Wednesday, December 19, 2018

PS117 - RV Polarstern; Blogs by Paul Chamberlain. Dec 15, 2018 - February 7, 2019

Logbook of PS 117 (latest posts at the bottom, last updated on February 3rd, 2019)
Paul Chamberlain

Hello SOCCOM enthusiasts! 

My name is Paul Chamberlain. I am a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography under the advisement of Dr. Lynne Talley. I am a physical oceanographer; this means that my specialty is coupling mathematical models with scientific observations to describe the currents and waves in the ocean. I am in my 5th year of graduate school, which means that I am going to graduate soon and be a full fledged doctor of the ocean. 

Our impending expedition titled "PS117" is 55 days long and will take on 53 scientists working on 13 unique science projects. We will travel south into the Weddell Gyre, then head west in a zig-zag fashion until we finally make the Weddell outflow. We will then transit to Punta Arenas, Chile where we will unload and ship our discoveries home. I am originally from a tiny town in northern California called Eureka. Eureka is on the coast and I grew up spending a lot of time looking over the ocean horizon wondering what was out there. I studied math and physics at our local Humboldt State University and then pursued my curiosity by joining the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officers Corps (NOAA Corps). The NOAA Corps is one of the seven Uniformed Services of the United States and operates all NOAA ships and planes. After training, I was first assigned as a Junior Officer aboard the NOAA Ship Ka'imimoana which was based out of Hawaii and serviced an array of moorings in the tropical Pacific. My second sea tour was as Operations Officer aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown. The Ronald H. Brown is the flagship of the NOAA fleet and conducts important research all around the globe. 

After this second sea tour - again motivated by my curiosity for the unknown - I made a pretty major career change and decided that instead of driving boats that research the ocean, I wanted to research the ocean myself. I was accepted to Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2014. Scripps is my home and every day I am allowed to study here is a gift. I live in San Diego with my lovely wife Taylor and our newly adopted cat Rusty. We got Rusty to keep Taylor company while I am gone on this long trip. 

The ocean - and particularly the Southern Ocean - is not very well observed or understood in comparison to the atmosphere, but we do know that it is very important for making our planet the cozy little gem that we all get to enjoy. Because of my time at sea, I can tell you first hand how labor intensive and difficult it can be to observe the depths of the ocean. Ships are also expensive to operate and it is not feasible to have ships in all parts of the world at all times. 

The Argo float platform is a transformational oceanographic tool: Argo floats are a type of robot that are deployed from ships and sink down to 1000 m, they then drift at this depth for 10 days and then sink all the way to 2000 m and come to the surface to transmit all the data they collected while drifting under the ocean. After transmission, they repeat this cycle of sinking to 1000 m for 10 days and collecting 2000 m ocean profiles for their entire lifespan of 3-4 years. There are currently around 3800 Argo floats deployed in the ocean all transmitting data in near real time to oceanographers. Traditional Argo floats measure temperature and salinity, but oceanographers have recently miniaturized additional sensors that measure oxygen, pH, nitrate, and the optical properties of small plant life in the ocean. We call these Argo floats equipped with these additional sensors Biogeochemical Argo (BGA) floats. These additional sensors inform us how the ocean is absorbing or emitting carbon dioxide and oxygen - similar to the way that you do every time you take a breath. The ocean is one regulating factor in global climate and measuring these biogeochemical quantities in the ocean is not only important to creatures that live in the ocean but to you and me in our everyday lives. 

 I am passionate about SOCCOM floats because of my curiosity of the unknown and I hope these writings spark your interest about this project. Feel free to email with me with any thoughts or questions while I am at sea. I can be reached at Please note that because of limited satellite communications while at sea, emails with any type of file attachment will not go through.


December 13, 2018

 Figure 1. Elise and I at the last gorge of the ascent

Figure 2: View from Table mountain
After a 34 hour flight, we have finally arrived in beautiful Cape Town. Seizing the opportunity after far too little rest from the long days of travel, my colleague Elise Droste and I decided to hike Table Mountain - a geological feature which offers prominent views of Cape Town and surrounding countryside in all directions. Oceanography is a job that can take you all around the world and you have to take time to enjoy it! The climb was vigorous (Fig. 1) but we made it and enjoyed a panoramic view (Figs. 2and 3) at the top. After, we took the gondola down. 

 Figure 3: Obligatory selfie at the top of table mountain

 Elise is also a graduate student like me, but from the Netherlands and studying in the United Kingdom. She will also be deploying biogeochemical floats onboard the RV Polarstern, but for a European project. 

 We were first allowed onboard the RV PolarStern in the afternoon to check over our floats. Our colleague Greg Brusseau came to Cape Town as well to help prepare the floats for deployment. It was the first time I saw the RV PolarStern. She is a handsome and capable vessel with such luxuries as a heli-deck, a cinema, a pool, a sauna, and - unusual in comparison to my time on American vessels - a bar. 

Figure 4: The RV Polarstern! (photo credit Markus Rex)

Figure 5: SOCCOM Floats with Capetown in Background
 What strikes you is the size: at 117.91 meters the RV Polarstern website advertises that it is not a jam bucket and I have to agree (Fig. 4). While the RV Polarstern is an icebreaker and has very powerful mechanical engines, the real engine of any research vessel is her sailors that operate the vessel. The crew and officers of the RV Polarstern are helpful and extremely competent. I have every hope that this impending expedition will be a great trip. 

 Deployed floats must communicate with satellites while at sea to transmit collected data and receive additional instructions. To test these communications, we must have an unobstructed view of the sky. Because of this, we chose the heli-deck on the RV Polarstern for our float testing area. The view was not bad either (see Fig. 5). 


December 14, 2018
 Second day of float testing! Scientific equipment is delivered to the ship either on wooden shipping pallets or large shipping containers. Some shipping containers are even remodeled to act as portable labs so that they can be easily transported around the world from ship to ship. 

