Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Under Pressure

Station 15
34° 38.463’N, 71° 29.960’ W
14:25 EST
Winds: 8 knots
Sea Surface Temperature: 82°F

We arrived at Station 15 yesterday under clear skies, over blue water, and through strings of bright yellow sargassum as long as our ship. Flying fish soar through the air (occasionally onto our deck) and sea spray encrusts our gear with coarse grains of salt. The sun is shining today on the deepest station of our final transect across the continental slope. The remaining stations will take us ever closer to our homes.

Although the transit to Station 15 offered several hours reprieve from sampling, it did not relieve us from sample processing. For example, WHOI’s Paul Morris is examining the distributions of Radium and Thorium in seawater. One of four isotopes of interest, Radium-224, has a half-life of 3.66 days and will decay to an undetectable abundance within weeks of sampling. If it isn’t measured now, it won’t be measured at all. Katherine Hoering and Kristin Luttazi have been quantifying the abundance of dissolved inorganic carbon (“DIC”, think baking soda dissolved in water) around the clock, trying to keep pace with influx of newly retrieved samples. Other scientists, such Drew Snauffer from the University of British Columbia, have been preparing their samples for long-term storage by filtering and acidifying large-volumes of water (20 liters each). Long hours, intermittent sleep, and focused work are essential to the success of this very expensive endeavor.

Amid the rush to complete our tasks, we do find time to decompress. Our teams have been sharing many laughs, songs, movies, and good meals (have I mentioned how good the food is?). Morale is high, thanks largely to our chief scientist, Tim Eglinton, and the tremendously supportive crew on Atlantis. Our spirits are also indebted to the juxtaposition of our innate curiosity about the natural world and oceanographic traditions. For example, have you ever wondered what the weight of the ocean could do to a Styrofoam cup? The tiny air pockets are no match for the pressure at 4500 m depth (deeper beneath the waves than the summit of Mt. Whitney rises above sea level) and the cup is squeezed into a distorted miniature version of itself (see photos of a cup before (above) and after (below) traveling to the bottom of the sea aboard our CTD). What kinds of life can exist under such extreme pressure? How does it affect the chemical composition of the sea? How sensitive is it to change over geologic time scales? Questions like these drive our work. Camaraderie, this incredible environment, and Stryofoam cups help us endure the pressures.

1 comment:

  1. Your hands are HUGE...wait...oh...been enjoying the blogs. Keep up the good work. Can't wait to meet up...I'll be just outside Salem at the end of October for a training...mayhaps a meetup?....take care ol' friend.