A successful Alvin science verification cruise!

Alvin from behind during retrieval after a successful dive. The sub is hanging in the A-frame of the R/V Atlantis, its home ship.

Alvin from behind during retrieval after a successful dive. The sub is hanging in the A-frame of the R/V Atlantis, its home ship.

As you may have noticed, I wasn't able to post anything here while I was at sea. I couldn't connect my computer to the internet and when I tried to use the ship's computers squarespace (where this blog is hosted) wasn't accessible. My apologies.

Hopefully if you were hoping for updates on the newly renovated Alvin sub you were keeping tabs on the official cruise website. There is lots of great content on that site including a slideshow of what it looks like in the sub, a video showing how the sub gets prepped to dive each morning, a post about how new lighting and cameras are enabling better seafloor footage, and an audio description of what this cruise was about and why it was important. It was great to be out at sea with professional outreach folks. I think the quality and diversity of media on the official cruise site show what that can result in.

My main goal was to organize and facilitate a skype class with a group of about 50 students from Cambridge Ringe and Latin School as part of a new Marine Science Internship Program at Harvard. You can read about how that went and see a couple of pictures here. I was thrilled that the skype communications held up for the whole hour, and even more excited to hear that the students were inspired by what they heard. It was definitely fun to be able to answer student's questions, live, from sea.

On a personal level, I feel very lucky to have been able to participate in this cruise. I wasn't able to dive, but I was able to get inside the sub and see what it's like with two new viewports and lots of extra space - so cool! I was also able to watch very experienced scientists and engineers trouble shoot and tweak minor things on the new sub. I learned a lot from that about both working with Alvin and doing science at sea in general. I learned a lot about the aspects of sub operations that you usually don't think about when you head out for a research cruise with a well tested and polished vehicle. I met lots of great people and reconnected with some old friends from a previous cruise. All in all it was a great week. I'd love to answer any questions in the comments below.

There is so much history associated with this amazing little sub (if you can call anything that weights 40,000 pounds little) I am proud to have been present for the beginning of this new chapter.


Heading to sea again!

This Friday I head out to the Gulf of Mexico to participate in the Science Verification Cruise for the newly renovated Alvin submersible. The famous sub has recently undergone a massive rebuild, and undergone all required safety tests. So, now the scientists get to test out all the new and improved capabilities: manipulator arms with more maneuverability, greater visibility, better cameras, more internal space... just to name a few. The cruise has already started and you can read all about what they are up to here on the official site. I will be taking a large, fast catamaran from Gulf Port, Louisiana out to meet the R/V Atlantis for the second leg of the cruise. My main reason for going is to help my advisor, who is the Chief Scientist for this cruise, with education/outreach efforts. How fun to be able to go out to sea and not have to worry about my own experiments! I plan to post some updates both here and on the official website, so stay tuned! 



Like a Kid in a Candy Store

As a relatively young scientist, one of the most exciting parts of my job is the moment I first get some new data. In a few months I may very well be sick of looking at it, and annoyed that it isn't more clear.  But, the anticipation of the first look at something that I know contains the answer to an important question reminds me why I am a scientist. It has the power to offset weeks of frustration or tedium and reinvigorate the scientific process. Today I had one of those moments. 

It doesn't happen with all new data. Some data come gradually as you gather time point after time point. Other data come quickly. Neither of these are as exciting as something that you had to wait for, that you weren't sure would work, and that you knew you would only get one shot at. When you work in the deep sea you don't always get to re-run an expreiment if it doesn't work. When you work in the deep sea, and you build your own sampling devices from scratch, you pretty much keep your fingers crossed from the time you deploy to the time you retrieve. My fingers have been crossed for two years. 


The strange looking thing in the picture above is a titanium pressure housing that we designed to hold a small battery-powered temperature logger called an ibutton. It protects the ibutton from the crushing pressure and toxic chemicals found at hydrothermal vents. It has lived inside an experiment of mine at a site on the Juan de Fuca Ridge in the eastern Pacific for the last two years. Its time sitting in a hydrothermal vent is why it looks white and crusty, and also why it smelled like something between rotten eggs and death. (What can I say? Dirty smelly science is, in fact, the best kind.) I was supposed to get it back, along with two others like it, over a year ago. But, changes to research cruise schedules prevented that. Luckily, we had programmed it to take readings slowly enough (every 9000 seconds or 2.5 hours) so that the battery would last a few years... just in case.