 My gear arrived on 2 pallets and consisted of the floats themselves, as well as all the equipment that I will use to calibrate the floats upon deployment. Our biogeochemical floats measure the temperature and salinity of the ocean as well as the pH, nitrate, oxygen, and optical properties. It is important to calibrate all the float sensors with measurements taken from actual seawater to give us confidence that the floats are working properly. At every location that I deploy a float, the ship will lower a large instrument called a CTD on a conducting wire to the bottom of the ocean and collect water samples at many depths of the water column. Did you know that much of the ocean is deeper than 3200 meters (2 miles)! 

 The scientific party will analyze these water samples in laboratories onboard the RV Polarstern or back home at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and compare our findings with what the float sensors record. If there is a close match, then the float data can be used for scientific applications. 

 With so many scientists receiving shipments and preparing laboratories and the ships crew loading stores and equipment for the long trip, the RV Polarstern was a little beehive of activity. Antarctica is known for having violent storms; if equipment is not properly secured and tied down, it can become damaged during the large rolls of the ship. This means that every piece of equipment must be tucked away or tied down lest it fall on the deck and break during a large roll from a wave. If something breaks at sea, we can't go to the store to replace it, so we must be careful to maintain and protect our equipment. At the end of the day we had things sorted and stowed (for the most part).


December 15, 2018
 Today we depart! On the way to the vessel today we passed through customs and immigration and were formally stamped out of South Africa. After so much planning and preperation, we are finally off on our trip. Greg needed to make some final changes to the float settings and afterward we said our goodbyes. 

 As the crew made the final preparations for our departure and finished fueling, all the scientists were summoned to the heli-deck to participate in a mandatory safety briefing. While at sea, we are very disconnected from the conveniences of modern society. We cannot call an ambulance if someone is injured and we cannot call the fire department if there is a fire onboard. Therefore, we have to be totally self sufficient and it is the responsibility of everyone onboard - scientists included - to know how to safely respond to fire and emergency and abandon ship commands. Part of our fire and emergency exercises are to assemble in the designated area and don life vests (Fig. 6). 

 Figure 6: Fire and emergency drill before getting underway
 At 4 PM we cast off lines and began our long voyage. The transit out of Capetown was short and we were finally at sea on the good ship RV PolarStern - our home for the next 2 months. Scientists and crew gathered on the Helideck to wave farewell to civilization (Fig. 7. We were also treated with our first proper dinner onboard RV Polarstern. Overall, the food is excellent with fresh baked breads and nice salads. As one might expect, the cuisine is distinctly German - raw minced pork with onions as well as potatoes and eggs with mustard sauce gave me a little pause - and I am looking forward to expanding my palate. 

 Figure 7: Capetown as we were departing

December 16, 2018 
Today we had several orientation meetings that describe the dos and don'ts of life at sea. We also became more acquainted with the vessel as well as our fellow scientists who we will be sharing this ship with for almost 2 months. 

 Figure 8: PolarStern CTD rosette, the grey bottles are water samplers and can be triggered to collect at different depths. The actual CTD or Conductivity, Temperature, Density instrument is located in the middle. 
 I will be on the 4-8 CTD watch during this cruise: this means that I must be available to deploy the CTD between the hours of 4 am to 8 am and again from 4 pm to 8 pm. These types of shifts are very standard while at sea and feel natural to me. The CTD operator is responsible for working with the crew member controlling the CTD winch. As the name implies, the CTD winch is attached to the CTD and lets the CTD sink to the bottom of the ocean and then hauls it back on deck. The CTD must be stopped at certain depths as it ascends so that bottles on the CTD rosette can be closed and scientists onboard the RV Polarstern can perform experiments on samples from different depths (the bottles can be seen as the big long grey things in Figure 8). The CTD operator sends the command to close the bottles via a computer system. The CTD also has sensors onboard that measure temperature, salinity, pressure, oxygen, and the optical properties of the water; the CTD operator is also responsible for ensuring a high quality data stream from these sensors to the computer system on the ship. The CTD is one of the primary tools in the physical oceanographers toolbox and mastering its different systems is a goal of mine this cruise. 


December 17, 2018
 Today was our first CTD cast. It was handled professionally and all sensors worked perfectly. Success! The CTD is most vulnerable when it is first deployed from a ship and right before it is recovered. CTDs weigh about 680 kg (1500 pounds) when full of water and freely swing during deployment and recovery. If someone is in the wrong place, the CTD can crash into them and they could be injured or knocked in the water; in Antartica the water is near freezing and your survivability time is only a couple of minutes. Falling overboard down here can easily be fatal! Another concern is the CTD can damage itself by banging against the side of the ship so it is important that everyone is careful and wears hard hats and safety vests at all times when handling the CTD on deck (Figure 9). 

Figure 9: CTD Deployment


December 18, 2018
 We conducted a CTD cast this morning and Elise and I continue to work to make all necessary preparations to deploy the BGC floats. Yesterday we measured the volumes of the bottles that we will use to sample HPLC/POC for float deployments. The floats have sensors on them that measure the optical properties of seawater. Microscopic life that lives in the ocean have different optical properties than seawater and change the value that these optical sensors record if they are present next to a float. We calibrate these optical sensors by sampling surface waters (where microscopic life is found in abundance) and then filtering the water through special pieces of paper that catch all the Particulate Organic Carbon (POC)- a technical term for all of the microscopic bugs. These papers are then frozen in liquid nitrogen and shipped to special laboratories at the end of the cruise which can determine the amount of POC. To conduct this filtering you need to have a very accurate measure of the amount of water that you are running through the filters, which is why we carefully measured the volume of our bottles. We are using a sampling rig from Plymouth Marine Laboratory which is different from the one I was trained on at Scripps. It uses larger 2 liter bottles stacked in a wood frame (Fig. 10). 

 Figure 10: HPLC/POC rig used for SOCCOM Float Deployments
 At the end of the day, a group of us decided to watch the sunset from high up on the ship. A ukulele was passed around and a good time was had by all (Fig. 11).
Figure 11. View of the fantail from B deck. 
One of the fantastic things about science is how collaborative it is. We all build our work on the fundamental discoveries and knowledge collected by humankind since the beginning of civilization. In our impromptu gathering we had German, Dutch, French, and American delegates. The scientists onboard are truly an international cohort with 9 nationalities represented highlighting the fact that science is a discipline that transcends culture and language. 


