Data Keeps Drifting In

Author: Laura Bracken, CARTHE Outreach Manager

After a month at sea conducting a variety of experiments, the Ronald H. Brown has returned home but data continues to pour in. As the ship circled the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), conducting cross-shelf transects, scientists onboard released 25 custom-made, GPS-equipped, biodegradable CARTHE drifters, described in the post “New biodegradable surface drifters to survey the ocean currents of the Gulf.” The drifters can transmit their location every 5 minutes for 1-3 months, providing scientists at the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment (CARTHE) with accurate tracks of the ocean currents.

This experiment is unprecedented and will provide a much needed picture of how currents behave near the shelf.  CARTHE has conducted 3 large scale experiments in the northern GoM but by adding the full range of this vast body of water they will gain a better understanding of Gulf-wide dynamics.

Figure 1. Cumulative map of ship track, drifter tracks, and hurricane tracks

The above map shows the ship track in green. The individual drifter tracks in black, with red dots indicating their last known position. The purple line that crosses Mexico represents Hurricane Franklin, while the purple line that stretches from the Bay of Campeche to Texas represents Hurricane Harvey. Luckily the ship was already home before Harvey developed, but was required to alter its course to avoid Franklin. Hopefully analysis of the drifter tracks near these storms will provide some information about how storms impact ocean currents.

As expected, there are several areas where drifters were retained over the shelves, mainly moving slowly across the shelf, rather than moving into the body of the Gulf. Of particular interest is the Yucatan Shelf.

Figure 2. Yucatan shelf

The historical drifter database of the GoM shows a gap on the Yucatan Shelf/Campeche Bank (cf. Miron et al 2017).  These deployments will contribute to filling that particular gap. On the Bay of Campeche (west of the Campeche Bank) there are observations of a quasi-permanent cyclonic gyre (called the Campeche Gyre) that models have trouble to represent in the mean.  The drifters deployed in the region are expected to sample this cyclonic circulation, though this has not been seen yet.

CARTHE scientists will continue to track the progress of the drifters, to compare to previous drifter data, and to work towards better understanding how material in the Gulf of Mexico is transported by the ever changing surface currents.

Thank you to the crew of the Ronald H. Brown and the scientists and students who facilitated the release of the CARTHE drifters.

“Scientific Frenzy” Aboard the Ronald H. Brown

Author: Katelyn Schockman

Imagine packing up your entire workspace and relocating … to a boat. This will be your “office” for the next 36 days; talk about some remarkable views.

Essentially, this is what we scientists on board the R/V Ronald H. Brown have done.  While the lab procedures we run on the Brown are similar to our home labs, collecting quality data on a ship requires extensive preparation and a few adjustments to normal lab routines. Months before we set sail, my lab mates and I began assembling our packing lists. Lists upon lists. The impending month at sea meant we couldn’t forget anything. There’s no Home Depot in the middle of the Gulf, so if we forgot a part, we’d be out of luck. Additionally, we had to consider all the issues that could arise at sea and bring extra supplies just in case. 28 boxes of Kimwipes, 15 boxes of gloves, 80 spectrophotometric cells, extra power cords, computers, water baths, and the list goes on. Even with all the planning, there’s bound to be something forgotten. That’s when you get creative.

There are many simple tasks performed on land that cannot be done onboard. Everything must be pre-weighed because scales do not function correctly at sea, due to the constant movement. There’s also no tap for purified water; it must be made onboard with a machine. And most importantly, everything must be tied down. I mean everything. Each piece of lab equipment is either tied to a table or stored in a drawer. The ship is constantly rocking from the waves and swells, and the last thing we want is our precious equipment falling and breaking.

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Spectrophotometers, computers, and water baths all tied down at the pH and carbonate lab station.

Lots of time and energy is put into preparations, but once at sea the real science can begin. Sampling is done around the clock, as CTD and net tows are cast 24/7, from 100+ stations. There is no such thing as a “typical” 9-5 day here on the Ronald Brown. Everyday activities revolve around variable sampling times. We plan all of our meals, sleep, and exercise based on when the CTD will be ready to be sampled. Each lab station is manned at all hours, and shifts are typically noon to midnight and midnight to noon.  I’m on the night shift and it undoubtedly took me a few days to adjust to working such unorthodox hours.

