Antarctica Part VII- Mission Accomplished!

I’m happy to report (I’ll be it a bit late) that the OBH (Ocean Bottom Hydrophone… for those of you just joining us) has been safely recovered! It is now snugly packed on board the R/V Araon and prepared for transport back to NOAA. Our first attempt to contact our instrument was a success (we sang to it, it sang back… how I love acoustics); however, the glorious sunshine that graced us during our recovery was unfortunately accompanied by 45-knot winds. The ship, which is large and generally stable, pitched in the wind. Our instrument is robust, but not unbreakable, and requires hoisting onto the deck via an onboard winch once it appears at the oceans surface. This translates to a lot of potential swinging – particularly in choppy seas. As usual the crew of the R/V Araon did not disappoint. They recommended a delay, and the recovery was postponed.

Brett and his "beard-cap".  Who says scientists don't have a sense of humor?

Brett and his “beard-cap”. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

What was not postponed, however, was our end of research cruise celebration. Despite the delay our research team was treated to a feast! Korean wine, sashimi and tempura, even chocolate cakes were served. We ate until we could not eat any more, and made merry in the mess hall until our sides split from laughing (ok, there may have been some dancing in the lounge as well, a cap with a beard knit into it, and Christmas carols). It was a glorious way to celebrate the ‘almost end of cruise’.

While the following day’s 8 AM recovery seemed early given the night’s festivities, the entire operation went off without incident. Our instrument appeared as predicted after the release command was sent, and the crew deftly maneuvered her onboard (despite another pick up in the wind). For me, the moment was one of blissful relief. This was my first large-scale recovery (of what I hope will be many). This trip was a gift and an opportunity, to successfully accomplish my mission was glorious. Further, the anticipation for seeing the instrument when she appeared from ~1000 m depth had been building for months. When it was finally placed on board I completely forgot about the lack of sleep. It was amazing. I was struck by how little bio-fouling took place (although admittedly the instrument was well beyond the photic zone), other than a thin film and what appeared to be a handful of deep water limpets.

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

Hydrophone recovery attempt #1- notice the white caps in the background?

By comparison, the OBS (Ocean Bottom Seismometer) recovery was significantly more dramatic.  Two OBS’s were deployed last year, both locations are currently covered in ice.  To recover our instruments the R/V Araon’s ice breaking capabilities were put into full use.  The ship was used to break, and then clear, a hole in the ice directly above where the OBS was deployed.  Nature abhors a vacuum, so as soon as the ice was cleared (which took hours) it would quickly drift back into position.  Despite this, the ship’s captain managed to clear an opening in the ice about the size of a small lake.  this required copious amounts of circular ice breaking, the ship track lines were dizzying.  The operation, however, was brilliantly executed.  The OBS was released directly into the center of the clearing (much to our relief).

Overall we successfully recovered one OBS, one OBH, deployed ~20 CTD casts (more if you consider that at times we deployed two separate instruments), and we successfully deployed to 500 m oceanographic mooring. Most of this was done in close proximity to the Drygalski Ice Tongue, which lived up in full to its reputation.

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The Drygalski Ice Tongue, just prior to the OBS recovery

 

While our team was able to ride the euphoria of a successful mission for some time, I must admit the days following the end of the cruise were hard. Brett, the Kiwi scientist from NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmosphere) joined us on the Araon for the duration of the cruise, but would not sail back with us. Similarly to our Italian colleagues Brett left via helicopter and disappeared across the ice. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that in a landscape that exists at such a large scale, that relationships here are formed so quickly. It’s a silly metaphor but I suppose this is not altogether unlike the ice  itself, which freezes quickly (pancake ice anyone?), but has the potential to stay intact for many years. In any case we returned to the mouth of Terra Nova bay and bid a rushed goodbye to our dear friend. I hope he makes it home in time for Christmas.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

Our research team (minus photographer Brett) enjoying Korean barbeque.