December 19, 2018
 The weather is starting to get worse. The Southern Ocean is known for violent storms and consequently its latitude bands have been labeled with ominous names like "the roaring forties", "the furious fifties", and "the screaming sixties". As a precaution, the weather decks of the ship have been secured; this means that no-one is allowed to go outside without first contacting the bridge (where the ship is driven from) and getting permission from the officer of the watch. The storm is to the southwest of us right now - exactly where we are heading - and so this weather situation is going to get worse before it gets better.


December 20, 2018
Figure 12. Wave crashing over the bow.
 The weather has continued to deteriorate. Today, a wave broke over the stern with such force that it damaged a shipping containers that are kept there (Fig 12).
The waves have been rolling the ship a lot. The ride on even a big ship like the RV PolarStern can get uncomfortable in high seas and many of the new scientists who don't have much experience are seasick. I think my roommate did not get out of bed today. In spite of this, the work continues. A decision was made to skip every other sampling station so that we could increase our progress south and get around the storm that is battering us. I am projected to deploy my first SOCCOM float soon and current predictions are for 8 meter (24 foot) waves; this is concerning. BGC floats have many delicate sensors and have to be carefully lowered into the ocean. If a float hits the water too hard, or is banged against the side of the ship on deployment, it can break. There is nothing to be done now except hope that the weather calms down a bit, or if that doesn't happen that I have a steady hand during deployment.


December 22, 2018
 It has been a very busy day. To start with, we deployed our first SOCCOM float this morning. Ship operations happen around the clock and I set my alarm for 2 AM so that I would not miss my opportunity. We deploy SOCCOM floats directly after CTD casts so that we can use the chemical analysis results from the water samples we collect to calibrate the SOCCOM sensors. The SOCCOM floats are vulnerable to damage during deployment and I was concerned that the bad weather would make things difficult. On this particular night the seas were approximately 15 feet which is enough to significantly roll even a large ship like PolarStern. Despite my concern, the deployment was professional and smooth and the float departed this ship without problem. After, we collected water samples to calibrate the float. As this was my first time collecting the necessary water and running all the experiments, it took me about 8 hours to wrap everything up. I also installed an additional optical sensor on the CTD and calibrated it. By lunchtime, I had worked a full day and was ready for a little nap. 

 At 430 PM, a special announcement was made of the ships intercom for all scientists to gather in the ships cinema. We have daily meetings at 630 PM, so we knew that whatever was to be discussed would be of great importance to call a meeting only a couple of hours before our other gathering. We were informed that a crew member had suffered a minor stroke and that we were proceeding directly to a Russian research station Nowolasarcwskaja (NOVO) located on the Antarctic continent. It is in times like these that it is important to remember that oceanographic research - although exciting - can also be dangerous and the safety of life and limb is paramount. We are a long ways away from NOVO station and it will take about a week to steam there and back which will affect the amount of science that we can do. This is alright; what matters most is the safety of this crew member. I hope that he can get the medical treatment he needs before things get worse. 

 This change in plans does disrupt my original time table for float deployments. I was originally going to deploy a float a day for the next 2 days: one at 55ºS and one at 57ºS. After the medical evacuation it looks like we will only have enough time to return to 59ºS and restart our work south from there. This means that I will have to reconsider where to deploy these 2 floats. 

Figure 13: First Float Deployment: Float 886 at 51º00.617’ S 03º54.390’ E at
0458 UTC on December 23. This float has been adopted by
Lead Deadwood High School in Deadwood, South Dakota and has been
named Shark Bait Hoo ha ha


December 24, 2018: In which Christmas fun is had by all 
Christmas at sea can be kind of depressing. Being gone from family and friends around the Holidays is never ideal, so it is important for people onboard ship to take the extra effort to remember these traditions and festivities. The command of our expedition understands the value of Christmas and organized a Christmas program to lighten the mood. It began with the chief scientist playing guitar. A group of scientists (myself included) organized ourselves into a little choir and we sang some tradition German Christmas songs as well as some Christmas standards familiar to my American ears. The ships captain and senior scientists made speeches and read poems. It was moving to be apart of this little gathering in the vast and harsh wilds of Antartica and reminded me of the humanity that connects us all. 

 Figure 14: Christmas Eve festivities on RV PolarStern (Photo credit: Vl)

 But what is Christmas without presents? At the direction of the chief scientist, the scientists with the necessary ... proportions ... were volunteered to put on a little play and distribute presents. In the German tradition, Santa is joined by 2 helpers: an angel as well as Knecht Ruprecht - a shabby brown suited man who carries a stick and punishes the children so that Santa doesn't have to. I was given the honor of performing as Knecht Ruprecht in our little play. During one of the choir songs we snuck out of the party and donned our makeshift costumes (Fig. 14). At the appropriate moment we came back in carrying our angel on our shoulders and he "flew" around the room giving out presents. This greatly pleased the crowd and we all had a good laugh. After passing our gifts to the scientists and crew, we went around the ship to those on duty to deliver presents and also visited the sick crew member in the hospital. He seemed to be in really good spirits and greatly appreciated his presents.


December 25, 2018: In which we arrive in the ice 
Wow, what a white Christmas to wake up to; we are in the ice and heading south to evacuate the crew member. We need to do this quickly so that he can get the necessary medical attention. Luckily the RV Polarstern has very large and powerful engines as well as a specially designed thick hull so we smash through the ice like a hot knife through butter (Fig.15).

Figure 15: The RV PolarStern breaks through ice
We will proceed South till we are within range of NOVO station by helicopter at which point the crew member will be evacuated and we will wait for the helicopters return. The ice is amazing. It feels like another world - yet still full of life. Adelie penguins and crabeater seals can be seen as we make our way through the ice. The crabeater seal had a large but healed bite mark on its side (Fig. 16). I can only
Figure 16: A crabeater seal!
wonder at what peril was narrowly avoided by this wily little seal (perhaps it was from the larger leopard seal that likes to munch on seals and penguins). Penguins, while supremely graceful in the water are rather awkward on land and it was hard to not laugh as they ran in all directions after being surprised by the ships passing (Fig. 17).

