Some photos from day 1. Very happy to be back on these beautiful beaches. Thank you to the Haverford College KINSC for funding this trip.
We are super excited to be in the Gulf! I took tons of pictures and here’s a glimpse at how our first day collecting sand patty samples went:
Action-packed and exciting Day 1! More photos coming soon!
Carolyn asked this question as we walked onto our fourth beach to collect another set of sand patty samples. Personally I think the sand was happy.
Yes sand can be happy. Don’t mock it!
And it had hundreds of thousands of reasons to be happy. Here’s a few off the top of my head.
-it was welcoming Rachel Shelby Carolyn and I to the gulf for our first ever sampling trip.
-The sand was overjoyed to see Helen White back for another round of tar ball collection.
-maybe it was welcoming the WHOI crew who are on their own field work expedition, visiting sites with us.
-maybe the beaches were proud of us for collecting samples from a record breaking 5 beaches on our first day.
-Or maybe the beaches just appreciated that our sampling work was removing sand patties–literally balls of sand and weathered oil that wash up with the surf, polluting beaches while offering physical evidence of the continued repercussions of the Deepwater Horizon spill three years later.
Any one of these would be sufficient to make me squeak. Maybe the sand was just as excited as we are to be here.
Or…maybe the sand was just so fine and hot that it was squeaking against itself as our feet applied pressure, as Helen said.
I still say the sand was happy but if you want to trust a PhD and your common sense over me, that’s your choice.
Expect a lot of updates tonight!
A “quick” edit:
So let me explain exactly where we are and what we are doing. The white lab has undertaken yet another expedition to the Gulf of Mexico to collect sand patties, the residue of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill from a few years back. The team landed in Pensacola Florida and journeyed westward from there; the final destination is New Orleans and the team will take samples from an array of beaches along the way. Some beaches are ports and jetties while others are tourist traps and some are national parks on barrier islands. Leading the team is veteran explorer and patty identifier Helen White. Accompanying her is a rookie team of rising juniors (we have to earn our names) and postdoc Rachel Sinister. With determination and luck they will attempt to retrieve samples while combating sunburn, Mississippi drivers, and southern cuisine (so much butter). Next time: what goes into sampling and our names!
… And thus, the much anticipated Week 7 began with some minor difficulty as the team did a little final packing for the voyage into the Deep South (the check-in case was 4 pounds too heavy)
That’s right, we’re off to the Gulf tomorrow morning!!! Phillies game against the Nationals tonight, a 6:30am flight on Tuesday, then 4 glorious (and hot and sticky) days collecting sand patty samples! (It’s supposed to be high 80s with 75% humidity. Gross) But we’re finally heading out for field work and sunburns! Chris Reddy’s lab from WHOI will be joining us, so we’ll all get to bond over science and samples and stuff. This trip is going to be AWESOME!
Now because this is my first post of the summer, I should probably explain what I’ve been wasting my time on. The first two weeks I was finishing up Sarah’s silica gel project on sand patties DI19 and GP04, which I think went off quite successfully. The rest of the time I’ve been working on a new project that involves Porites coral from Vietnam: using GCMS, Helen and I are trying to quantify concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in pre-industrial (ca.1650), post-industrial (ca.1965), and modern (ca.2004) coral samples. Our collaborator, Nathalie Goodkin, is in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University and working on quantifying the metal contaminants in the coral. It’s pretty cool and we’re actually getting some significant results!
And finally, can I pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease go on a research cruise, too?
Happy belated 4th of July from Philadelphia! (definitely my favorite part of the parade)
The mighty R/V Pelican entered the final sampling location early Friday evening. The location? The Orca Basin (and no, it’s not the Okra Basin, as I first heard it) is the most westward and the deepest of our 6 sampling sites. The basin, located about 300 km southwest of the mouth of the Mississippi River, is famous for what lurks in its depths: anoxic brine!
After watching the dramatic shift in the halocline on the CTD readings at around 2100 m, we launched our final multi-core sampler to retrieve sediment and water at the brine-sediment interface. The multi-core arrived on deck in the wee hours of the morning, but Shelby and I eagerly hopped to it. This core turned out to be the most exciting one of the trip!
Unlike previous cores, which typically were an elephant-gray (the anoxic layer), capped with 10-20 cm of rich brown-gray sediment on top (the oxic layer), there was a distinct third layer, from 10-25 cm, of a rusty-red hue.
Due to the anoxic brine (which one of the graduate students accidentally tasted when removing the brine prior to extrusion), there were no visible forms of life at the surface, unlike previous sediments, which were populated with tubeworms, foraminifera, and even a sea cucumber at one site.
As Shelby and I extruded the core, there was one more surprise at the interface of the brown and red layer:
We wondered, “Peach-fuzz? Glass wool?…Traces of alien life?”
We took a subsample and Jo Muller, a geologist and professor from Florida Gulf Coast University, suggested these were spiculae, or hair-thin fibers of silica formed by foraminfera in the sediment. But Jo was quick to admit that these spiculae were longer than anything she had encountered before.
