Berkeley Lab

Epilogue to a Travelogue

It has been nearly two and a half weeks since I stepped off the research vessel Oceanus, and the phantom swaying motions have long since dissipated. It wasn’t a particularly long trip. Just 10 days. But it was enough to provide some insight into the unpredictable, frustrating, time-consuming, exciting and inspiring process of scientific innovation and discovery in the field.

Berkeley scientist Jim Bishop explains how the new Carbon Flux Explorer works. (Video edited by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally/UC Berkeley. Video shot by Jessica Kendall-Bar. Drone footage provided by Mark Booher.)

As a writer at a research institution’s communications office, I most often hear from scientists after they have new findings to report in a peer-reviewed journal. They have compiled and analyzed their data. They have neatly packaged up their results in a manuscript’s abstract, introduction, methodology and discussion sections. By the time a paper is published, a year or more could easily have passed from the time the actual experiments were conducted.

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Once the Carbon Flux Explorers hit the ocean, it takes another 20-30 minutes before it “wakes up” and sinks below the water’s surface. (Credit: Jessica Kendall-Bar)

Witnessing part of the journey to getting publication-worthy results and innovative new devices was eye-opening. Not a day went by without some new problem emerging that had to be overcome or puzzled through. When you are 350 miles offshore, you cannot run to your neighborhood hardware store to pick up new screws or a new motor, so problems are tackled on site in less-than-optimal conditions. It’s a situation, I’m sure, that is universal to all manner of field research.

On some trips – not this one – there may even be unplanned course changes. Bishop recounted past incidents when they were instructed to leave an area immediately because of unannounced (to civilians) military exercises in the region. About 36,000 square miles of water off the coast of Southern California, the Sea Range site, is controlled by the Department of Defense for use in training exercises, including tests of missile systems. For this reason, Bishop takes extra care in providing the research vessel’s planned track to the military well before it leaves the dock.

As valuable as these trips are, Bishop noted that some types of ocean data would be better collected by instruments rather than people, which is the rationale behind the development of the robotic floats. Truly understanding the ebbs and flows of this vital ocean process means taking repeated measurements of sinking particles at various depths in the water column, day after day, month after month, season after season.

This is an important task, but Bishop said no researcher he knows would happily spend weeks to months at sea to collect this type of data. The expense alone is a barrier. The raw cost of ship operations on this trip ran about $25,000 per day. Labor and research costs can easily double that figure.

In comparison, the estimated cost of a Carbon Flux Explorer designed to stay out for months to years at a time is $100,000, and mass production would significantly lower the price tag. These ocean robots are being designed to measure plankton poop so people won’t have to.

Of course, ocean-bound voyages are still needed for other studies and measurements. Robotic technology has not yet been developed to adequately measure zooplankton, for instance. But Bishop sees the robotic floats as a critical supplement to the type of work done by colleagues Phoebe Lam from UC Santa Cruz and Mike Stukel from Florida State University.

Happy to be back in San Francisco! Yizhuang Liu and Jim Bishop stand on the upper deck. Sarah Yang and Mark Booher are waving from the lower deck. (Credit: Kelly J. Owen/Berkeley Lab)

Happy to be back in San Francisco! Yizhuang Liu and Jim Bishop stand on the upper deck. Sarah Yang and Mark Booher are waving from the lower deck. (Credit: Kelly J. Owen/Berkeley Lab)

These trips also provide valuable experiences for the students on board that cannot be obtained in a campus classroom. Bishop noted that many marine science undergraduates often leave UC Berkeley with more on-ship time than most of their peers around the country.

The students contributed to the great energy on the ship and were more than eager to pitch in. We never had trouble getting volunteers to help launch a CTD or to filter water samples. All the while, giggles and jokes could be heard running in the background, almost like a soundtrack for the trip. Punctuating the long hours were moments of awe at the nature around us. The crew would alert us to the occasional whale or dolphin sighting. To help us view the stars one night, the captain turned off the lights at the bow of the ship, allowing the brilliance of the Milky Way to shine through.

It should be acknowledged that bringing dozens of people together into a crowded space has the potential to cause friction, but what struck me was that throughout the trip, there was surprisingly little drama. An easy rapport developed among and between the research team and the crew members. Crew members with musical backgrounds even spent their off hours providing tips to a student guitarist. When Bishop joined in with his guitar at the end of a particularly long day, we suddenly had an impromptu jam session.

I’ll end by saying that documenting this trip has been a great privilege, in large part because of the wonderful people I met along the way. The next time I read about marine microorganisms sequestering carbon in the ocean, I am sure I will think about the people behind the data and the effort it took to collect it.

And just as importantly, I thank you for following along.

About Sarah Yang

Sarah is a staff writer at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Before joining the Berkeley Lab in March 2016, she spent 14 years as a science writer at UC Berkeley, covering engineering, the environment and public health.