 Figure 17: Penguins!

It is bitterly cold here which necessitates several jackets and boots be outside while outside. It amazes me that so many animals are able to make this place their home and thrive. At 69ºS we are in the Antarctic circle and, because we are so close to the winter solstice, we live in a world where the sun never sets. "Sunsets" - periods of time when the sun are low on the horizon - last for hours and create a beautiful scene over the ice (Fig. 18). This is an amazing place. It is truly a privilege to be here.

Figure 18: Sunset at 70ºS

December 27, 2018: More floats
Figure 19. Paul Chamberlain and Elise Droste
with a BGC float. 
Core Argo floats and BGC Argo floats are different: core Argo floats have sensors that measure temperature and salinity, whereas BGC floats, in addition to temperature and salinity, also measure Nitrate, pH, oxygen, and ocean optical properties. These additional sensors on BGC floats can be delicate. A controversial, but common, deployment technique for Core Argo floats is what is called "the toss" method. As the name implies, the execution of "the toss" is simple: you throw the float off the back of the ship. The delicacy of BGC floats require a little more finesse. We use a method called "the rope" method. To execute the rope method you need one long piece of rope that has one end tied off to the ship; half of the remaining length is then run through a small hole in the collar of the float. Using this rope sandwich, we lower the float to the waters edge, when the float enters the water, we pull the side of the rope sandwich attached to the ship (letting the other side run). This detaches the float from the ship and allows it to conduct its mission. 

Elise is scheduled to deploy 2 Core Argo floats and 2 BGC Argo floats over the next couple days. As she has never used "the rope" method before, we decided that it would be a good time to practice. We are also relatively close to the ice edge, so we do not have very significant swell. Elise did great and successfully deployed her first float (See Fig. 19)


December 30, 2018: And more floats
It has been a busy last couple days: Elise and I deployed 1 core Argo float and 2 BGC Argo floats (PICCOLO project, not SOCCOM). All deployments were successful, and we believe the floats to be happily collecting data. Deployments have been at all hours of the day and night and we have been working hard. At the end of the last deployment, Elise and I were complaining to a colleague about how long our HPLC/POC sampling was taking - this is an experiment that neither Elise nor I had ever run in the field and the rig we have been using is unfamiliar to us. Our shipmate agreed that the filtration was much too slow and suggested that we might have a leak in the vacuum pump that draws water through the filter. Sure enough, after some fiddling and reconnecting hoses, we realized that this must in fact be true. The system seems to now be holding strong vacuum and we will hopefully be able to process stations a bit faster. 


December 31, 2018: SOCCOM Deployment 59º 04.95' S 00º 04.81'E

Another float deployment today after some mooring work, this time it was part of the SOCCOM project. Yay! Because of some scheduling concerns, we were not sure if we would be able to deploy at this location, so we did a full BGC sampling at both this station and the last. Go team BGC! 

Today, the weather was so nice that if I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that I was home and off the coast of California - except for the icebergs floating in the background (see right side of Fig. 20). Its hard to believe this is Antarctica as you can almost be out on deck in shorts and t-shirts. This is a dynamic place!
Figure 20. Seaside Middle School's
 float Lee Nation

Seaside Middle School, congratulations on your new float! I hope (and am confident) that the Lee
Nation will collect lots of interesting and important data. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about science or life aboard an oceanographic research vessel. Your float deployment went very smooth (see Fig. 21), and - as the float was sinking to collect its first profile - an albatross landed on the top of the float. I am going to take this as a sign of very good luck because this might be the first time this has ever happened. 
Figure 21. Lee Nation being deployed

Happy new year everybody! 


January 1, 2019: New Years!

Happy New Years! The RV Polarstern put on a great party last night. As a polar research vessel, this ship has spent many a Christmas and New Years at sea and they really are expert at putting on a celebration. 

Figure 22. Large tabular iceberg
Figure 23. Helicopters were moved out of the hanger to provide
room for the New Years Eve Party!!!
Yesterday, a barbecue was set up on the working deck and all types of interesting German (and other) cuisine was available with a variety of sausages, beef, pork, and ostrich (which I didn't know was a German delicacy). Salmon bakes and veggie dishes were also available for our vegetarian colleagues. The barbecue was grill your own, and we spent a couple hours on the working deck making our dinners. It was the first barbecue i've been to where ice bergs size of skyscrapers and city blocks dot the seascape (see Fig 22). After grilling, we moved up to the hangar to enjoy our dinners in the comfort of the ship. The helicopters were moved out of the hanger (See Fig.23) to make space for the party. The hanger was festively decorated and in a touching gesture of community the country flag of every scientist onboard was hung (See Fig. 24). After dinner, the music started and the tables and benches were moved out to make space for one of the most southern dance parties on the planet. At midnight, the officer of the watch gave blew a long blast on the ship's whistle and welcomed us into 2019. 
Figure 24. A veritable feast for all along with decorations
that included flags from every country represented on board
and some festive balloons. 
Happy new year everyone! 


January 2, 2019: Salinity
Figure 25. Salinometer
Yesterday evening, I took the opportunity to catch up on measuring salinity samples that have been taken over the last couple days. The salinometer is a necessary piece of equipment onboard any oceanographic research vessel and measures how saline sea water is with very high accuracy and precision. Surely everyone knows that the sea is salty, but did you know that the ocean is saltier in some places than others? The salinity of the water affects the density - increased salt implies increased density - and scientists can use information about the density of the sea water to determine where it came from and where it is going. A hot region with a lot of evaporation for instance will have saltier and warmer water. The CTD measures the conductivity of the entire water column and from this we can calculate salinity, however this instrument must be routinely validated by analyzing individual water samples. The density of seawater is also dependent on temperature and so the salinometer is placed in a small temperature controlled room (See Fig. 25). 

Prior to running any samples, the salinometer is first calibrated by using a small bit of water that has a salinity that is known very precisely called a "standard". We then compare the value we measure on the salinometer to the value of the standard and any difference is noted as the offset of our instrument. We apply this offset to all salinity values that we calculate during the salinometer run.


