Monday, September 6, 2010

Why go to sea?

September 10th. That is the day we leave port and begin living a "National Geographic Moment" for almost 1 month. Wrestling a 500 pound lead weight swinging from the crane as the ship rolls and pitches. Stinging your fingertips with freezing-cold water pulled from 4 kilometers below the surface. Working on the deck with 10 people who were strangers only days ago, but now who are colleagues that you trust with your life. You are part of a team. You focus. You take the A-frame in. Stop. Shackle the instruments to the line. Stop. A-frame out. Watch the Boatswain. His arm is up. His finger is tracing circles in the sky. Stay focused. His fist clenches above his hardhat. STOP. And you do stop. And you continue to focus. But all the while you notice the sun is rising behind him. It hasn't breached the horizon yet, but is illuminating clouds above that didn't exist moments ago. When you started this morning the sky was black and the your entire world stretched from the illuminated deck below your feet to the blackness just beyond. The sound of water splashing against the ship was your only assurance an ocean was out there, but there was nothing else for hundreds of miles. You wonder what your teammates might be seeing so you turn around. The sky is subtly purple, the sea is metallic, and a single storm petrel is cruising between the waves. Focus. You turn around and the sun has already breached the horizon. A red hot coal lighting the sky, warming your face, and casting long shadows that get shorter by the minute. These are the days that keep drawing us back to the sea.

We will be heading into the North Atlantic on September 10th for an opportunity to explore our Earth. We aim to take samples of seawater, its chemical constituents, and sediments from a series of "stations" between Nova Scotia and the Mid-Atlantic Bight. What could we possibly learn there that we haven't already? After all, ships have been traversing these waters for nearly 500 years. And it is just saltwater. Right? All fair questions. It turns out that the vast majority of what we understand about Earth was learned within roughly the last 50 years. And we still have a long way to go. Looking down on our planet from above, it is clear that the vast majority of its surface is ocean blue. A sapphire gem reflecting the light of our sun. Take a look for yourself at what I consider to be one of the most beautiful of human endeavors--a NASA video of our Earth spinning through 1 full day (NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio).

We have accumulated a sufficient body of knowledge to create the cameras, communications, and rockets necessary to launch a satellite into space, turn it around, record photons bouncing off Earth's surface, and finally send the images back to us. More importantly, we had the vision to do so. By any measure, humans are a small component of the universe. But we are the only component of the universe (so far as we know) that actively tries to understand itself. This video is proof. It is also proof that the ocean is much larger than you or I. It would take a tremendous amount of time and resources to explore all of it. And even if we did, we cannot forget the most fundamental variable of all: time. What we observe today will not necessarily manifest tomorrow. Furthermore, new observations beget new questions, and new questions beget new perspectives on what needs further study.

These factors--the enormity of the oceans, their variability over time, and novel insights--are what makes oceanography interesting, but also challenging. The working environment doesn't help either. One of the first orders of business on a research cruise is lashing down all of our equipment. Nothing of value or heft should be sitting untethered before leaving port or else it will fall. The ocean will see to it. It is relentless, constantly working the ship, wave after wave, trying to bring it down. The high humidity and vibrations from the engines can change the responsiveness and sensitivity of our instruments. And those are the good days. On bad days when wind are blowing at 30 knots, when your ship is listing 30°, when the water is breaching the rail, you simply do not work for safety's sake. And if anything breaks on the high seas, it will not work again unless you are very clever (either at repairing instruments with improvised tools, or at thinking ahead and packing spare parts). The oceans are unexplored because they challenge us.

So, why go to sea? We know it can be a thrilling adventure. We also know that the ocean is largely unexplored, both physically and intellectually. But I would also argue that we go to sea because of urgency. Science can be an incredibly slow process, and surely we've all contemplated this at one time or another in own lives. "If only science could find cures for diseases before our loved ones succumb to them." Or perhaps you have considered this generality: "If I knew then what I know now, I might have done things differently." We are collectively, often unknowingly, driving the largest experiments that this planet has ever seen. We are redistributing elements and energy throughout the Earth at an industrial pace. We are growing in number exponentially, and our demands for food and other resources are following suit. We know that the Earth must respond in some way to these changes, but we haven't even constrained how it works in our absence. We go to sea and hopefully become more informed and responsible stewards of our home.

We go to sea September 10th.

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