At Sea: In the North Atlantic Day 10


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. We’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.

Once 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.

Vivid Imagination