up at us lazily and gave us a chiding roar. We couldn't really hear them over the sound of ice sloshing against our bow and the loud hum of the ship.

Rothera is the largest British Antarctic Survey base. There's an island just west of the Antarctic Peninsula mainland called Adelaide, and Rothera is located on the eastern coast of that island, so you can see the mainland from it. Once we docked, we stepped foot on solid ground for just a few hours. Each of us chose between taking a tour of the coastline around the base, the glacier, their marine aquarium, or their air facility. Ted and I opted for the glacier.

Up we went in the "Tucker-Terra," a monster Snow-Cat truck that conveyed us up the glacier to a snowy pass. The people working at Rothera take full advantage of their physical location. They're
rock-climbers, ice-climbers, skiiers, snow-campers, as well as scientists... and runners.

December 31st was the day of their annual 10k race. It took place on the runway at the base. The Rothera-rians invited the Palmer-ians to join in the race, and we gladly accepted!

Some of us even pulled together a 5-person relay team, (snagging first place in our division... by default).

In the summertime at Rothera, (which is right now), the sun never really sets. It might resemble dusk around midnight, but that's it. At 0300, it may as well be 0800. And it's bright... the ice and snow
reflect so much light. That makes it easy to spot the tiny dots that are actually penguins!

After our visit to Rothera, we returned to the ship and began sailing back out into the deep ocean. Our next float will go into the water later tonight. I'll keep you in suspense of the name...

I'll be back with a summary of how it goes and a walk-through of a typical float profile!


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Let's Get Started!

We’re underway!

At 0700 on Christmas Eve, the N.B. Palmer set sail from the dock at Punta Arenas and sailed north. The plan was to pick up some large containers of hazardous materials, tie them on to the ship and then turn around, and sail west through the Strait.

The N. B. Palmer steams ahead through the Strait of Magellan toward the Drake Passage!

Now that we’re through, we’ve reached water deep enough to deploy our first float. (Yay!) The first one, RE Byrd, was deployed in the morning on December 27th at 10:00. The second, RF Scott, was deployed at 0300 on December 28th. It was a long day if you didn’t take a nap.

Here, RF Scott (named by the Princeton Day School) is deployed at 0300 on December 28th.

The first two floats (of 12 total) were be deployed using a new technique. It goes like this: the float is held in what looks like a cardboard box. It's purpose is to keep the float safe during deployment. The sides of the box are held together by a special kind of tape. In theory, within about 15 seconds of this tape being exposed to water, it will release its seal and the box will come apart, releasing the float to the open water.

As the float drifted away, we waited for the box to fall apart, but we lost track of it within minutes. Later we heard that RE Byrd, the first float deployed, was talking successfully to the satellites. He had escaped his box! Keep your fingers crossed that RF Scott escapes as well!

Stephen Riser maps out the N. B. Palmer's trajectory over the course of the cruise.

If you remember, Steve Riser is the man whose lab, up at the University of Washington, made these floats. When he describes them, it’s almost as if he’s describing not one thing but many because there are so many things going on at once! And in fact, he is. On top of the float sit an array of sensors. Each must be durable enough to take precise measurements in severely cold and deep water. The water at a depth of 2000 meters is critically different than the water at surface level. The float must give reliable information across the different levels of pressure.

Quick question: Can you figure out what the pressure would be on the float at a depth of 2000 meters? (Hint: Pressure increases about one atmosphere for every 10 meters of depth.)

What are the sensors measuring? Among other things: temperature, pressure, salinity, oxygen content, nitrate content, chlorophyll, and pH.

But wait, no carbon sensor? Isn’t the purpose of this project to measure carbon in the Southern Ocean?

Yes it is! And the scientists are actually doing that, just in a scientist’s way. For example, a scientist might not ask, “how long until lunch?” Instead, she might ask, “what time is it?”, “what kind of food is the chef preparing?”, “how long does that take to prepare?”, “how far away is the dining area?” And then once all those questions are answered, the scientist will sneak way and calculate the exact lunch situation!

That’s kind of what’s going on with the floats. Instead of directly measuring carbon in the ocean—which takes many different forms, from organic life to carbonic acid—SOCCOM scientists are measuring oxygen, nitrate, and pH at different depths in order to infer the carbon situation at that depth from these other quantities.