As for the rest of our team? We’ll spend Christmas on the ship. We should be back in Lyttelton, New Zealand by December 27th, and will disembark shortly therafter. For now, we have a new group of Korean scientists on the ship. They have been at Jang Bogo for various durations, some only a week, others as much as a year! Additionally, we have a new group of Italian scientists from Mario Zuchelli Station who are in transit home. I’d thought my Italian lessons were over… I suppose we’ll have to see.

 

More on Christmas and the northbound transit soon!

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

 

**Disclaimer — This post was written a few days ago… but due to lack of internet I wasn’t able to post it. Stay tuned for notes on how Christmas turned out, and what our return to New Zealand looked like**

 

 

 

 

Antarctica Part VI- Scale

While I have spent a lot of time on the ocean – working on boats, doing research, and just playing – this is by far the largest ship I’ve worked on, and the research that is being done in this environment far outweighs in sheer size the work that I’ve done in the past. During my time at the Five Finger Lighthouse my crew ran a boat small enough to be carried up the intertidal and onto shore as needed. The ship that I’m sailing on today can break through ice thicker than the R/V Noble Steed was long. To stand next to the R/V Araon as she basks proudly in the center of the frozen Ross Sea…? Well, it gives one a new sense of maritime dimension.

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Me walking across the sea ice leaving the Jang Bogo Antarctic Station on my way to the R/V Araon. ~9:30 PM.

However, no matter how many metaphors I write, examples I give, or how many sentences I write, there is no good way to express just how vast this part of the world is (remember it took weeks to get here).  Just when I thought I was beginning to understand the immensity of my situation I was privileged enough to go on a helicopter ride with Senior Pilot Ricky Park. The view of the Araon from above made this daunting ship look like a toy compared to the Antarctic landscape, and that was from just a few thousand feet.

 

 

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View of the Antarctic Continent as we were leaving Terra Nova Bay and headed for our oceanographic cruise through the Ross Sea

The oceanographic work we are conducting is accordingly scaled up.  We are deploying moorings a half a kilometer long, recovering instruments from 1000 m down (that’s 3300 feet!), and we are collecting sea water with a rosette larger than the ship elevator (not to mention that the ship has an elevator).  Our instruments have been soaking, listening, for a year now.  We are hoping to get them back.  The data these instruments collect is from an environment even less hospitable than the one I see out my porthole windows.  But that pictures will be painted best with sound, not pictures, and for that we’ll have to wait.

 

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Possibly the most spectacular scenery for preparing moorings. We were fortunate to have calm seas and clear skies for both mooring deployments.

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

Let the Science Begin: Antarctica Part… V?

(Warning: this is possibly a redundant post for those of you I’ve managed to email)

Another update from the bottom of the world.

We’ve departed the Jang Bogo research station with a considerably lighter ship! We unloaded countless shipping containers millions of gallons of fuel, enough food to feed a small army for years, and most of our passengers (including my favorite helicopter pilots).

We are now only seven passengers on this massive ship, with a crew of I think 35 to guide us through the Ross Sea. It is now that the actual science part of our cruise kicks in. Yesterday afternoon Jurgen (Geman geophysicist from KUM), Won Sang (KOPRI Chief scientist- geophysicist), and Sukyoung (KOPRI seismologist/environmental acoustician) and I assembled an ocean bottom seismometer (OBS) that will be deployed on the next leg of the trip (I’ll be gone by then). Today we assembled a 500m mooring that we will deploy first thing tomorrow morning. We conducted one CTD cast (to get info on the water column) at about 8pm and one more around midnight. Feeling science-y yet? Me too.

Because it’s 24 hours of daylight (bright as noon all the time) the crew is split into shifts, and if we’re willing we can do science in what should be the middle of the night, but looks just like early afternoon. We opted not to do too many middle of the night missions, but it blows my mind that we could. On board the R/V Araon we now get four meals a day. Breakfast at 7am, lunch at 11:30, dinner at 5:30 and ‘late meal’ at 10:00pm. Last night’s late meal was wonton soup in seaweed broth, and if I ever complained about the food on the ship I take it all back. It was excellent! I tried to convey my gratitude to tHe chef (one of my newest Korean friends on board the ship), but my Korean is still terrible. All I managed to say was thank you, and then bowed and smiled.