Today I got these little guys back, via FedEx, from a collaborator who was awesome enough to pick up my experiments for me while they were out at sea. I didn't know whether the pressure housings would successfully protect the temperature loggers. I didn't know if the temperature logger's batteries would last as long as they were supposed to, or if they would work properly on the bottom of the ocean. I didn't even know if my experiments would still be there after 2 years. So today when I went to download the data from the temperature loggers, and I saw strings of thousands of temperature measurements, I got excited. Kid in a candy store excited. There may have been dancing.

These temperature data are not groundbreaking. They will not cure cancer or help solve climate change. What they will do is provide a picture of how temperature fluctuates at one deep sea hydrothermal vent. It is a small piece to a big, complicated puzzle - one of those thousand piece puzzles with no edges or corner pieces that consist entirely of repeating shapes and similar colors. These sites are hard to get to, so most of the data we have consists of brief snapshots collected during research cruises years apart. These temperature records will provide environmental context for biological data I am slowly gathering from the experiment of which they were a part. 

It is a long way from these data to a better understanding of what microbes are doing in vent environments, and even farther to how those activities fit into global biogeochemical cycles, which is what I am ultimately shooting for. However, today was a small step, and therefore it was a good day in science-land.

A New Age in Ocean Exploration

Technology like Google Maps and Google Earth make it seem like the entire world is at our finger tips. So, you might not believe me when I tell you that Earth is largely unexplored, but its true. The vast majority of the sea floor has never been seen by human beings. This is in stark contrast to Mars and the moon for which we have far more detailed maps because of satellite technology that is unable to "see" through water. However, emerging technology is making this distant deep sea world much more accessible. I'll start with a story to show you what I'm talking about... 

Live streaming video of my experiment at the bottom of the Pacific

Live streaming video of my experiment at the bottom of the Pacific

Just the other day I was sitting in my office on the east coast, interacting with a research expedition that was at sea studying hydrothermal vents in the eastern pacific.  They were visiting a site where I had deployed an experiment two years before, which I was really hoping they would be able to collect with the robotic submersible (ROV) ROPOS they were working with. I got an email from my collaborator at sea that morning saying that this was the day! I went to the website where the expedition was live streaming both cruise updates and video footage from the submersible on the sea floor (connected to the ship via cables and then sent out to the Internet through satellite connections) in real time. I was able to keep an eye on what the sub was doing all day long. When the time came and I saw (with much relief) that the team had located my experiment, I noticed lots of microbial growth on my samplers and wondered if they might be clogged, which would have changed the experimental conditions. I called in to a satellite phone, and while I was looking at my experiments I was able to request that the team on board make specific temperature measurements that would tell me how my samplers were functioning. It was a short phone call because folks at sea are very busy and satellite phone time is expensive, but I was able to listen to the audio from the ship's control room that intermittently accompanied video from the sea floor when the folks on board had something to narrate, and I could hear the temperature measurements. I grabbed my notebook from the cruise two years before and was able to see that the temperature had decreased significantly in the two years since my experiment. The cool thing is that I would not have known I needed those measurements if I had not had eyes on the sea floor, but there I was in my office on land far from my study site.

This summer there were 5 different expeditions that I know of in different locations on different ships that were streaming live video from sea. You watched archived video footage from the group that collected my samplers here, but they won't be live streaming again until next summer.  When I first went to sea to do research in the summer of 2010 I was aware of any ships live streaming from the sea floor, so technology is definitely changing how we study this largely unexplored world. However, streaming video from sea is just the beginning. The same expedition that collected my samplers was deploying cameras and seismic sensors that will soon be connected to a network of fiber optic cables that have been laid in order to transmit power to specific sites of interest on the seafloor and relay data back, to land in real time, from the depths. So, soon I'll be able to watch live video from my site even when a research ship is nowhere near. These first sensors in certain locations are just the beginning. It's hard to imagine how deep sea research will change when we can plug instruments into a power source on the sea floor and no longer rely on batteries with limited lifespan to power our instruments, when we can have eyes on our sites year round as opposed to the sampling season when ships can safely access our sites, when we can gather a continuous stream of data rather than a few snapshots when we are lucky enough to get out to sea, and perhaps most importantly when all that data is publicly available to scientists who might not be able to get out to sea, to teachers for use in classrooms, and to curious folks everywhere.

We are entering a new age in deep sea exploration, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it.