It’s important to note also, the floats don’t directly measure depth; instead they measure pressure! That will give you depth, as you've shown above.

All of the sensors on the float are affected by the water's temperature and salinity. In order for those other sensors to provide data that scientists can use, the temperature and salinity sensors need to be working! In addition, the float’s ability to control where it is in the water column depends upon the pressure sensor working correctly—to know where it is! If the pressure sensor stops working, we’re up a creek—er rather, Southern Ocean!

The poor sensor! That's a lot of pressure, am I right?! ;)

Tomorrow, December 29th at 1300 Eastern, all of the leading scientists on this ship will gather and answer questions on a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything, or in this case, Ask US Anything!). Tune in to follow along! I’ll be updating this blog with a link to the post!


UPDATE: Ask us anything on our Reddit AMA here:
We're live at 1 PM Eastern!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Arrival in Punta Arenas

It's really happening!

We're here in Punta Arenas, Chile! It's the first stop on our journey through the Southern Ocean, and that makes it special. Let me tell you a little bit about this city.

This map shows the location of Punta Arenas, right on the Strait of Magellan
Steve Riser (left) and Ted Blanco (right) walk to the port.
Three days go to before we weigh anchor and hoist the mizzen! But you can look forward to my updates on this blog as we get everything ready. I'll introduce you to the two other science teams on the ship as well as the ship technicians and the rest of the crew. 

Punta Arenas is one of just a few gateways to the Antarctic (the others are in South Africa and Australia/New Zealand). It's the largest city south of the 46th parallel south, and it's rich with history—especially naval. The monument pictured above stands tall in the middle of a city park. Up there is Ferdinand Magellan stepping out into the unknown with the confidence of a true globetrotter.

Magellan was the Portugese explorer, who led the Spanish expedition that circumnavigated the Earth in the early 16th century.

His name is everywhere.

First of all, this southernmost region of Chile is called "Magallanes" or more formally, "XII Region of Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica." Punta Arenas was even renamed Magallanes for about a decade between 1927 and 1938. It sits on the Strait of Magellan.

From here, if you drive for 45 minutes northwest, you'll come to Seno Otway (or Otway Sound). Along the coast of the sound, there's a large Magellanic Penguin colony, and their nesting season is... right now! (We don't have enough time to make this journey, but it's good to have a back-up penguin-viewing plan in case we miss the boat!)

The Magallanes Region is Chile's largest, and second-least populated region in Chile... and hardest region to get to from the U.S. After about 26 hours of travel, I was refreshed and a little dazed when I stepped through the Punta Arenas airport doors, the smell of sand and sea splashing me in the face.

It's summertime here in the Southern hemisphere, but we're still running around with jackets on. Every day is in the 50s (ºF). Today it's been misting. In the morning the wind blows gently, but come noon, it's tearing in from the west! It's such a strong wind, my hard hat flew off while walking among the ships at the port!

This kind of weather is pretty typical for Punta Arenas in December. That's not what's happening on the other side of the world, though. I know that right now we've all got an eye on Santa's homeland, the Arctic. This year, extremely warm temperatures have come to that region, leading scientists to anticipate record-low ice coverage next year. Lack of ice up there leads to a darker surface of the Earth, less reflection of sunlight, and consequently, more warming.

It may be chilly (Chile!) but it's certainly not dark here. It's 10 PM, and I wouldn't hesitate to toss a frisbee. It won't get truly dark until about 11:00 PM. And that's great! Because the SOCCOM team has work to do.

Stephen Riser, the chief scientist of the SOCCOM team on the ship, is as busy as a bee. He appropriately dons a bright yellow jacket before walking from his hotel through the savage winds to the port. The floats have already been loaded on to the N.B. Palmer, but there are still schedules to be confirmed and last-minute calibrations and checks that need to be done, and that keeps him busy.

But wait there's more! I'm traveling with my colleague, Ted Blanco. He's a filmmaker and multimedia master, so if cameras and filmmaking are your thing, check out his blog at He'll be telling the story from behind the camera!

