Susan Lozier made it for me when I was born. Now, she’s sending me to sea.
In case you’re new here (like me): Lozier is an oceanographer at Duke, and one of the scientists leading OSNAP. The acronym stands for Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program. The “overturning” refers to a sort of conveyor belt of water: the sun warms water at the equator, some of it flows north past Iceland where it drops off its heat, sinks, cools, and then makes its way south. (See the arrows in OSNAP’s cartoon logo? That’s the general idea). This Atlantic heat-shuttling keeps Europe on the whole cozier than it would be if it were sitting its own stagnant bath tub, instead of the same body of water as the rest of the whole wide world. And, of course, human-cause climate change will alter this process — though scientists are not certain of exactly how.
So, starting this summer OSNAP — a multi-country endeavor, over a decade in the making — is setting up what oceanographer Bob Pickart calls “a giant picket fence” across the ocean. This — a collection of stationary instruments, floats, and gliders — will be a check point across the North Atlantic for water as it makes its way north, and then south. Pickart, who works at Woods Hole Oceanographic Instituition, is another leader of OSNAP’s US arm — and importantly, he is the lead scientist on the R/V Knorr for the month of August (Lozier is spending the summer on land at Duke).
We are on this boat for a month to deploy Pickart’s section of the fence: 8 strings of instruments up to 3 kilometers deep, that will be weighted to the ocean floor. These are called “moorings,” and their purpose is to track the underwater highways of flowing water. Each mooring, with its heavy hardware and smart gadgets, has a $200,000 price tag. We’ll be carefully placing them near the southern tip of Greenland, where they will spend two years alone, collecting data, which Pickart and a new team will retrieve in 2016. On our journey to drop off the moorings, we’ll also make 50 pit stops to take quick stats on the ocean at various depths. These pit stops will happen whenever we arrive at a designated pit-stop location — so we’ll be throwing sensors into the ocean at all hours of the day and night.
Well, Pickart and an assortment of students are here to do all that. I’m here to observe.
For my part, I grew up to be a writer. I’m based out of my office (a corner of my living room) in Philadelphia, where I write and fact check for magazines and websites. I’m a freelancer, which means I can temporarily re-locate wherever I please. The OSNAP grant is comping my room and board for a month, in exchange for the open-ended challenge of conveying the project to the greater world via this here blog.
“The ocean, as you know, is a very inaccessible place,” Pickart tells me, as we sit in the Knorr’s lab, a day’s worth of sea travel away from shore. (Picture your standard science lab — tables, equipment, no lab coats duh — but with the floor buy celebrex online swaying slightly, and, out the small round windows, a view of water.) It will be days until we reach our first mooring drop-off spot. If we get stuck — really, really stuck — we’ll have to call the Coast Guard. If an instrument fails, it will have to be repaired here on the ship — or replaced with precious back-up equipment.
But, to my surprise, daily life on board the Knorr is quite comfortable.
We arrive to clean bunks, with clean sheets, and supply rooms stocked with soap and toilet paper. There is a laundry room, a small gym, a small lounge with green couches and small tables with old copies of Popular Mechanics and New York magazine. In the ship’s library, among textbooks, dictionaries, boardgames and cheap paperbacks, there are several of naturalist Stephan Jay Gould’s books of essays, and the odd collection of tales from physicist Richard Feynman — appropriate, because after all, oceanography is a mix of the grand, natural, world and math.
There is a constant supply of coffee. At meals in the small dining hall, the food is genuinely good; between meals, the kitchen staff sets out trays of bread and cheese, desserts, and fruit. There is a thin internet connection — slow, and kept afloat by two techs, one of whom is always on call. There are crew members constantly on watch, should there be anything in the whole wide ocean that we could hit. The whole operation — a floating hotel — costs $45,000 a day to run. It’s an easy place to settle in.
All of this, this painstaking effort, is support for painstaking hours of science: two students will be on watch at all times, collecting data at stop-points, which involves chucking equipment overboard, all the way to the bottom of the sea, and then fishing it back up, and then carefully taking stats on the water hundreds of kilometers below. We did the first test of this procedure yesterday — two hours, two kilometers of ocean. It makes you really feel how much water there is.
In my daily city life, it’s easy to forget that we live on a world that looks pale and blue from space. But not here.
After dinner last night — our second at sea — I went up to “the bridge” — a lookout station at the very top of the boat, with windows on four sides. From here, I can see the world: no land, horizon to horizon. No life, save for a few seagulls.
We’ll be in Greenland — well, next to Greenland — within the week. There we’ll see icy shoreline, there we’ll deploy moorings, 3 kilometers deep. “I’m ecstatic,” Pickart told me, during our conversation in his lab. “I’m like woah, man, I’m going to get this great view.”
Pickart, for all his enthusiasm, also warns that the sea is a dangerous place. “We’re gonna have to take our lumps.” He mostly means regarding expensive equipment failures or snafus in data collection procedures. But each passenger on the Knorr has a life vest, and a red, full-body “survival” suit, and not-one-but-two seats in a life boat. They’re there for a reason.
For now, I stare out onto the uniform, wavy, surface. Today it appears calm. A watery world, that, here on the Knorr, we are on top of. But from even this vantage point, the world is deceptively simple.