Rolling into Open Water in the Central Pacific

by | 12.5.2011 at 8:48pm
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The Langseth at dock in Honolulu. Bridge cabins/labs are to the right; waist-deck where OBS operations occur is in the center; and the large aft streamer platform is on the left. Top center is the PSO observation tower, over 85 ft above the waterline.

We nicknamed our project NoMelt because we seek to characterize a mature, pristine oceanic plate far from its volcanic origin at a Mid-Ocean Ridge, and away from areas of pronounced volcanism and melting that subsequently alter the structure of the plate.  Our site in the central Pacific fits these scientific needs. However, one downside is that four days of transit are needed to reach this area from Honolulu. Research ships travel at 10 knots (a whopping 12 MPH) – who knew that ships were so slow?  Our science party filled these days acclimating to life at sea – typically hunkered down in our bunks, sleeping-off the motion sickness and the drugs used to treat it.  Many of us had envisioned calm waters in the tropical Pacific and hoped to avoid this initial bout of sea-sickness. But as we cleared the lee of the islands, 45-knot winds and 5-meter seas quickly disabused us of this fantasy.  Two days out, the winds dropped and the seas subsided into a more comfortable roll, and we emerged to get to work.

At-sea craning of an OBS from the top storage deck down to the deployment deck.

We stepped directly into the bustle of a large oceanographic research vessel at sea.  The R/V Langseth operates continuously for weeks at a time all over the globe.  Our 34-day cruise requires a crew of 47, including 13 of us in the science party – sea-going temps who provide the scientific oversight and manpower necessary for this particular experiment.  The permanent crew are talented and dedicated, with the full gamut of skills necessary to keep a large, complex vessel safe and operational in the open ocean: mechanical, electrical, navigational, computational.  They keep the massive diesel-electric engines running smoothly, rewire cranes and rigs, repair and retool seismic airguns and streamers, and debug the network and internet services required to collect our data (and email home!).  Because we are using loud sound sources in the water, the staff includes protected-species observers (PSO’s), who monitor for nearby whales, porpoises, and sea turtles that could be harmed if they venture too close to our airguns.  Shipboard scientific operations continue 24 hours a day, and everyone has a role and a duty to make this possible.

Next up – seafloor deployments….

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