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!