In less technical news I had one of the most amazing wildlife experiences of my life, though it will surprise you to hear that it was not with a whale but a seal! The seals here are extremely lazy, and hard to make move or even acknowledge the gigantic ship. They generally bask in the sunlight conserving energy (nice life). Because of this it’s fairly easy to walk across the ice and visit with them. Which of course we did as soon as we were able (no worries as a good ecologist I tried not to alter their behavior). Silly me forgot her camera (maybe better, the experience wasn’t about watching) but this seal was enormous! And although it didn’t move when it saw us it did something better… He began to vocalize.

Polar seals sound just like aliens (I’ve blogged about this before), it’s otherworldly. Typically they only make sounds in water but this seal starting singing/ringing/cooing on ice! It was the same type of sound I spent a year searching for when I was analyzing Arctic data but never got to see in person. To hear this kind of sound without a hydrophone, without a microphone, just to sit next to this massive seal and hear it ringing like a bell was the most amazing thing this acoustic ecologist could have possibly imagined. I nearly cried.

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I did manage to make a recording of the call, but the quality is poor. I'll try and clean it up when I come home and get it posted for all the world to hear. Needless to say now I want to study polar seal communication, and the ecology of Antarctic pinniped species.

For now a few photos of other seals will have to do, and the sound will have to follow.

Your Antarctic Correspondent,
Michelle

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Antarctica Part IV: The continent

After a nine day sail the R/V Araon arrived in Jang Bogo Research Station! As a first time visitor to Antarctica the view not only took my breath away, but dumbfounded me. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and admittedly I haven’t found the words yet to describe it- the sheer scale of the landscape leaves me at a complete loss.  Luckily ORCAA sent me with a camera, which should speak a little more clearly than I can these days.

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Ross Sea Ice two days sail from the continent

After a short stop in Terra Nova Bay on Saturday to bid our Italian colleagues goodbye, the Araon spent ~48 hours breaking through 1-2m thick ice (the noise was deafening and impressive). The ship, as I’ve mentioned before, is state of the art and extremely efficient at it’s job- breaking ice.  The frozen sea stretches in front of us dauntingly, but the ship is not phased as she bows over the ice which creaks and breaks under the weight of the ship, blazing our path toward the continent.

After quite some time on the ship I think both passengers and crew were eager to step onto the ice and  set foot on the continent of Antarctica.  Admittedly, the only thing which seemed to satiate the passengers onboard the ship were the frequent sightings of Adelie penguins, and a very long encounter with an emperor penguin that curiously watched as we stopped to rearrange our cargo deck.

An Emperor Penguin curiously watches the R/V Araon, making its way across the ice over a half an hour to approach for a closer look

An Emperor Penguin curiously watches the R/V Araon, making its way across the ice over a half an hour to approach for a closer look

While I can’t underplay the thrill of watching penguins from the ship, it did not compare to the excitement of reaching the continent itself.

The Jang Bogo research station is one of the most impressive facilities I’ve ever seen.  It is outfitted to comfortably hold multiple research teams investigating a range of environmental features including space weather, geophysics and seismology, geology, and oceanography.  It is also outfitted with an indoor greenhouse where salad greens are grown for consumption throughout the year, a state of the art gym (with climbing wall), an espresso bar, multiple lounges and conference rooms, wet and dry lab space, and considerable charm.

The team currently in residence at Jang Bogo are extremely gracious, and generously toured me through the facility within moments of stepping foot inside the door.  The facility, which officially opened its doors last February, is nearing completion, and various research projects are currently underway. Many of the researchers currently at the base will accompany us on the return journey to Christchurch, NZ.

For now, the crew has been working round the clock (the never setting sun allows for very high productivity- human and primary) to unload supplies, scientific cargo, and fuel for the base.  Tomorrow our helicopter pilots will begin flying missions as various ice dynamic studies progress, and in two days time we will set sail for our oceanographic cruise.