So settle yourselves in to these next few weeks of adventure. Four weeks seems like a long time to be away from family and friends, out on the open ocean, but I'm sure it'll blow by! ;)


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Southern Ocean: The Last Great Mystery

Hi there! My name is Greta Shum and I'm asking, "What's going on in the Southern Ocean?"

That's the question that's bugging scientists all over the world--and not just oceanographers. Climate scientists have realized that the Southern Ocean, the little-known ocean surrounding Antarctica, is a major part of the story of climate change. And the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling Project (or SOCCOM) has set out to study it!

It's very possible that you haven't heard of the Southern Ocean. If that's the case, here's a map:

And that trail of markers is where I'll be going this winter--but not alone! I'll be on a boat with a team of scientists, who will be using new technology to observe this amazing place... but I'll get to that later.

First let's talk about the Southern Ocean! What's important about this particular ocean is how unique and powerful it is. Because of its location, the Southern Ocean is one of the only places in the world where deep, cold, nutrient-rich water, flowing south from other oceans, finally rises to the surface and interacts with the atmosphere.

Then at the surface, that ancient water in the Southern Ocean can absorb excess carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere. (I say it's "ancient" because sometimes this deep water hasn't seen the sun for centuries!)

At certain times, though, the Southern Ocean will also expel carbon dioxide from the water into the air, increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and contributing to overall global warming. Read more about that here.

So as you can see, the Southern Ocean is a bit unpredictable. It can act both as a carbon sink and a carbon ... faucet (so to speak). From what scientists have observed so far, the Southern Ocean can actually absorb up to 50% of all the carbon dioxide that the global oceans take up and 75% of all the heat absorbed by the oceans. That's a big portion!

What scientists would like to do is understand exactly which mechanisms will be dominant in the future--will we see more absorption of carbon dioxide in the future or will we see an overall switch? Is there a limit on how much carbon dioxide it can absorb? Will it start to slow down its absorption? In order to find out, we need to develop a clearer picture of how the Southern Ocean works.

Ideally scientists would like to have enough data to build reliable models of the ocean.

But, there are some hiccups. Of all the places in the world to do science, the Southern Ocean is probably one of the worst! In the past scientists have taken water samples from aboard enormous research vessels, which can only sample once at any one location and, because of the rough seas and powerful winds, only go to the Southern Ocean during the austral (or southern hemisphere) summer. Scientists have had so much trouble taking measurements in the Southern Ocean that this place, despite its critical importance to climate change, remains very much a mystery.

In fact, one way to think about the Southern Ocean is to see it as Mordor from the Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.

For those of you who don't know-- Mordor is the the area occupied by (the evil) Sauron in Tolkien's fantasy series. It's protected on three sides by mountain ranges which makes it difficult to access. The rub is that inside Mordor is a very critical player--Mount Doom, which is the only place where Frodo (our hero) can destory the ring.

That's of course where we come in! Much like the fellowship in the Lord of the Rings, a band of scientists and videographers are making the journey from the southern tip of Chile across the Southern Ocean toward the largest American station in Antarctica, McMurdo Station.

The mission?

To deploy a new technology that will allow scientists to observe the Southern Ocean remotely and over time.

Here's what that technology looks like:

Photo Credit to Isa Rosso

This float is about as tall as a person, and is designed to ...float... in the Southern Ocean. Over the course of our time in the Southern Ocean, the team of scientists I'm accompanying will deploy 12 of these floats, each of them equipped with sensors that measure the "vital signs" of the Southern Ocean.

How much carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrate, biological matter, etc. is in the water?

So far, the scientists have deployed 51 floats in the Southern Ocean, and if you'd like to see what they're seeing, you can look at the data here!

We set sail from Punta Arenas, Chile on December 24.

Right now, I'm packing my warmest clothing and planning my trip to Punta Arenas. When I arrive there, I'll check in with you again.

As we deploy these 12 floats, I'll be keeping you updated right here! I'll also tweet and post on Instagram with any updates. It's going to be an adventure, and even though you're not with me, I'll be your eyes and ears. And if you'd ever like to ask me a question while I'm out here, just post a comment, and I'll do my best to find an answer.

See you in Chile!