At sea - in the North Atlantic

Helen studies the bubbles underneath breaking waves, both in the lab and at sea. In October and November 2013, she spent six weeks on board the R/V Knorr, sailing the North Atlantic to measure bubbles in storms. Here are the blog posts that Helen wrote along the way. Her story appeared in the Observer's Extreme Science series on 1 December 2013. Also, BBC Radio 4's Inside Science programme featured Helen describing the testing of the Buoy which was subsequently used to deploy her research instruments during the voyage.

Wed 10 October 2013

It’s five days now since I arrived in Greenland and this is the first chance I’ve had to write anything. It’s been such a rush! But the unpacking has been done, the initial testing of our experiments was successful and we’re now on our way to the southern tip of Greenland.

We’re on board the R/V Knorr, an American vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. There’s more information about the ship here and you can see the (current) position of the ship in real time here.

All the scientists on the ship are part of the HiWINGS experiment. Scientists love coming up with acronyms for big experiments, and they spend far too long thinking them up. The silliest one I have ever seen was for the Sea sPray ANd Dynamics Experiment: SPANDEX. That produced a mental image of their ship-based work that I’d rather not have had. At least ours isn’t that bad. It stands for High Wind Gas Exchange experiment. Translated into everyday language, that just means that we’re studying how gases like carbon dioxide move in and out of the ocean when the wind blows really strongly. I’m here because we think that bubbles help that process along, but we’re not sure how much and when.

The problem with studying “high wind conditions” is that you have to go to places with high winds, and for us that means a bit of the north Atlantic where it sounds like the storms don’t ever stop. We’ll be just south of the tip of Greenland, sitting still and riding out the weather.

My part of the experiment is to find the bubbles. We have an 11 metre long yellow buoy, which floats with most of it below the waterline. There’s a picture below, taken in the dock when we were testing the ballast (which means checking that the buoy doesn’t sink). My bubble detectors are all the things strapped to it. It’s taken 10 months to build and prepare all that kit, and so it makes me pretty nervous that what we’re going to do with it is to chuck it over the side and watch it float off into an Atlantic storm. It’s got GPS and Iridium communication devices on the top, and the idea is that it will float for five days and then we’ll find it and get it back on board. And then do it all over again.

Buoy ballast test at Nuuk

It’s nice to be back on board a ship. Even though I’ve not been on this one before, it’s a very familiar environment. You get used to the constant movement, and I like being rocked to sleep. Showers have a new level of unpredictability because you have to chase the flow of water around. There are hand rails everywhere for you to hold on to when the ship is rocking (which is going to be most of the time), and everything is strapped down. I’m tidier on a ship than I am almost anywhere else!

I’ll post something here when something interesting is going on, or when I have time to write about life on the ship. I’m slightly nervous about the conditions – usually ships run away from the worst weather so sitting still in the middle of it will be a new experience. But if the data is good, it will all be worth it.

Watch this space…

Tue 15 October 2013

It’s early in the research cruise for the emergency chocolate to be called on, but it’s been that sort of week. It’s only 5 days since we left port and it feels as though it’s been about two months. This is that bit of experimental science that no-one really talks about, the bit where nothing is really going to plan and you’re spending hours working through a never ending maze of logic puzzles in the hope that even if this particular task doesn’t let you escape from the problem, at least it may show you that some of the possible turnings are dead ends. It would be a lot more fun if getting out of the maze wasn’t quite so important!

Things are not actually going that badly, and I’m confident that most of the problems can be solved. But these are long work days, usually 7am until 9pm, and chocolate is essential fuel.

Main lab on RV KnorrI’m currently sitting in the main lab, which has a door at one side that leads out on to the back deck of the ship. This room is big (about 15m x 6m), but it’s very full of benches, storage boxes, straps, data cables, power supplies, cameras, computers, notes, giant jubilee clips and us, the scientists. Most things, except the scientists, are strapped down to prevent unplanned meandering around the lab as the ship rolls and bumps its way through the ocean. Some of what is in here should be out on the buoy, but it isn’t because the buoy is currently in need of quite a lot of TLC. The day before yesterday, the wrong things went “crunch”.