More to come.

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle

Michelle sailing through the Ross Sea en route to Jang Bogo Antarctic Base

Michelle sailing through the Ross Sea en route to Jang Bogo Antarctic Base

 

 

 

Antarctica the Day After Tomorrow: Part Three

The day after tomorrow we will arrive in icy waters on the R/V Araon. It will take another few days to break through the ice and arrive at the Jang Bogo. The overarching mission of the KOPRI project is to investigate ice dynamics in the Ross Sea/ Terra Nova Bay region, with particular interest in the Drygalvski Ice Tongue. We’ve just entered Antarctic waters (we passed the 60 degree parallel late last night), and we’re getting closer.

An interlude: there is a lot of time to burn on the ship. Most people spend time working (I’m writing my dissertation proposal, and processing data for my first manuscript) but in the evenings, after our daily science meeting, we watch movies. Last night we watched “The Day After Tomorrow”. The premise of the movie is far fetched- paleoclimatologist (Dennis Quaid) predicts a catastrophic climactic shift 100-1000 years in the future and it actually takes place instantaneously in the next 48 hours. Due to the melting of Antarctica the earth’s ocean has become desalinized, the Gulf Stream has cooled, and climate goes haywire throwing us into an instantaneous ice age.

Is it possible? To the best of my scientific knowledge- no. However, there’s an interesting line in the movie when Dennis Quaid (NOAA scientist) asserts, “We know that Antarctica has been melting, but no one knows how much fresh water it puts into the ocean, or understands anything about ice dynamics!” Evidently the entire fiasco could have been avoided if we just knew more about Antarctic ice!

Well, the movie had it way off, but they got one thing close to right. We are investigating ice dynamics in Antarctica. The NOAA-Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) is part of an integrated effort to understand just that -ice dynamics in Antarctica. The hydrophone that I’m sent to recover for PMEL (in cooperation with KOPRI) has been listening to the sound of shifting ice. If you are unaware that ice makes noise, well you have been missing one of life’s great sound effects. While I haven’t had the chance to listen to Antarctic sea ice you may remember from a previous blog post that I was part of a team that analyzed a years worth of acoustic data from the Arctic where winter sea ice abounds. The sea ice sings, wheezes, moans, cracks, and whirs. It sounds like an abiotic opera, and could easily be the character in a science fiction movie (Marvin the Martian was a Bearded seal… remember? Well, perhaps Sea Ice is his alien companion?).

But these squeaks, wheezes, and moans are more than the musical byproducts of ice- they are data. Sound can be used to infer the state of the ice, whether it is melting, moving, or quaking. In short, similar to using passive acoustic monitoring to understand ecosystem dynamics of baleen whale species, we can also use passive acoustic monitoring to understand something about polar ice dynamics. And if Dennis Quaid has taught us anything it’s that ignoring Antarctic sea ice could destroy Manhattan, this weekend (well… maybe not). More likely, understanding Antarctic ice dynamics will give us critical information linked to sea level rise and shifting climactic regimes. Not quite as sexy as destroying Manhattan- but equally as important.

Over and Out.

Your Antarctic Correspondent, Michelle

 

PS- Did I mention we passed the 60 Degree Parallel! I’m at the bottom of the world!

Antarctica Part II: Setting Sail

We are at sea! After a several day weather delay at our port in Lyttleton, NZ the R/V Araon has finally departed and is making her way south. The first hour at sea was magical. Every science team on the boat (of which there are several) made their way to the helicopter pad to take photographs of the blue New Zealand waters, the ever diminishing landscape, and of course, each other.

The highlight of the departure was the arrival of several small pods of Hectors dolphins who escorted us out of the bay! I am the only marine mammalogist on the boat, but I was clearly not the only one excited to see the dolphins. Admittedly I had slunk inside to change my laundry over when one of the Kiwi helicopter pilots graciously hunted me down and dragged me back outside so I wouldn’t miss them.