January 3, 2019: Land of ice
We are at the very southern end of our meridian transect and breaking ice again. It still amazes me that ships can operate in this kind of environment. In thin ice, the ship has powerful engines and can push her way through, but lately the ice has been getting too thick lately and the ship has to adopt a different strategy: the battering ram. In which the ship goes ahead at full steam, makes a small dent or crack in the sea ice, reverses to get some distance, and throws itself against the ice again. Years of ship driving has ingrained in me the strong instinct to avoid running your ship into anything, and this method still seems a bit crazy. We are making slow progress and following leads in the ice (regions where the ice is thinner or large cracks have formed) to make forward progress and conduct our science. 
Figure 26. The forever sunset!

The wildlife and scenery is amazing down here. Sundowns last for hours (see Fig. 26), and many crab eater and Weddell seals can be seen sunning themselves on the ice (see Figs 27 and 28).
Figure 27. a crabeater seal
Figure 28. a Weddell seal
The Adelie penguins we have seen seem to be in a state of either constant surprise or curiosity of the passing ship. These funny little guys run around in all directions as the ship approaches, then stop - possibly embarrassed - and take a more measured evaluation of the situation, watching the ship carefully as we pass (See Fig. 29). Later in the cruise, I may have the opportunity to get on the ice. It would be wonderful to have the chance to see these birds a little closer. 
Figure 29 Adelie penguns


January 5, 2018: Moorings
We are out of the ice. Today's primary operation was the recovery of an AWI scientific mooring. A scientific mooring is an instrument (or series of instruments) connected to some kind of floatation that is then connected to a long rope that is anchored to the sea floor. The ocean is over 1500 meters deep where we are working, so the anchor lines have to be very long! Moorings at times have surface flotation with satellite communication systems that allow us to monitor the data they are collecting and the health of the mooring, however these moorings are subsurface which means they live below the water and their data is only collected when the mooring is recovered and downloaded on the ship. The moorings we recovered today have been in the water for 2 years and have many secrets about the ocean to tell. 

The instrumentation on today's mooring includes sensors to measure temperature and salinity as well as acoustic transducers that send sound signals to position oceanographic equipment and listen to the song of the ocean. 

Argo floats generally position themselves using satellite fixes received while they are at the ocean surface transmitting data. In the Weddell Sea, the ocean is ice covered in the winter and floats, which are not able to surface, patiently save all of their data until the summer when the ice recedes. Once the ice melts the floats can surface, connect to satellites, and send their data. We download the data that has been collected under ice, but do not have locations as to where these data were collected! Some floats have the ability to listen to the sound signals of the moorings we are deploying, then, when scientists get the data, we can then use these sound signals to figure out where the floats were while under the ice. Its pretty neat and one of the projects that I am working on for my dissertation. 

The acoustic receivers on the moorings record sound at high frequency: marine animals call to one another in the ocean in ways that are unique to each species. These recorders are like having a secret telephone wiretap on all the whales and seals in the ocean. Once we recover the moorings scientists can analyze the recording to determine the frequency and duration of animal activity in this region for the past 2 years. Needless to say, recovering these instruments is important!

Unfortunately, bad weather can make these recoveries difficult and the ocean was very temperamental today. It can be difficult to connect the ship's winches to the mooring and it took several passes before we finally got it. 


January 6, 2018: SOCCOM Deployment: 69º 1.1' S 6º 59.0' W}
The mooring deployment continued well into the early hours of last night. At 0310 all the scientific operations were done and it was time to deploy the newest SOCCOM float, "Sadie". The Sadie has been named after Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, who among many other accomplishments was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Economics in the United States and was the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. I hope that she would be proud that her likeness is going forward and will continue to make discoveries and advancements in unknown frontiers. 

Congratulation Penn Alexander School! You have successfully adopted a SOCCOM float. You rock! Satellite communications at sea (and particularly in the polar latitudes) are difficult and there are only a handful of computers onboard connected to this satellite link. After about 15 minutes of patiently waiting, I was able to download a picture of Sadie Alexander. I am no artist, but I did my best. I hope you like it. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions about the science we are doing out here or what ship life is like. My shipboard email is at the top of this blog.  

Figure 30. Sadie getting ready for launch.
Sadie is named by Penn Alexander School
I have to say that this was my most difficult deployment yet. The weather decks had been secured the day earlier due to the high sea state. I performed my final cleaning of the optical sensors and brought the float out on deck accompanied by a watch stander to guarantee my safety. It was snowing and the waves were big enough that it was necessary to time the lowering of the float so that it reached the waters edge at the proper moment where it would not slap the waves. My goal was to target the wave at the upper part of a rising crest, but, unfortunately, my timing was a bit off and I hit the wave too low. The rising wave created slack in the rope as the float lifted; this slack then allowed the rope to twist and wrap around the small forest of sensors at the top of the float. The ship was steaming ahead at 2 knots (a unit of speed which denotes nautical miles/second) and the forward way of the ship created tension in the rope which formed a tight knot in the twisted line that I was unable to slip the rope through. I was forced to heave the float about 5 meters back up the side of the ship and untangle the rope at the top. The float is most vulnerable as it is being raised and lowered over the side of the ship because it can bang against the side of the hull. 

It is these slightly terrifying yet exhilarating moments that I sometimes get moments of clarity about my situation: I am almost as far south as you can be on the ocean on one of the most capable research ships in the world struggling to deploy a revolutionary observational instrument in harsh weather - what a life, what a world! The SOCCOM float weighs about 30 kgs with a volume of about 30 liters (more information here - and after some nerve wracking moments, some grunting, and some cursing, the watch stander and I were able to wrangle the float back onboard and clear the line. I lowered the float again without issue and it was successfully deployed. I really hope that these problems during deployment did not damage the sensors and I will be waiting anxiously to hear that the data has come back alright. 