Big Bouy in waterThe buoy had been out in the ocean for 48 hours, recording bubbles, wave and turbulence on about 8 separate devices. It was a beautiful day on deck, sunny and relatively calm, and everyone was outside to watch the buoy being lifted out of the water. The buoy was horizontal, parallel to the deck and halfway out of the water when a freak bit of swell turned up, rolled us, and the buoy started to swing. After a few near-misses, it barrelled straight into the side of the ship. The red dome on the top of the buoy met the hull of the ship with considerable enthusiasm and broke. The communications devices and cameras inside it took a seawater bath. The buoy structure itself also took a bit of a bashing. All my most important experiments were further down the buoy and were fine, but the top of the buoy is a wreck. So we’re taking a few days to rebuild and check everything, and to try to recover the data (some of that went AWOL when the power was suddenly cut).

Big Bouy shipsideThis sounds awful, and it is a temporary setback, but we knew that we were coming out here to work in difficult conditions. Although we didn’t anticipate this specifically, we have a whole pod of plan Bs in reserve. It looks as though we should be mostly up and running again in two or three days, since we have enough spares to rebuild. It’s just a lot of work to do.

While all that is going on, the ocean is pretty lively. The swell at the moment is consistently 6-8 metres high, and the largest wave that has gone past in the last half hour was 11 metres high. Looking out over the bow of the ship, you can see walls of water coming towards you. But the ship just rides over the top of it all, and I feel completely safe. The wind has consistently been 22 metres per second overnight (that’s 50 mph). Damaged end of buoyThese are exactly the conditions we wanted to measure in, so everyone is happy, but also more than a bit sleep-deprived. Sleep is a bit tricky when you’re getting rolled about quite so much. Walking around the ship, you’re always going slightly faster or slightly more slowly than you expected, and there’s a sort of ship’s waddle that you adopt without thinking about it. For any theorists out there who think that what experimentalists do is easy, I challenge you to assemble fiddly bits of electronics with horribly small screws while going up and down 10 metres every few seconds, and also while keeping an eye on your tools because Newton’s laws give them permission to rush off in any direction with no warning. I hate tiny fiddly screws.

Hopefully all this will calm down soon and I’ll have time to blog about the science as well as the practicalities. But now I have to go and see a sonar system about some data.

Also, happy Ada Lovelace day, everyone! See if you don’t already know all about it.

Sun 20 October 2013

One of the most important and most inconvenient things about statistics is that they get more reliable as you have more samples. One of the most important and inconvenient facts about the ocean is that nothing is ever quite predictable and you can rarely sample exactly what you want. The only way to measure something may well be to wait around in the likely location until it happens. To measure enough of it, you need to wait even longer.

So we are bobbing along, waiting, because of important and inconvenient things. This was always the plan. It’s the reason we’re out here for so long. To measure enough of everything, we have to wait for it to happen and then hope we’re in the right place at the right time. Ship path 2013-10-20We’re not quite stationary because the ship is following the buoy as it’s pushed about by the wind. We’re a bit like a giant helicopter parent eyeing up its tiny spawn while pretending to read the paper. Mostly, that means we’re creeping slowly backwards, because the buoy is upwind of us, and being pushed downwind towards the ship. The map shows the ship’s path over the last two days. All that meandering is because the wind and currents keep changing. It’s not exactly an elegant waltz, but fortunately no-one wrote elegance into the research proposal.

The winds are dying down after the last storm, but it’s not calm enough to get the buoy out of the water yet. I’m hoping that there’s some good data on there now, and another storm is expected on Friday. We plan to fish it out on Tuesday morning, recharge the batteries, download the data, and chuck it over the side again on Thursday evening.