The lab spaces are very open on the ship, with several groups in each lab area. This gives the lab a community feeling. Everyone is running samples simultaneously, so we can compare our results in real time and get a comprehensive picture of the chemistry through the water column at each station. In the main lab, for example, we have groups running ocean optic parameters, pH and carbonate ion concentrations, dissolved oxygen, and nutrient concentrations. The ship has a unique sense of camaraderie, as the crew and scientists are working and living in such close quarters. Each individual is a piece of the puzzle, and we need everyone to make the cruise a success.


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Scientists in the main lab running samples during the night shift. Leah Chomiak, far left, dissolved oxygen concentrations. Ian Smith, middle left, nutrient concentrations Ellie Hudson-Heck, middle right, pH. Katelyn Schockman, far right, carbonate ion concentrations.

While all of this science may sound exhausting, I can promise you that working on a ship is especially enjoyable as well. We partake in bingo and game nights, there are endless movies to watch, a library full of books, an exercise room, and the option of watching waves and searching for sea life right outside. Not to mention the plethora of shooting stars every night and spectacular sunrises and sunsets. Living on a ship is something not everyone gets to experience, and I’m thankful to be one of the lucky few aboard the Ronald H. Brown that does.

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One of the many beautiful sunset views from the ship. Photo Credit: Leah Chomiak.

Behind the Scenes

A blog post from the ships point of view

Author: ENS Marisa Gedney, Damage Control Officer, NOAA Ship Ronald H Brown

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ENS. Marisa Gedney at the DP station on the bridge of the Ron Brown, driving the ship. Photo credit Marisa Gedney.

“So what do you do on the boat?” is usually the first question people ask when they meet me aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald H Brown. My typical reply, “Oh, I drive the ship, among other things,” can elicit quite a variety of responses. Sometimes these inquisitive minds, generally those who have never been to sea before, will assume this means I am the captain (nope). More experienced sailors/scientists will recognize me as a Junior Officer. Specifically, I currently serve as the ship’s Damage Control and Safety Officer and spend two 4 hour shifts daily on the bridge (the place where the ship is steered from) doing anything and everything that is required to maintain safe operations of the vessel. This can include simply ensuring that the auto pilot is working properly during transits to driving the ship on station by hand, along with all required radio communications, maintaining a proper safety lookout, and responding to all alarms, just to scratch the surface.

Being a part of GOMECC has been a fascinating experience as the Brown usually specializes in blue water sailing. Meaning, that we typically operate many hundreds of miles from shore and spotting another vessel on occasion serves as an exciting reminder that there is still other life out there sailing the oceans. Working in the Gulf of Mexico has proven to be the exact opposite. Navigating around fishing boats, cargo vessels, and platforms galore has so far served to keep every watchstander on their toes. And being close enough to shore to acquire cell phone signal is generally unheard of, but has been a rare treat this project.

I’m often asked what it’s like to drive the ship, and the honest answer is that it’s rather fun (usually). Despite being the largest ship in the NOAA fleet, the Brown is incredibly maneuverable. Instead of the traditional propeller and rudder system that most ships have, we have two stern thrusters that can independently spin around to face any direction. Among a suite of navigational equipment on the bridge, we also utilize a dynamic positioning system which provides the ability to maintain the ship’s position on station within meter scale of accuracy. So we may not go very fast (10kts is the average cruising speed, for this project we are restricted to 7.5kts), but we can do just about anything.

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Small boat operations as part of the GOMECC-3 cruise. Photo credit Marisa Gedney.

And there isn’t as much to stopping the ship on station for a CTD deployment as people tend to think. First it just requires monitoring the ETA in order to give appropriate preparation calls to different departments. Then the biggest challenge is studying the wind and current to decide on a heading for the station. Maneuvering slightly to give yourself the best chance of stopping right on waypoint based on the weather conditions, the speed of the ship, and how big of a turn has to be made to come around to the chosen heading. Picking the correct moment to start slowing down. Maintaining control of the vessel while switching steering modes. Adjusting the rate of deceleration and turning to keep everything stable. Stopping, hopefully right on the mark. Making last minute adjustments. A final analysis to ensure that the ship is holding position as desired and that the sea state is safe for deployment. And ultimately, a call down to those standing by on deck that the ship is on station and deployment may begin. Ok, so maybe there actually is a bit of effort involved. But every station approach is different and thus each requires a high level of attention. Even after hundreds of stations it never becomes easy, but rather less difficult and hopefully more efficient.