January 7, 2018: Cardinalis cardinalis
Our SOCCOM calibration CTD was very early in the morning, but some delays extended the operation caused the CTD to be on deck around 430 and afterwards I had to sample. Our first SOCCOM calibration took about 8 hours, and now we are down to 3 hours. Go team BGC! We made it to breakfast, which was our strong goal. The importance of breakfast can never be understated. After the CTD, there were some fisheries research operations and I was scheduled to deploy the SOCCOM float as we were leaving station around noon. I was essentially awake all night and was exhausted (as seen in the glazed look in Fig. 31, but being out on deck woke me up a bit (Fig. 32) and the deployment was seamless. I am optimistic that this deployment has been successful and look forward to a confirmation all sensors are working properly. 

Congratulations, Academy of the Sacred Heart, Cardinalis cardinalis has been set free! I was sent a photo of your school mascot and I did my best to recreate it on the float. I hope you like it! Please feel free to email me any questions you have about this expedition. My email is at the top of this blog. 

Tonight, we dined on something called "black pudding". I intentionally did not ask what made the pudding black, but decided to dive right in and experience some authentic German cuisine. The pudding tasted of cinnamon, is very hearty, and went quite well with potatoes. I learned later that the pudding was made from uncased and auspiciously named blood sausages. I'm not sure what is exactly in a blood sausage, but I have a good idea of the primary ingredient. Sometimes it is better to not ask and to just enjoy.

Figure 31. Cardinalis cardinalis

Figure 32. Cardinalis cardinalis ready to fly!


January 10, 2018: Ice operations
We are back in the ice. 

In addition to the oceanographers onboard, there are several teams of marine biologists who are interested in the biological and chemical processes that occur on, near, and under sea ice. For the next few days, our work is catered to their needs, so I can take a little break from the CTD and floats. 

The ice researchers use 3 main techniques to collect and analyze their samples: a specially designed net that can skim just under the ice bottom and collect marine specimens, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) attached to the ship with cameras and specially designed sensors that can be driven under the ice, and the chemical and biological analysis of physical ice cores. 

Working on the ice can be very dangerous because the thickness of the ice is variable and unknown. The ocean is so cold down here that even a few minutes of exposure can lead to hypothermia. Scientists working on the ice have to take special precautions - like wearing survival suits at all times and following in one another's footsteps. Scientists are placed on the ice directly by the ship in man baskets, via small boats launched from the ship, or, for distant stations, via helicopter (as seen in Fig. 33). What a nice way to commute to work in the morning!
Figure 33. Helicopter ice operations
The great cliffs of the fast ice shimmer faintly in the distance. Its easy to imagine that these are a bank of clouds if they weren't so persistent. I think about the first explorers to discover Antartica. They came down here with ponies - not helicopters - in sailing ships - not icebreakers. I have lots of admiration for how their courage and endurance shaped our understanding of the natural world and can only imagine how excited they would feel to finally see Antartica after such a long voyage from their homelands.


January 11, 2018: Polyna

A polyna is a large hole in the ice caused by 2 different mechanisms: wind can blow offshore and force the sea ice away from the shelf ice, or the ocean structure can become unstable and warm water can come up to the surface and melt the sea ice offshore. The polyna we are currently in is driven by wind coming offshore from Antartica and is close to Atka bay. There are supposedly colonies of Orcas and blue whales who are residents of this polyna and I hope we have an opportunity to see them. 

We are currently conducting CTDs to determine the nutrient cycling of this region during different tidal cycles, as well as ice sampling operations and deploying instruments to collect a fish species known as "Tooth Fish". 

On the way to the polyna, we passed by some Weddell Seals last night. They were both very close to the ship, flopping around, and generally being cute. An unofficial expert on the seals told me that the two were engaged in a courtship ritual (see Fig. 34). How much simpler it would be if human courtship consisted of being fat, rolling around, and flapping a flipper or two. In my experience it is much more complicated and exhausting. 
Figure 34. Two cute Weddell seals
The scenery in this polyna is really stunning - especially around midnight when the sun is lowest (see Fig. 35). We are at one of the southernmost terminus of the ocean and it kind of feels like the end of the world. Vast expanses of white ice extend out as far as can be seen in most directions and you really start to feel the completeness of the isolation and harshness of this place. 

A huge amount of water vapor is regularly seen rising out of this polyna, and, due to the diligence and persistence of previous oceanographers, we know that this water was originally warmed at the lower latitudes. I can almost feel the tropical sunshine radiating out of this polyna as this vapor becomes clouds and the earth tries to recirculate and balance its energies.   
Figure 35. a polyna near Atka Bay


January 13, 2018: Neumayer Station
Yesterday we made a berth near the shelf ice to conduct our resupply mission of the German Antarctic base Neumayer (see Fig. 36). The RV PolarStern is equipped with large deck cranes fore and aft. In addition to its mission as a research vessel, the RV PolarStern does double duty as a cargo ship. Neumayer bustles with almost 60 scientists during the summer research season and it takes a lot of fuel, supplies, fuel, and equipment to keep operations running. Antarctica is a pristine environment which has very limited development, all of which is governed by international treaty. As such, there is no developed pier at which to unload our goods. Instead, the RV PolarStern breaks ice near the shelf ice and then drops equipment directly onto waiting sledges which are dragged by PistenBullys (a kind of multi-purpose snow vehicle seen in Fig. 37. 
Figure 36. the German research station Neumayer
Figure 37. PistenBullys waiting for cargo

The shelf ice rises about 12 meters out of the water and is generally much more stable than sea ice which is of unknown thickness and can breakup without warning. However the edge of the shelf ice is vulnerable to calving: in which a portion of the edge of the shelf ice becomes unstable and breaks off into the water. Out of an abundance of caution, we have all been strongly cautioned to stay away from the shelf ice edge. A 12 meter fall combined with freezing water temperatures would almost certainly mean death. 

Today, a group of scientists and crew were given the opportunity to tour the Neumayer station. Neumayer is almost 13 km away from the ship. At 1 pm, 23 of us piled onto a sledge towed by a PistenBully and we were off. As the PistenBullys and sledge are designed for strength and not comfort or speed, it was a windy and cold hour to the station as we crawled along the flagged path.

