Berkeley Lab

Epilogue to a Travelogue

The Oceanus passes under the Bay Bridge as it docks in San Francisco. (Credit: Kelly J. Owen/Berkeley Lab)It has been nearly two and a half weeks since I stepped off the research vessel Oceanus, and the phantom swaying motions have already 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.

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.

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Aaaaand, we’re back!

(Photo: Kelly J. Owen) The Oceanus tied up at Pier 30-32 in San Francisco at 7:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 23, and we are still getting our land legs back. The time at sea has ended, but the work to compile and analyze the data collected is just beginning.

The researchers will look for clues about the seasonality of plankton populations in waters off the coast of California. And the engineers will continue to update the functionality and design of the robotic floats as ocean monitors of the biological carbon pump.

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The Support Crew Behind the Science

crew-2 The crew of the Oceanus (Photo: Kelly J. Owen)To get data from the ocean, it takes a village. That village includes a highly trained support crew on the ship to make sure the science team members can perform their research without undue risk to life or limb.

The Oceanus crew members come to the ship from a variety of backgrounds. Many have worked with the Navy or on fishing vessels and tug boats. There is easily more than a hundred years of experience among its crew members. Read More »

Motoring back home

Spooling-Cable960We are nearing the end of this 10-day research trip, and as I’m writing, people are bustling around me in the process of deconstructing the labs they set up and packing up their gear. Researchers have made backup copies of the data collected from the various tests conducted, the Carbon Flux Explorers are tucked away in their crates, 700 meters of cable were unspooled from the ship’s winch back onto a reel by hand, and filtering and processing stations – including the “Bubble” – have been taken down. Read More »

Oceana Incognita

The waters were clear enough to see the CTD from 30 meters below the water's surface. (Photo: Sarah Yang)Outside the California Current, the last few experiments are being run aboard the Oceanus at a place Jim Bishop calls “Oceana Incognita.” The nickname came about because the location feels like the middle of nowhere and has not been observed by satellites for the past six weeks.

The contrast with the coastal waters at the Santa Cruz Basin is striking. When the top layers of water are not teeming with phytoplankton, the blue color of the water can shine through. Just as the chlorophyll in leaves absorbs the color blue, making them appear green to us, the chlorophyll in phytoplankton gives the water a more greenish hue. Had we been in Santa Cruz Basin in May, the concentrations of chlorophyll would have been 10 to 20 times higher than what we saw this trip. Read More »

So What’s It Really Like Doing Research on a Ship?

Jong-Mi Lee, Yang Xiang and Phoebe Lam of UC Santa Cruz process samples in their “Bubble” on board the Oceanus. Setting up and organizing the various lab spaces take up a large proportion of the time spent loading a ship. Phoebe Lam’s “Bubble” and Jim Bishop’s clean air-water filtration station are examples of spaces that the researchers need to ensure that the samples they collect are not contaminated.

When the researchers are not out on deck deploying or recovering equipment, they are often found in the main lab area working with the samples or the robotic floats. Read More »

A Floating Classroom for Students

Doug Beck, the bosun on Oceanus, teaches UC Berkeley student William Kumler how to work the controls of the stern winch. (Photo: Sarah Yang)All members of Jim Bishop’s team on board the Oceanus have been trained in key deck operations, such as working the tag lines during CTD deployment. UC Berkeley junior William Kumler, for instance, has been introduced to the winch at the stern of the ship. He stood at the controls during sediment trap deployments and recovery, vigilantly following the signals for letting out or taking in cable.

“It was terrifying,” said Kumler after his first go at the controls. “Right next to the controls are a bunch of signs warning me about what can go wrong if I’m not careful.” Read More »

With All Floats On Board, It’s Time to Head to Deeper Seas

Recovery of the Carbon Flux Explorer-Cal. (Photo: Sarah Yang)All robots are present and accounted for. The two Carbon Flux Explorers launched yesterday and the day before were recovered today, including CFE-Cal 2 with its experimental sample collection system.

When the latter robot was inspected on deck, the researchers were initially disappointed to see that a tube meant to direct particles into the tray had become disconnected. If the separation occurred soon after its deployment, there would be no samples to show for its time at sea. Read More »

A Gremlin On Board

Meet the Gremlin. Several years ago, Jim Bishop found him in a toolkit that came with a box of new particulate inorganic carbon (PIC) sensors used on the CTD Rosette. The figurine was a joke, apparently added to the box of spare parts by the sensor manufacturers.

The Gremlin gets the blame when equipment and electronics don’t perform as expected, and the cause is unclear. For example, a key GPS system failed that stopped many of the ship’s scientific sensors, and it took hours of head scratching to figure out what had happened. Read More »

Star Charting the Santa Cruz Basin at Night

starmap1080 If you’ve been tracking the Oceanus, you may have noticed a familiar pattern in some of its movements. The first night at the Santa Cruz Basin, the Oceanus conducted spatial mapping of the region, surveying temperature, salinity and other variables relevant to the particle concentration in the water. Connect the dots and the star will appear.

