Friday, May 13, 2016

Science in The Middle of Nowhere

13 May 2013, Friday the 13th huh? How cute.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is rather embarrassing. These past weeks I have been so enthralled by the differences between life at sea and life on land that I completely forgot to write about the scientific data we will be collecting. Now we are a mere 10 hours away from arriving at The Middle of Nowhere, Ocean and beginning our survey, so I’d better start talking science.

The primary data we are interested in collecting is a map of the seafloor depth in our survey area, which will be measured using a multibeam sonar. This instrument sends out a sound pulse at regular intervals and listens to the reflections of the pulse from the seafloor. We may then infer the seafloor depth by how long the sound pulse takes to return to the ship. At least that’s the quick version.

As a bonus, the sound pulse from the multibeam sounds like a bird chirping. You can hear this chirp throughout the entire ship every ten seconds or so, 24/7. Now I know there are quite a few bird-lovers out there, but I can’t help but ask: Would you still love your birds when they are keeping you up at night?

The data collection feed of the multibeam sonar is shown to the right. In this photo we are passing a seamount on our starboard side. Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes.

Of course, creating such a map is rarely so simple. There are two other types of data we are collecting to refine the multibeam data. The first is position data from a GPS receiver, so that we can precisely locate where the ship was when collecting data. This is incredibly important since we would otherwise place the map in a slightly offset position compared to its true location. The GPS we use is a Trimble NetR9, which is a little bigger than the GPS in your phone. It consists of an antenna and a receiver, which we have set up on the deck above the bridge. The antenna communicates with the GPS satellites and records its position in the receiver. The entire setup would normally be powered by a car battery, but we can luckily just plug the receiver into the ship’s AC power. Why go through all this trouble? Well, your phone can probably tell you where you are to about 4-5 meters (~12-15 ft). This guy will be able to, with a little elbow grease, tell us where we are to about 0.1 meters (~4 inches). If we weren’t continually moving we could do even better, but that’s a story for another day.

Myself and computer technician Daniel Yang  inspecting the GPS antenna mounted on the deck of the ship. Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes.

The final instrument we will be using is called an XBT, which is used to measure the speed of sound through water. This directly affects how long it will take the sound pulse from the multibeam to return to the ship, so we really want to know it well so we can properly estimate the depth of the seafloor. The XBT itself is a cannon that launches a torpedo-shaped sensor into the ocean to collect the measurement. The whole thing is a 2.3 caliber instrument and needs to be handled with care, especially when armed. Luckily the ocean is a little hard to miss.

Once we have our map, the fun will begin. See, our goal is not just to map out the seafloor, but also to figure out how well we can measure motion on the seafloor. This could prove very useful when studying earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides out at sea since these phenomena are otherwise very difficult to observe directly. In order to test this method, we will actually be collecting multiple maps of the seafloor and then comparing them to see how well we can tell them apart. If we can routinely identify differences to within 1 meter (~3 ft) or so, I will be ecstatic.

-John DeSanto

Monday, May 9, 2016

Dinner on the High Seas

9 May 2016
It’s Monday on board the R/V Roger Revelle, and I am impressed that I am even aware of the day of the week. The days have begun to bleed into each other, but Monday is one of the few exceptions. Granted I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mondays to begin with, just indifferent. However, on the ship Monday may easily be my least favorite day of the week, because it is the day that is furthest from the next Sunday, which is steak-dinner day.

The picture to the right shows some of the food that is prepared for us during lunch. Now imagine one of those trays filled with freshly grilled steak... Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes.

Long story short, the meals that the stewards prepare for us in the galley are excellent. They are also all-you-can-eat, although care must be taken when doing so because we have a distinctly limited supply. Wasting food is probably one of the worst things you can do on the ship, so I try to adhere to three principles with regards to my meals:

1) Eat everything you take.
2) Take only what you think you can eat.
3) Never directly touch any food.

The first two principles are perhaps self-explanatory. The third is because we want to be very cleanly since a bug could spread like wildfire among the crew. There are always tongs or a scoop available to take food with. We are encouraged to use them, lest the entire tray, easily enough to feed ~20 people, be thrown out.

Also, dinner on Sunday is steak. Boy howdy do I love Sundays.

While we’re on the subject of food, let’s talk about drink as well. All American research vessels are dry. No alcohol. No illicit substances. No exceptions. I don’t mind so much, though I know folks who may. On the flip side, between the healthy, delicious meals and the draconian libation policies, going on a research cruise is a great way to detox. You’ll be clean by the end of one of these stints whether you want to be or not!