There are a number of unique aspects that go along with working and living on a research vessel (When asked, “Where are you from?” the answer is “Seattle.” When asked “Where do you live?” the truthful answer is “This ship.”). Certainly more than can be listed here in a single blog post. It requires a certain degree of flexibility and a willingness to give up one’s love of sleep. Some nights I’ll be playing board games and bingo with the ship’s crew and the next morning I become everyone’s least favorite person as I announce the start of weekly drills and start yelling at people to report to their muster stations. But when you’re stuck within the confines of a 274ft long hunk of floating steel for a month, it becomes inevitable for all the crew and scientists aboard to begin working together in a rhythm and figuring out the best ways to support each other. Everyone goes from being colleagues to shipmates and it becomes that, more than anything else, which contributes to the successful completion of a project. It has been a pleasure working with the scientists of the GOMECC project so far, and I look forward to future adventures with them during our remaining weeks in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Ronald H. Brown docked at the US Naval Base in Key West, FL prior to departure for GOMECC-3. Photo credit Marisa Gedney.

Ocean Acidification buoy validation measurements

An example of NOAA’s synergistic efforts to monitor coastal ocean acidification using a variety of platforms

Author: Leticia Barbero 

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OA buoy with the Ron Brown in the background. Image credit: Jay Hooper

We have just finished the third set of stations in our cruise, the Louisiana Line. This line is interesting for many reasons. The outflow of the Mississippi river into the Gulf changes the characteristics of the water we are sampling, sometimes dramatically. In the stations closest to the coast, which are more influenced by the riverine outflow, surface salinities are so low that they test the limits of the method we use for measuring pH with high precision and accuracy.  High nutrients from the outflow promote high primary production in the surface waters, which in turn ends up causing hypoxia (low oxygen concentrations) in the bottom waters. While regular oxygen values might be in the range of 120-250 umol/kg,  a sample from one of these bottom waters had an oxygen concentration of less than 20 umol/kg. Imagine having ten times less breathing oxygen than you are used to!

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One of many oil rigs we sailed close to during the sampling of the Louisiana Line. Image credit: Leticia Barbero

Besides the very interesting data we get from these stations, the Louisiana Line also affords us the chance to sail close to the dozens of oil rigs peppered along our route, which makes for good pictures for our personal albums.

And unexpectedly, two days ago the opportunity arose for an unplanned collaboration. We were notified that a buoy partially funded by NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program, which also sponsors our GOMECC-3 cruise, has just been moved to a location close to our route. This buoy has pH, pCO2 and oxygen sensors. Our measurements on board can be used to validate the data from the buoy, so we decided to bring the ship as close to the buoy’s position as we could and take samples on site over a period of three hours. The scientists maintaining the buoy back on land will be able to use our data to calibrate their sensor data.

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Chief Bosun Mike Lastinger drives the Ron Brown’s small boat from the ship to the buoy. Image credit: Jay Hooper

Additionally, the ship was willing to accommodate a very last-minute request to use the ship’s small boat to get a water sample from right next to the buoy, for best quality comparisons. I am very grateful for our science team’s willingness to add extra samples to their already loaded stack of backed-up samples after a succession of stations that were very close together,  for Jay Hooper’s hard work handling the buoy sampling logistics on short notice and I am especially appreciative of  the efforts of the ship’s officers and deck crew to get us to the buoy in time to sync our sample with the buoy’s hourly measurements. We really have amazing science and ship teams working together on this cruise to collect the data we need to monitor ocean acidification conditions in the Gulf of Mexico.


Life Aboard

Author: Leah Chomiak

It’s day 2 here on the Ron Brown, and all souls on board have been busy adjusting to new sleep schedules, new office views, and a constant influx of incoming samples. Our first day out was nonetheless perfect; flat glassy seas, clear skies, a slight breeze, with sightings of whales, dolphins, and tuna schools in the distance! As this is my first time sailing on the Brown, I spent most, if not all my time, wandering around the ship, taking in the views, getting to know the crew and fellow scientists, and figuring out the endless maze that is the Ronald H. Brown… I can definitely say that the engine room is a great place for hide and seek, maybe we can get that game going later on in the transit! With our melting pot of individuals onboard, it’s been really fun to get to know everyone and hear how they ended up working on the Brown. Our crew diversity spans individuals of Navy, Army, Merchant Marine, Coast Guard, and NOAA Corps backgrounds, each with awesome stories of time spent at sea and working with NOAA. Our scientists hail from all over the western hemisphere – with undergraduates, graduate students, senior scientists, and our techs each bringing their own zest, humor, and wealth of knowledge to the mission.