What we really want is to measure in high winds, which means over 35 mph. The storms come and go from different directions, and when the buoy is on board we steam along, looking for parts of the ocean that have interesting water conditions or a lot of CO2 coming or going across the ocean surface. Then, as the storm starts to grow, we put the buoy in the water, sit and roll and pitch, and measure the ocean breathing.

Today, the ship is quiet. Everyone has loads of other work to do, and so the main lab is full of industrious-looking people tapping at keyboards. Occasionally, we remember that it’s the weekend everywhere else, but every day on the ship is the same. We are 10 days in, and the monotony of the ship is starting to creep into everyone’s consciousness. There’s always more work to do, so we do it, and the days blur into each other.

Computer surgeryOnce we start getting larger quantities of data back, things should liven up. I’ve been focussed on making sure that my experiments are doing what I want them to do, and that has involved quite a lot of poking about in the innards of most of them. When my PhD student saw the towel laid out with a camera, control electronics and screwdrivers all prepared on it, he said it looked like surgery was about to start. Well, it was, and the patient is doing well!

And the most important thing is that so far, the supplies of tea, chocolate and gummi bears are holding up well. 10 days at sea gone. 24 days to go.

Fri 25 October 2013

The Chief Scientist is standing on the bridge, looking out over the sea and grinning as if all his Christmases have come at once. The Bosun is scowling at the radar and muttering about this taking a year off the life of the ship. The wind speed display says 65 knots, maximum measurement today 90 knots. Today is the day we came out here for.

Bubbles at seaWe want to understand how gases and tiny particles come in and out of the ocean when the wind speed is very high. The Earth is a giant connected system, and if we want to understand our weather, and how both the atmosphere and the ocean behave, we need to track those connections. Gases like carbon dioxide go into the ocean in some places and come out in others. This happens all the time, but it’s a very slow process when there’s no wind. As the wind speed increases, the ocean breathes more deeply. We often plot the amount of gas exchange with wind speed, and it starts off fairly flat and then as the wind speeds increase, the exchanges get huge. Big storms with very high winds are disproportionately important, but we don’t know by how much. At the moment, those plots showing gas flux with wind speed go from a wind speed of 0 metres per second up to about 17 metres per second (about 38 mph). Then the plots stop.

Surface windThis morning, when I woke up, the wind was blowing at 60 knots, 30 metres per second, 67 mph. The data we get today will be plotted in new territory, and will let us see the direct effect of these big storms for the first time. That’s why the Chief Scientist is grinning like a Cheshire Cat. He’s been looking forward to this storm ever since it first appeared on the forecasts. And it’s turned out to be even bigger than the forecasts suggested.

Ship path 2013-10-20We put the big yellow buoy out yesterday, after three days of relative calm. It’s now got a face on it (two weeks at sea and already it’s silly season), and there’s a list of potential names for it on the whiteboard in the lab. Twitter and facebook are joining the game, and the most common suggestion by far is “Bob”.

The big buoy looked like such a monster when I first saw it on the dockside in Southampton. But out here, it looks fragile. I’ve set everything on it to record intensively for 36 hours, as we pass through the eye of the storm and back out again. I’m not even sure what the data will look like – there are so many bubbles out here that the sea surface has gone white. I’m just hoping that it survives mostly intact.

It’s a quiet day on board. The ship is bouncing and swaying, and it’s impossible to concentrate on desk-based work. Most people are napping, or up on the bridge watching the spectacle. And the spectacle is just awesome. I love it! I could spend hours up there. The swell has built and it’s now around 12-14 metres, and we’re facing right into it. As these vast rolls of water come towards us, the bow dips into it and then rides right back up, occasionally crashing through the waves if it can’t change direction in time. The surface is covered in trails of bubbles being blown by the wind, and you can see the bubble plumes left by previous huge breakers sitting under the surface. It’s as if the surface of the ocean is being blown away, snatched from the top and the sides of a mountainous waterscape that never stops moving.