-John DeSanto

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Of Sea and Space

6 May 2016
I would like to ask you a question, dear reader: Would you ever like to travel to outer space?

For myself, I have always figured the answer to that question is a flat “no”. After all, space is big and cold and wants me dead. Not to mention that in leaving the planet you are accepting the fact that you will be cooped up in some small space shuttle with limited human contact and no means of leaving your living enclosure lest you perish alone in the void.

I bring this up because at least on a number of superficial levels life on a ship is not too different. For all intents and purposes, right now the R/V Roger Revelle is not only my home, it is my entire world. We’re not completely isolated, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to create this post, but we are pretty close. Were I to choose to leave the vessel, there would probably be little waiting for me now other than a slow, lonely death in the sea.

In the picture to the right, there are three life lines along the stern of the ship to keep people from falling off. Can you see them? Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes.

A man overboard is no joke. Right now the ship is steaming ahead at 13 knots, which translates out to about 6.7 meters (or ~20 ft) per second. You are not going to be able to keep up with that, and if no one sees you fall off the deck it could take a while before anyone realizes you’re missing. Even if you are wearing a life vest, chances are the seawater is colder than your body temperature, so hypothermia becomes a real danger. At that point, it may take a minor miracle for the crew to come to your rescue. The take home point is to try to stay in pairs on the deck, especially when you go out to the edge. Hard hats and life vests are also required if you are doing any work out there.

In fact, safety in general is a major concern. If a fire or something were to break out on board, it would be everyone’s problem, which is why we review the safety protocols at the beginning of the cruise and at regular intervals during longer voyages. If that alarm bell goes off, you immediately drop everything and muster to your station, no questions asked.

This post is perhaps a little more grim than previous ones, but I do feel it is important to write about the types of risks we have to be prepared to deal with. They are something rather different compared to
the daily risks a person might encounter on land, and something that anyone who will spend an extended time at sea must be prepared to live with. On the flip side, the view of the ocean from the deck is spectacular, especially if you can catch the sunrise or sunset. I imagine the view of Earth from a shuttle would probably be similar.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Motion on the Ocean

4 May 2016
The seas are calm. Uncharacteristically so, I’ve been told, not that I mind. Looking out, the swell is mesmerizing, just this constant undulation of the sea surface. We saw some flying fish scurrying away from the ship. They probably think we are some sort of predator. We think the sight is pretty neat. Then I see a plastic bottle floating by, no note, and sigh.

Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes.

As calm as it is, the ship is still constantly rocking. The R/V Roger Revelle is large enough that we don’t feel any of the small waves, only the larger, gentler ones. There are two types of motion: roll, the sideways rocking, and pitch, the forward rocking. Spend two minutes on the open seas and you will become well acquainted with them both. Of course, these motions are what cause seasickness. Some people claim to not get seasick, but it is probably always a good idea to bring some dramamine.

Being seasick is awful, but there are a couple ways to ease your pain if it does hit you. Many of my colleagues say that going out on deck and watching the horizon helps, since it gives you a stable reference point. I like going belowdecks where the pitch and roll are smaller. Apparently ginger also helps, if you can get your hands on some. I’m not sure how true this is, but won’t question it. I just like ginger.

The constant motion of the ship affects things beyond seasickness, which is likely to wear off after a day or three. Everything is bolted down; desks, beds, you name it. Things that aren’t bolted down (chests or scientific equipment) are probably tied down with ropes or ratchets. Chairs have rubber feet or some other setup to keep them from sliding. For smaller tools and such there are non-skid pads you can lay out on tables.

Doors must never be left ajar, especially those that lead out onto the decks. Those are heavy and can really hurt someone if they swing shut. Case in point, it is a bad idea to clasp your hand around the edge of a door. Good way to lose a finger or four. Most of the interior doors can be left open though, since there are electromagnets on the walls that will prevent them from swinging shut. You wouldn’t be able to pry a door off of some of the stronger magnets no matter how hard you tried! Of course, it’s probably a good idea to keep most doors closed anyways, so as to help with the air conditioning. But never slam a door, since it is generally a safe assumption that somewhere on the ship someone is taking a hard-earned rest, no matter the time of day.

-John DeSanto

Update on the Fuel Tanker

3 May 2016
A quick update on the fueling from yesterday. It turns out the Captain had gone out of his way to take some pictures as well. They are quite spectacular so I'd like to share a few. One is a panorama of the tanker approaching our ship during sunrise, and another shows a view of it similar to the picture we posted before. The last is a candid photo of the chicken James and I heard; we weren't crazy!

Credit for the photos goes to Captain David Murline.