Leah Chomiak and Joletta Silva snap a quick pic before boarding the Ron Brown in Key West. Credit: Leah Chomiak
Leah Chomiak and Joletta Silva snap a quick pic before boarding the Ron Brown in Key West. Credit: Leah Chomiak
Glass-like sea state on day 1 transiting to station 1. Credit: Leah Chomiak

Life on board has been pretty great so far! Mealtime is a conglomeration of most bodies on board, where the engineers and other crew crawl out of their caves, bunks, hatches, labs, and the bridge to feast; you’re guaranteed to see someone you’ve never seen before each time you eat! There is a library and movie room onboard, both with hundreds of selections of titles that are sure to please anyone.  My favorite spot onboard is definitely the bow, perfect for staring down at that “no-land-in-sight” ocean blue color, my favorite color that one cannot describe unless they’ve been out to sea. Working the night shift (midnight to noon), I am fortunate to work through a sky filled with billions of stars, and watch the sunrise each morning. Ah, rough life right? Someone’s gotta do it!

Our first station came at 2000 (8:00PM) off the coast of Dry Tortuga National Park, and the entire science crew crowded the deck to watch our massive, pink-framed, 24-niskin bottle CTD rosette be lowered for our first crack at sampling. It was a frenzy as soon as it was back onboard! Sampling teams crowded the rosette with their empty bottles, ready to be filled with water samples from the surface, mid-depth, and bottom. After a successful collection, teams returned back to their labs to process the samples sequentially, and prepared for the next station. In addition to CTD cast stations, underway sampling is collected every 3 hours from a spigot within the lab that is constantly pumping seawater from the surface. Sampling teams collect these samples to observe changes in the surface parameters during our sampling track, such as looking at changes in temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH, and nutrient parameters.

We are currently in a 24-hour plus transit until Station 2 is reached, therefore things are a little quiet on board – the calm before the storm (of samples), should I say. Once the first transect is reached, we will be coming up on stations one after another, and all scientists will be working throughout the day and night to ensure all samples get processed in a timely fashion. I am so thrilled to be on board, it’s been a blast already!! Let’s science!


On the dock. Ready, set, sail!

Author: Leticia Barbero

Ahoy, land-based shipmates! Welcome aboard our GOMECC-3 cruise!

We are only a few hours away from departure. After months of planning, of submitting requests for clearances, getting our health checks, coordinating with multiple agencies and making sure we packed all the gear we might possibly need (plus spares), we finally made our way to the ship. Our equipment arrived in containers, via Fedex and UPS directly to the ship, in rented U-Haul trucks, and even within our personal luggage! Some of us drove directly from our labs (in cars packed to the brim with equipment), while others flew from all across the country.

Main lab with most of the equipment in place. Picture courtesy of Denis Pierrot.

Communication with the ship is essential to keep track of everyone’s arrivals and to make sure we don’t lose track of any packages that may get misplaced on the ship. We are happy to report that all the equipment we will be using arrived as expected and without any major damage.

The research ship we will be using, NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown, has 4 laboratory spaces available for scientific use, and as soon as the science party started to arrive on board, everyone got down to work installing the different systems we will need. You will soon start to learn a little bit more about everything we will be doing on board, but suffice it to say that we will be obtaining chemical, biological and physical data. A truly multidisciplinary project!

Both the science party and the ship’s crew are very excited about GOMECC-3 and we are all looking forward to 35 days spent together evaluating ocean acidification conditions in our coastal waters. The first contact has been good and everyone is in high spirits.

Ongoing discussions among scientists in the Hydrolab during setup. Picture courtesy of Denis Pierrot.

We have just about finished setting up our labs and are looking forward to enjoying our last night on land for a while.

Main lab of the Ronald H. Brown before set up. Picture courtesy of Patrick Mears.

By the time of our next blog entry, we should have worked out all the kinks in our sampling equipment, in addition to finding our sea legs. Here’s hoping for calm seas and fair winds!