We should be through the worst of it by midnight tonight, and then it will take a couple of days for the wind and waves to die down enough to get the bubble buoy back out and retrieve the data. I’ll only relax properly when I’ve seen the data back on board – there’s always the risk that something didn’t switch on or that a watertight case leaked.

But for the time being, I’m going back up to the bridge to watch. Out here, today, there are more bubbles than I’ve ever seen in my life at one time. Never mind that trip to the Champagne region, looking at champagne bubbles. This, out here in the middle of the north Atlantic in a storm, this is the bubble physicist’s dream day out.

Wed 30 October 2013

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Everything slides at once, and as soon as you hear that noise you reach for your breakfast with one hand and for the nearest stable object with the other. A few unlucky forks always escape, and a second after the sliding noise starts, there’s a crash as everything in the kitchen arrives at either the wall or the protruding lip around the kitchen worksurfaces. You keep holding on, waiting for gravity to be trustworthy again. The First Mate, who had thought until a second earlier that he was about to step into the canteen, is frozen in time like a character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The pause only lasts until the ship rolls back the other way and then he arrives at the coffee machine rather more quickly than expected. Nobody stops eating, cooking or talking as all this is going on.

Last night was hard on us all. No-one slept. Floating is a very relaxing state to be in, but it tends to be spoilt when it only lasts for half a second before you thump back on to your bunk. My cabin is close to the middle of the ship, so I’m mostly spared the floating, but I spent the night sliding down the bed and back up again and sometimes also from side to side. It occurred to me for the first time that bedsheets should be made with a measureable tread, so that you can choose the grip appropriate for the conditions. Only the enthusiasts are at breakfast, or the ones who gave up on trying to sleep hours ago. The steward cracks another egg on to the griddle, and waits as the ship saves her the bother of tilting the pan to spread it out. Wonderland, and the world Alice saw through the looking glass, have nothing on this. The same thought is in everyone’s mind: We are mad. We must be, otherwise we wouldn’t have come here.

There’s an anthropologist on the ship, studying how scientists get science done. One of the questions she has asked almost everyone is “is working on a ship like you thought it would be?”. Everyone has the same answer: society romanticizes this life, and the reality is much more prosaic. And we are in a modern ship with liferafts and the internet and chocolate icecream. Imagine being an early seafarer, out in this weather, in a creaking wooden ship. No icecream, and the only entertainment would have been to play hide and seek with the rats. It’s amazing that humans explored the ocean at all, especially the bits of it that are like the North Atlantic in storm season. My respect for the early explorers of the ocean easily outweighs my respect for the humans responsible for any other achievement. Living in those conditions while you sailed off the edge of the known world is an astonishing feat that should never be underestimated.

I like ships, and I like living on ships. And it’s true that each voyage is a new adventure. But we’re three weeks into this trip, and almost everyone has cabin fever. It’s partly because we only have ocean to look at, and few big events to mark the passing of time. The days blur into one another. Our lives are dictated by the comings and goings of colourful splodges on weather maps, and decisions can change at a moment’s notice if the wind or waves change. You can’t really plan your time, and so it feels as though time isn’t passing.

I’m typing this in the ship’s library, and Trivial Pursuit just zoomed along the floor past me. When things fall on the floor, it’s frequently easier to leave them there, to save them the bother of falling down again. But then you have to listen to them all playing bumpercars as the ship moves around. Oh, and now Trivial Pursuit is on its way back to the port side, accompanied by Pictionary. The games are playing games. How sweet. I hope that Humpty-Dumpty is not on board as well, because he really wouldn’t last very long out here, with waves slamming into us from every direction and no kings horses and no kings men to try putting him back together again.

How do scientists do science at sea? Today, on this ship, the answer is: very sleep-deprived, but occasionally also on a temporary high resulting from the potent combination of new science and candy riddled with E-numbers. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Astronomy has just arrived at my feet, chaperoned by a chair and a small guitar. I think it might be bedtime.

