Friday, September 3, 2010

The Adventures Begin...

Sea spray exploded over the bow as we crashed into the canyon. The ship shuttered--280 feet of vibrating iron beams and rivets--and our stomachs were shackled to it. She rolled to port then began to rise. Heavily. She rolled hard back to starboard before surging through the crest of the 50 foot monster and free-falling into another canyon. Smoke fumed from the stacks, foam washed across the deck, chairs crashed down the hall, the smell of diesel filled the air, and every door was dogged shut. We were in a storm and it wasn't going to stop. Not for 3 more days. We were crossing The Drake Passage.

Despite our technology--GPS navigation systems, satellite communications, powerful diesel engines, and a profound history of engineering achievement--the sea reminded us of what we really were on that day in November, 1998: planetary explorers. We were crossing an ocean ultimately created over billions of years from immense nuclear reactions, exploding stars, massive colliding rocks, volcanic outgassing, and planetary evolution. This was the Southern Ocean, and we were at it's mercy. As scientists, we were there to discover its secrets.

This blog is for students of Earth and planetary science, whether amateur or formally enrolled, who are interested in learning more about science and scientists. What is a "scientist" anyway? We are often categorized based on our areas of expertise: chemist, biologist, physicist, geologist, oceanographer, etc... But that is a little misleading. Perhaps we are best described by what we have in common. Namely, scientists share an innate, insatiable curiosity about the world around us and the desire to find answers to our questions. Sound boring? Consider a few more examples of what some scientists do.
  • trek across the glaciers of Greenland, Antarctica, and the Himalaya to discover changes in our planet's climate that were recorded in the ice itself;
  • live for weeks to months on an icebreaker studying the frozen seas, their currents, chemical compositions, and the organisms that somehow survive there;
  • dive in submarines to explore undersea volcanoes, vast fields of methane hydrates, and the incredible life surrounding hydrothermal vents;
  • fly into the heaving winds of hurricanes to understand how they work and, among other things, improve our ability to predict them (this is a particularly germane example of scientific adventure given Hurricane Earl's expected arrival in Cape Cod tonight);
  • orbit the Earth at 17,000 mph to perform experiments in an environment that is more common in the universe than Earth's surface, but much more difficult to simulate;
  • Walk on the Moon! (Dr. Harrison Schmidt, geologist, Apollo 17, December 1972)
These particular adventures, their associated thrills, and inherent risks, were born of the desire to explore frontiers of knowledge, clarify what is unknown, and ultimately discover and understand something that no one else ever has. Science is the work of a detective; it is not a collection of facts.

My intention is to provide insights into the life of a chemical oceanographer working aboard a research vessel on an upcoming cruise. I may not be able to provide regular updates because the work is demanding and satellite connections are not infallible. However, I do hope to provide sufficient detail to satisfy your curiosity.

We will depart Woods Hole aboard the Research Vessel Atlantis on September 10th and return to port on October 5th. We are heading into the North Atlantic to study carbon dynamics along the North American margin. More on that later...

In the meantime, I'm sitting in my room in Falmouth, MA, tuning-in to NOAA's weather report on my two-way radio, watching the wundermap radar for Cape Cod, and listening to our Planet outside. Hurricane Earl has arrived.

The adventure begins...