Neumayer station is actually the third station Germany has constructed in this region since it began Antarctic research in the early 1980s. Construction began on Neumayer 3 in 2008 and it was fully operational by 2009. The station itself sits on a series of hydraulic support poles that can be remotely adjusted to balance for changing wind or snow conditions. This is a noted improvement over the previous stations which were ultimately submerged and abandoned as the snow and ice gradually grew around them. 

On top of the supports, sits a two hulled structure. The outer hull is designed to resist the wind and cold and is made of sturdy I beams and an insulated metal skin. The inner hull is constructed of connecting shipping containers which serve as working and living spaces. This being a German station, there are, of course, amenities such as a sauna and a bar. The station is compact, clean, and well organized and has facilities to do meteorological, biological, geophysical, ocean acoustics, and atmospheric research.  

Outside are a series of scattered shipping containers that serve as living spaces and laboratories. There is also a container with a space aged greenhouse (after 35 days at sea we were even jealous of the fresh vegetables) and a small container which contains an isolated library for reflection. 

After some good hospitality of coffee and cake we got back on the sledge and were given a ride out to the local Emperor Penguin colony (See Fig. 38). It is generally late in the season for penguin nesting, but there were a decent number of chicks still growing the size, strength, and courage to venture to sea for the first time (See Figs. 39 and 40). What surprised me most of this colony was the volume: we were about 100 meters away from the closest penguins and could easily hear a cacophony of squawks and peeps coming from the penguin chicks and their doting parents. It was really special to have the opportunity to see the colony in person and I feel very lucky to have had the experience. 
Figure 38. Photo with the penguin colony in the background.
Figure 39. Closeup of Emperor penguins
Figure 40. the Emperor penguin colony. 


January 17, 2018: Leaving Neumayer
After several days of fueling and cargo operations, as well as tours by officials from the Germany ministry, we have finally departed Neumayer and are heading back to ocean sampling. CTD and float operations are not for a few more days, and having no experiments to run onboard, I did what any good scientist would do and went to the flying deck to conduct biological observations. I am glad that I did because our route through the ice out of Neumayer brought us by several groups of young Emperor Penguin chicks making their way onto the ice for the first time. I hope you enjoy! (See Fig. 41). It really is amazing how unconcerned (or oblivious) these birds are to a huge ship smashing through the ice only a few hundred feet away. They don't really seem to mind us at all. 

Figure 41. Closeup of juvenile Emperor penguins. 


January 19, 2018
The last few days have been generally snowy, windy, and cold. The PolarStern is comfortable and cozy and a majority of the scientists have retreated inside and are spending our time reading, drinking tea, or sleeping. The variability in my circadian rhythm and my dream lucidity have been intense on this expedition. Partly operations driven, I have been alternating between being awake very early in the morning to awake all night, but lately the snow is making me tired and I have been a lot of naps over the last couple days. I have also had some of the most intense dreams of my life down here; I think this is partly due to the 24 hour daylight that we experience at these latitudes... 


January 22, 2018
Lots of SOCCOM action yesterday. McDougle school, congratulations! you are the owner of this newly adopted float. The Cheerwine has been deployed and is on its mission of discovery. I tried to reproduce the Cheerwine logo as best I could (See Fig. 42). I hope you like it. The weather decks were secured to non-essential personnel during the deployment, so only a pre-deployment photo of Cheerwine in the comfort of the ship can be shared. 
Figure 42. Cheerwine - Float #12749 - adopted by McDougle School in North Carolina

The deployment itself was relatively smooth; conditions were difficult - six meter seas with blowing snow - but not critical. My biggest challenge was wrong footed because the bad weather caused several significant changes to our schedule yesterday. You can spend a lot of time on standby when working on ships, keeping mentally focused on the task at hand is important but can be difficult. I intentionally took second before carrying the float on deck to mentally go through the task at hand. I think this helped. The float drop was well timed and the rope pulled through without fouling. 

Calibration sampling lasted well into the night, and as we were wrapping up our experiments, we noticed something that is normal to most of the world but peculiar to us: darkness. Twilight is probably a better description of the light condition outside, but even though our return to a diurnal cycle is not complete it is yet another reminder that our expedition is coming to an end and we are on our way home. There will be another float deployment tomorrow. My stack of float boxes is getting smaller and it feels like Chile is just over the horizon. 


January 23, 2018
Strong float action! Today was a long day of mooring operations sandwiched by a calibration CTD in the morning and a SOCCOM deployment in the evening. 

Congratulations Pennwood Middle School, you just adopted a float. I was told that you wanted to name this one "Infinity and Galaxy" to embody the resolute character of your sixth grade teams. I took some artistic liberties and combined the two names to create and image that I'm calling "Infinite Galaxy" (See Fig. 43). For an artistically challenged scientist, I think this one turned out stellar (pun intended). I hope you like it.  Feel free to email me any questions about oceanography or life on a polar expedition.
Figure 43: Float 12739: Infinity and Galaxy combined into an Infinite Galaxy

The seas have calmed in the last 2 days and the deployment was very smooth (See Figs 44 and 45). We are nearing the Antarctic Peninsula and heading back into the ice for the next 3 days. I hear this is a good region for whale watching, so I am hoping to get lucky and spot one. Hope everyone is doing well wherever you are reading this. 
Figure 44: Float Infinity and Galaxy (#12739): Lowering the float over the side.

Figure 45: Float Infinity and Galaxy (#12739): To infinite galaxies and beyond!

Paul signing off. 


January 29, 2019
A lot has happened since my last update: we spent 4 days back in the ice and then returned to sea for a float deployment. Sea ice is not my area of expertise, and before this cruise I had several misconceptions that I would like to clarify for the reading audience. I originally thought that sea ice was a uniform and homogeneous layer that sat perfectly on top of the ocean; like if you were to stick a cookie sheet with water into the freezer. I am here to tell you that sea ice is not like this at all. Sea ice thickness, shape, and formation history is variable and complicated. 

The more time I spend down here, the more types of sea ice I can recognize, but broadly speaking we have seen five major types of sea ice on this trip: shelf ice, icebergs, growlers, sea ice, and pack ice. Shelf ice is formed over many years as successive years of snowfall over previous years grows the thickness of ice on and close to the Antarctic continent like rings on a tree. 