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Hectors dolphins just outside of Lyttleton Harbor, NZ. The viewing of a lifetime!

The same pilot also stood on the deck with me for nearly an hour that same evening telling me everything he knew about pelagic seabirds (which is admittedly more than I know), and pointing out how they use the wind funneling off the Araon similarly to a helicopter. The albatross are amazing! I wish I could identify them to species, but as a first time Southern Ocean visitor I’m clueless. Everything I know I learned in my afternoon at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, or Ricky the Kiwi pilot taught me.

A little about the demographics of our ship. The Araon is a Korean icebreaker (as I’ve mentioned in previous posts) run by KOPRI (the Korean Polar Research Institute). I’m part of an oceanographic team working under Chief Scientist Dr. Won Sang Lee (KOPRI). Our team is made up of myself (representing the NOAA/PMEL Bioacoustics Lab), a German Oceanographer who will be recovering three Ocean Bottom Seismometers (OBS), one Korean micro-biologists, one Korean geoscientist, one Korean geoscientist/acoustician, and one Australian oceanographer. We meet nightly at 2000 (8PM) to debrief the day, make any plans, and to discuss our research. Won Sang presented an overview of the KOPRI mission in Antarctica at our meeting last night including our role at PMEL on the acoustics side of things (despite the incessant and nauseating rolling of the ship). I’ll be presenting some of my work at our meeting tonight, despite my research occurring a hemisphere away (although keep me down here long enough and suddenly my research will develop an Antarctic component).

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Albatross keeping good company on the winds of the R/V Araon. Species anyone?

Ours is not the only crew, however. There are five scientists from PRNA (the Italian Polar Research Institute) who are hitching a ride on the Araon as they prepare to summer in the Mario Zuchelli Research Base in Terra Nova Bay. They are studying the impacts of ocean acidification on polar macro invertebrates. There are two NOAA researchers headed to the Jang Bogo base to install a space weather radar. The methodology of their work is actually very similar to mine (wavelengths and physics) but what they’re actually doing is still beyond me. There are also two Russian ice pilots on board whose job it is to navigate us through the ice when we get into the Ross Sea, and a Finnish fellow who has been unfortunately seasick since we boarded the Araon. Lastly, and certainly not least, there is a team of Korean scientists (largely geo-scientists) headed down to summer at Jang Bogo Station and do all manner of measurement and experiments.

Oh! How could I forget! There are three Kiwi helicopter crew onboard. Two pilots and an engineer. I adore them.

All said and totaled there are about 30 crew members on the boat, and about 45 scientists/passengers on the vessel. There are three women; myself, my amazing roommate Ombretta, and Sukyoung from our research team. Ombretta will depart at the ice for the summer, and we will be down to two.

A few things I wished I had known before I came (silly living things, for anyone trying to get info on daily life at the R/V Araon).  There is a refrigerator in every cabin, and also a hair dryer.  The power source is European style and in 220v- this is very important for instrumentation.  Make sure you have a converter (not a just and adapter!). The beds are hard but clean, a sleeping bag goes a long way.  The food is very Korean (we had steamed octopus in chilli sauce yesterday), they make a bold effort to include western style food, but it’s just that, an effort.  Bring tea if that’s your thing (it’s mine), there is green tea on the boat, nothing else.

Good advice I was given (thanks Matt!): bring an HDMI cable.  There are TV’s everywhere you can hook your computer into.  Spices go a long way.  There is white rice at every meal, bring a little cumin, garlic salt and spinach?  You’ve got a decent meal.  Bring a mug.  All beverages are served in small metal cups.  They get very hot, and hold very little.  A to-go mug has made my life much better.  Especially since I’m on the third deck, and tea water is on the main level.

Other than that the rooms are very accommodating, there is wifi throughout the boat (albeit very slow wifi), and ample space to spread out.  There is also a sauna and a karaoke machine- but only time will tell if I dare to use them.

Over and Out.

 

 

Your Antarctic Correspondent,

Michelle