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! ;)