Shelf ice extends dozens or hundreds of km into the ocean (like at Neumayer). Because the chemical composition of Shelf ice contains very little salt and the pressure and temperature conditions of its formation are different than sea ice, shelf ice tends to be much denser and bluer than sea ice. 

Icebergs are formed when the shelf ice becomes unstable and a portion breaks off. Icebergs (Fig. 46) are characterized by their size (really these things can be like floating city blocks), and their jagged and complicated profile. Icebergs are important for fresh water transport in the Southern Ocean and can support mini ecosystems when groups of penguins decide to make them their home. 
Figure 46. An iceberg
Growlers are smaller bits of shelf ice that are generally formed when icebergs break up. Growlers can be hard to spot as they drift innocently in pack ice, but sorrow waits the hapless mariner who tries to ram through a growler as they will not easily surrender to even an icebreaker and can pose a hazard to navigation! 

Sea ice is ice formed at sea through heat loss to the atmosphere, which acts on broad spatial scales and is driven by seasonal variability and passing storms. After this initial formation however, surface processes like wind and waves take over and, just like the ripples on a sand dune, form the ice into an incredibly complicated structure. 

Pack ice is sea ice that has been pushed together to form what looks like a continuous floe (Fig. 47) and is what I naively thought most Antarctic sea ice looked like. Upon closer inspection, this ice tells a much different story. It has complicated ridges and varied snow depth. Pack ice is formed by ocean heat loss to the atmosphere 
Figure 47. Pack Ice
Over the last week we have seen penguins and minke whales in and around the ice, but the wildlife here is a little more camera shy and the only thing I have been able to photograph are seals because they are relatively easy to see from far away and they apparently will not move for any reason if it is sunny (Fig. 48). 
Figure 47. A resting seal

We also deployed our final SOCCOM float 2 days ago. Congratulations Billings West High School, you have adopted "Bruno", SOCCOM float 12688 (Fig. 48). I hear that Bruno the bear is your school mascot and I hope this float has the paw print of approval. We have 'bearly' received any data, but I am sure that Bruno will go on to discover great things - after a 10 day hibernation of course. The deployment itself was cold and smooth with calm seas and freezing rain. Bruno was deployed at 2314 UTC on February 27 at 64º10.9' S and 47º30.2W. The deployment was originally scheduled for the morning at around 0500. After consulting ice maps and fretting over deployment locations the night before, I emerged on deck with float in hand and contemplated my options; there was a LOT more ice at the deployment location than I had expected. Sea ice can be very damaging to floats: even a beast like Bruno can get stuck in pockets inside the ice or smashed between pieces of ice at the surface. I made a clutch decision and decided to cancel the morning deployment. I struggled with this choice, but sometimes in life it is the hard, but better, decision to trust your gut and say "no" (see skeptical concern in Fig. 49). Our actual deployment location later in the day was much more suitable with scattered sea ice and few of the larger floes (Fig. 50).
Figure 48. The mighty Bruno (#12688)
Figure 49. Paul looking a little concerned

The pace of our operations has increased as we made our way up the slope to the peninsula. We are conducting round the clock CTDs and mooring operations. This is a sprint to the finish; it is hard to imagine that in a little over a weeks time this expedition will be over. I honestly have mixed feelings about leaving: I am obviously very excited to get home to friends and family, but this trip has been such a unique and amazing experience. I hope to be able to take some time on deck over to soak up the last of Antarctica. 
Figure 50. A much nicer spot for deployment of Bruno


February 2, 2019: Land

A quick update for everyone. Even though I have deployed all my floats, work continues on the ship. With so many different projects onboard, we will busy for a few more days. Yesterday our work took us close to Elephant Island. After 49 days of water, snow, and ice, our first rocks caused us great excitement. Elephant Island is an area abundant with life: penguins, sea birds, and whales are seen frequently. I finally was able to photograph a whale (see Fig. 51), but I apologize that the picture does not do this moment justice. While conducting a scientific trawl, an injured penguin decided that the ship would be a nice place to take a rest. As scientific observers, we are obligated to interact with wildlife as little as possible and let nature take its course. The working deck of a ship is also a dangerous place for anything, feathered or not, so we tried several times to shoo the penguin away, but tough little bird was persistent and would not be budged. With nets in the water, it was deemed a safety hazard to continue to try to send the penguin overboard, so we put the bird in a plastic box on deck and it got the nap it craved (see Fig. 52). 

Figure 51: Thar she blows! A fin whale spouts
Figure 52: Chinstrap penguin recovering
Elephant island, named after the elephant seal, was made famous during the Shackleton expedition when the majority of Shackleton's crew stayed on the island for 5 months awaiting rescue that they had no certainty would come. Elephant Island is a very beautiful (see Figs. 53 and 54), but harsh (see Figs. 55 and 56) place and the fact that people could survive here for so long in such desperate circumstances speaks to the resiliency and determination of the human spirit. Sitting comfortably in our warm and cozy ship eating 3 hot meals a day, we have physically traveled to the site of their trials, but mentally I am sure that we have no understanding of the savagery they had to endure. To commemorate our visit we took a group photo (see Fig. 57), and then had some hot chocolate and cake. Science really has progressed in the last 100 years.
Figure 53. Sunset and a beautiful tabular berg.
Figure 54. Same sunset but now with Elephant Island. 
Figure 55. Elephant Island in the morning.
Figure 56. A windswept Elephant Island. 
We are done with our work and heading for the barn. We have 4 days of transit across the Drake Passage before we reach Chili. The weather forecast shows a near constant procession of low pressure systems along the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and it should get a bit bumpy before we reach our destination. 
Figure 57. The impressive science crew group photo on the bow. 


  1. Hey Paul. Wonderful and fascinating blog. I will continue to follow your adventures. Happy sailing and happy new year ahead.

  2. Thanks, Paul! This is Stephanie Kearney from Penn Alexander. My students and I are so thrilled to see Sadie and hear your story. We look forward to learning more about what the SOCCOM floats discover.