-John DeSanto

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Fueling Station

2 May 2016
It has been about a day or so since we left port, and already something interesting is happening. Simply put, the ship is running low on gas so we are currently refueling. However, this is not so simple a process as taking your car down to the gas station; we’re a little big and need a lot of fuel in order to run for the next few months. What has happened is perhaps a little more convenient: If we cannot go to the gas station, we will have the gas station come to us!

Well, my analogy is only about half true. We have met up with a tanker, which has sidled up to the side of the Revelle and is currently transferring fuel to it. About 100,000 gallons worth of fuel. The whole process will take many hours, but has to be done somehow. Personally, I get nightmares just thinking about the logistics of organizing such an operation, and let’s not even mention the bill!

-John DeSanto
Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes. This tanker just delivered more gallons of fuel to the Revelle then I could probably count in a lifetime.

PS- As an aside, James and I swear we heard a rooster crow from the tanker when we took the picture above. Sadly, we were not able to capture it on film. Perhaps our compatriots will be having a particularly fresh meal in the near future?

My New Home

1 May 2016

I have just arrived at the R/V Roger Revelle, a research vessel in the Scripps fleet and my home for the next few weeks. We are currently docked in Phuket, Thailand, but will be leaving shortly for a research cruise.

This will be a student-led research cruise, something that is rather uncommon. Simply put, ship time is incredibly expensive due to operational costs, in small supply due to the limited number of research vessels, and in high demand due to the many folks who do research in marine settings. However, there is a special program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography called the UC Student Ship Funds program, which exists in order to allow students at Scripps and a few other UC universities an opportunity to organize and lead experiments at sea to aid in their research.

Basically, a number of days of ship time are set aside each year, and a call is sent out soliciting students to write proposals about how they would like to use those days. My colleagues Dan Bassett, Soli Garcia, and myself wrote one such proposal and it was green-lit. So here I am: sitting in a ship in Thailand waiting to set out towards the Middle of Nowhere, Ocean in order to collect some data about the topography of the seafloor. Sadly Dan and Soli were unable to make it to the cruise; I am instead joined by another colleague James Holmes.

Credit for the photo goes to James Holmes. For the next two weeks, this vessel will not only be our home, it will almost literally be our entire world.

I would like to now share a brief word about travel. If you wind up in the academic sphere, chances are you will end up flying around a good bit, if not for field surveys then for conferences. Of course, when you fly chances are at some point you will get delayed.

Take my flight to Thailand these past few days as an example. Between a 3-hour delay in San Diego leading to a missed flight in San Francisco, a 3-hour delay in Beijing, and a ~3-hour wait in Thai customs, I estimate it took me upwards of 56 hours to reach my final destination. Even better, my luggage got misplaced during transit and was not at my final destination, in which there was an instrument (a GPS receiver and antenna) that we intended to install on the ship during our cruise.

I do not mention any of these things to try and garner any sort of pity or such, but rather as a demonstration of how such things can go wrong during these kinds of projects. In fact, rarely on a field survey does everything go as planned. It can be quite demoralizing, but at some point you have to ask yourself, “Well, what am I supposed to do now?” The answer is remarkably simple: Just do the experiment.

Since I had made it to the ship, and had the most critical equipment (a hard drive for data storage) on my person, we could set things up using the GPS receiver James had brought. It’s certainly not an optimal situation, but nothing we can’t recover from.

-John DeSanto

PS- My bag did arrive eventually, so I have gotten hold of my stuff and the GPS equipment I was transporting. Nothing was lost.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make:

My name is John, and I am a geophysicist.

That may not carry too much weight; after all, there is no Geophysicists Anonymous or anything. It's just as well that there isn't, because there is no shame in my chosen profession anyways. However, sometimes I can't help but wonder how much a statement like the one above might mean to the general public. Perhaps I've just been watching too many disaster movies lately; those are really good for identifying the fact that geophysics exists, but generally take what I'd like to call a "liberal artistic license" with respect to the actual science involved. I think we can do better than Hollywood. Consider this journal my honest attempt to spread the word about what folks study in the field of geophysics, how they go about doing so, and the experiences they may gather along the way.

As for the "glamorous life" bit, well, I'm a grad student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, affiliated with the University of California San Diego. Quite a few folks in the department end up going to sea, and I am no different. That's why over the next few weeks I will be writing about life on a research vessel, and the science that goes on thereabouts.

And since it is probably poor form to end one of these without a picture, here's a sunset over the Scripps pier:

Credit for the photo goes to Sasha Carter.

-John DeSanto