Naming the buoy

Thank you to everyone who suggested names for our buoy! With the help of twitter (special thanks to Helen Arney for her enthusiasm) and Radio 4’s Inside Science programme, we assembled quite a long list of potential names. Here is a selection of the best:

  • Bob
  • Buoyancé
  • Sue (A buoy named Sue)
  • Robin the Buoy Wonder
  • Danny Buoy
  • Buoy George
  • Nauti buoy
  • Beastie buoy
  • Boogie Woogie Bugle Buoy
  • Pike (Stupid Buoy!)
  • Pudsea
  • Del Buoy the globe Trotter

We also got lots of puns along the lines of Buoy meets Gull, and a plea for its storage area to be called Buoyzone.

My two personal favourites were Buoyancé, and Del Buoy the globe Trotter. I was really impressed with the variety of ideas that people had! We had a meeting of all the scientists on board about four weeks into the cruise, and looked at all the names then. And the name chosen was… Bob. The final choice had a sort of inevitability about it – Bob is a nice short simple name that you can shout easily across the deck, and it has the added advantage that you can say it the way that Edmund Blackadder would. Also, our buoy does have a slightly grumpy look about it, and it seemed that Buoyancé was a bit too cheerful!

So thanks again to everyone who contributed – it provided a very welcome source of ship entertainment!

Tue 12 November 2013

I’m fidgeting. My list of things to do isn’t quite demanding enough to keep me from noticing, even though today is full of endless fiddly tasks. Fidget. Cup of tea. Start another data backup. Fill in customs form. Walk out on deck. FIDGET.

This lunchtime we finally left our last sampling station and we are now steaming back to Woods Hole in Massachusetts, where we’ll dock on Thursday morning. The buoy (officially called Bob, now) came out of the water for the last time on Sunday and all of the bubble experiments are already packed away. I couldn’t get started on the packing quickly enough. I feel as though I’m about to burst. Being able to walk on land again is tantalizingly close, and the ship’s status screen is helpful enough to tell me exactly how close: 31.08 hours, 208 nautical miles to go. But even if we arrive early, we won’t be able to come into port early, so we might have to sit just off the coast until the morning tide. 8:30am on Thursday morning is when the fidgeting will stop.

Whole cruise trackIt’s almost two weeks since I last wrote anything here, and the gap is because it’s been a bit of a slog, blurred by repetition and sleep-deprivation and a creeping weariness that feels like an excuse until you remember that five weeks is quite a long time to spend in a glorified tin can. We had two really good buoy deployments after the big storm, when everything worked and we got good data. But after that big storm, the next weather events seemed a bit like coming across a purring domestic cat on a sofa just after an unexpected encounter with an angry lion. We had a trip into calmer water to fix the power supply to the foremast, and after that we popped out of the Gulf of St Lawrence to the south and found water that was 20°C. There were a couple of days when it was actually sunny and warm on deck. It felt wrong, but it was fantastic from a scientific point of view. One of the things I’m really keen to explore more is how water temperature makes a difference to bubble formation, so hopefully we’ll have enough data to look at that.

I’m not quite ready to look back on it all objectively yet, but I know that we’ve done a really good job out here. There is a great team of scientists on this ship, and we’ve seen a really good cross-section of all the autumnal moods of the north Atlantic. That was exactly the aim – we won’t get another opportunity like this in the near future, and so it was really important to make the most of this one. We hadn’t even dared hope for winds as high as those in the St Jude storm, and we’ll be learning things from that dataset for years. Now we get a bit of a break, and then the task will be to sort through the mountain of data and work out what it has to tell us. A single complete copy of my bubble dataset takes up 16 terabytes of storage space, which terrifies me! But we can make good use of it, and I’m excited about getting started. Well, I will be excited, after I’ve had some proper sleep, been swimming and seen some trees.
202 nautical miles to go.