“Basically, if you do research in one spot, we need to know if it is representative of the rest of the spots in the region,” said Jim Bishop. “A star pattern is an effective pattern if you want to cover the greatest area.” Read More »

Robot Recovery: The Return of the First Carbon Flux Explorer

Would you be able to see this robotic float from a quarter mile away? The captain of the Oceanus did with the help of binoculars. There’s a mixture of relief and joy every time a robotic float is recovered. Years of research and months of intense engineering go into preparing each device for its life at sea, no matter how brief the stint. So when Carbon Flux Explorer 3 sent its ping this afternoon to say that it had surfaced and completed its mission, a day after it was first dropped into the Santa Cruz Basin, the reaction was one of excitement and anticipation.

Even with the GPS signal, it’s an impressive feat to find and retrieve the float. It is a small target in a large ocean, and the two antennae are black. The people who first saw the robotic float were instructed not to blink. Read More »

About the Carbon Flux Explorer

The ocean’s biological carbon pump occurs at very fast time scales, so it has been difficult to study the various environmental dynamics influencing its processes. Determining whether the carbon pump is strengthening or weakening – and why – would require ongoing monitoring that is impractical to do for humans on a ship.

That is where robotic technology comes in. Berkeley biogeochemist Jim Bishop invented the optical sedimentation recorder (OSR), an instrument designed to catch organic matter sinking vertically and funnel it to a glass platform. A camera below the platform takes images at regular intervals, and those images can determine the nature of the matter that settles on the glass stage.

The OSRs typically hang down from surface buoys, but research has indicated that such tethering makes them susceptible to a sideways pull that affects the quantity of particles collected. Read More »

Liftoff for the First Carbon Flux Explorer

A Carbon Flux Explorer hangs from a boom seconds before it drops into the ocean. (Credit: Jessica Kendall-Bar) At 2:27 p.m. today, the first Carbon Flux Explorer was deployed, and if all goes well, we will see it again in about 24 hours. Its entry into the water did not come with the cheers I had expected. I was told that this was because many of the researchers had done this before, and there was still a great deal of work to do after the launch. (I still clapped.)

While the float was on the boat, the researchers programmed in a 30-minute delay in activation so that it wouldn’t start sinking right after deployment. What followed after the Carbon Flux Explorer (CFE) was dropped into the water was a meditative half hour of watching the float bobbing along the water’s surface to make sure it sinks as scheduled. Read More »

Learning the Ropes of Launching Research Equipment

Launching a CTD Rosette is a team effort. (Credit: Sarah Yang) It’s not a great thing when the CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) Rosette bumps into the hull of the ship, as it did on one of the launches today.

The CTD weighs about half a ton when the water sample canisters are empty, and about 1,300 pounds when the bottles are full. A wayward swing could not only damage the sensitive – and expensive – equipment, it could cause serious injury and death.

But the CTD has an outer cage meant to protect the equipment, and it did its job very well. No harm, no foul. Read More »

First Day of Testing Begins

The CTD Rosette is launched into the Santa Cruz basin. It contains sensors that researchers hope to eventually install on Carbon Flux Explorer robotic floats. (Credit: Jessica Kendall-Bar)As I started writing this, an array of sensors was taking measurements from the surface to near the bottom of the Santa Cruz Basin. They are being tested with a CTD (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth) Rosette device, which will help researchers characterize the distribution of biomass at different water depths.

CTD Rosette probes provide scientists with data about water temperature and salinity in real-time through an electrical cable attached to the ship. The CTD includes gray canisters that allow scientists to collect water samples at various depths. Read More »

The Clock is Ticking

time-lapse_screenshot300The time was 5:55 a.m., and I was wondering whether I should wake up Berkeley Lab engineer Tim Loew, who had nodded off at the table in the middle of assembling a polarizer for the robotic float. I wanted to let him sleep long enough for me to reach for my camera, but he woke up before I got the shot. Maybe next time.

The original departure time for the Oceanus was 7 a.m., but that was pushed back yesterday when it became clear that not all parts were ready to go. It was clear weeks ago that things were running behind. Parts broke or didn’t work as expected, special screws needed to be ordered, each sample collection tray required 12 hours in a 3-D printer.
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Setting Sail to Study Ocean Carbon

Berkeley Lab researchers test an earlier version of the robotic float used to measure carbon dynamics in the ocean. The R/V New Horizon is in the background. (Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt/Berkeley Lab)The countdown has begun. In less than 24 hours, I will be boarding a ship with a team of scientists and engineers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley, as they prepare to set sail on a 10-day voyage to study the ocean’s biological carbon pump.

Leading the 13-member team is biogeochemist Jim Bishop, a faculty senior scientist at Berkeley Lab’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area and a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science.

Bishop notes that much of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is sequestered in the oceans through the actions of microorganisms, but there is much about the process that remains poorly understood. The biological carbon pump operates on time scales of about a week, so detecting changes and disturbances in the cycle would require ongoing monitoring that is currently impractical and cost-prohibitive to do with humans on a ship.

Robotic floats would be ideal for such applications since they could ultimately be left out at sea for months or even a year at a much lower cost. Read More »