We could barely contain our curiosity and excitement, and after sampling from the 10-15 cm range, we sieved through the remaining sediment of that layer to get a better sense of the spiculae and happily packed it away in a separate jar. At around 25 cm in depth, the color of the core changed from red to gray, and the spiculae all but disappeared. The concurrence of the red sediment and the spiculae? That’s a mystery for another day…
Your faithful maritime mystery seekers,
Shelby and Sarah
(*definitely not “Redrum” on the high seas, nor any other Shining moments!)
Okay, so I should be more specific. What I’m actually talking about is sediment, or deep-sea sediment. Before I dive into how we are collecting these precious samples, I would like to propose an addendum to Murphy’s Law. Let’s call it the Harrison-Lyons Addendum to Murphy’s Law, informally known as the Sediment Law:
If sediment can get somewhere, it will.
What does this mean, you ask. Well, from our experience, if sediment is on deck and not yet in its sample jar, then it will find a way to get all over you. Underfoot, on your helmet, on your vest, on your shirts, in your socks, and the forgotten corners of the deck. EVERYWHERE. Sponges get most of it off, and a salt water rinse will get a fair portion of the remainder. BUT, the sediment will prevail, in the same way that the Dude abides. Permanently.
Good. Have fun in the mud.
Monday June 24, 2013
Greetings from the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. We arrived at our first site, Station 3, midday yesterday and immediately began collecting. First up, we dropped a Z-shaped trap to collect large animal specimen from the deep-sea (depth ~1100 m). We plan to pick this trap up later tonight (after wrapping up our work at Station 1), and will find out then if we picked up any monsters from the deep.
After the trap was dropped, we deployed our 24-cannister CTD (a conductivity, temperature, and depth) sensor, which took measurements at every 100 m.
Then onto the box cores!
Box cores collect a large square portion of sediment. A group from LSU, led by Bob Carney, was sieving through these samples in hopes of finding animals, such as tube worms, sea cucumbers, and small arthropods.
What was really exciting about these box cores is that it gave us a snapshot of the surface of the seafloor.
See? It’s not just mud and oil down there!
And last, but definitely not least, the multi-core sampler, shown below.
This is the main event and why Shelby and I are here. The multicore sampler is deployed into the sediment and collects one continuous core of sediment roughly 40-50 cm deep, including water (and any critters) just above the seafloor.
One of the greatest parts of seeing these cores come up (other than seeing a giant piece of equipment deployed to the seafloor and retrieved with cores from 1100 meters below the surface) was the visual separation of the oxic and anoxic layers. The oxic one seen on top is a thin, red-brown silty layer, whereas the anoxic layer is the blue-gray bottom layer, which has a clay-like consistency. The newer layer is found ontop, but even so, sediment settles very slowly. We are most interested in the top few centimeters of sediment, for it will give a snapshot of sediment-forming activity in the Gulf over the past few years. For our core, we sliced it using aluminum sheets, packaged the sediment into glass jars, and froze them onboard for further examination.
In the early morning (around 4am), we arrived at Station 2, but both of us were asleep during that stop (although we did wake up in time to package our own core).
Shortly after that, we were making way to Station 1, home of the Macondo Well. This site is where the wellhead blew up a few years back, and the site of interest for our research.
Sarah and Shelby
Ahoy ye land lubbers!
Greetings from Cocodrie, Louisiana, where Shelby and I are docked onboard the mighty R/V Pelican. We set sail tonight at 0:00, bound for site 3 of 6 (yes, things are already getting out of order!) on our six day cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. The goal? To collect deep-sea sediment cores from six different sites via a multi-core sediment sampler. Besides this muddy work, we will also be assisting in the collection of water samples for stable carbon isotope for Brad Rosenheim’s group, collecting box core and gravity core samples (a further discussion of these cores is to come…), all while not getting seasick on a 12-12 shift!
So far, though, it’s been pretty nice.
We’ve settled into our quarters, acquainted ourselves with the crew, and are getting ready to set sail in the next hour and change.
More updates to come….
Sarah and Shelby!
Lab work can, at times, be a frantic dash between three projects that does not allow you a moment’s rest. It can also require long waits, such as when your GC-MS—Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometer—reports a leak, rendering it inoperable for a few days. In the latter case, the imposed break can serve as a period of discovery where you further your knowledge of petroleum biomarkers or contently watch a live-feed of a scientific team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution exploring the Cayman Trench.
Needless to say, I chose to watch the live-feed.
The Cayman Trench, just off the coast of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, is one of the deepest parts of the Caribbean Sea. It is the product of a fault zone between divergent tectonic plates and is also home to several hydrothermal vents. These vents, at 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) below sea level, are some of the deepest yet discovered and have attracted multiple teams of scientists to explore the region (this particular team is at least the third to visit the site). To explore at these skull-crushing depths, the team employed an ROV—remotely operated vehicle—equipped with a reinforced titanium arm with a claw-like grip, specialized sample collectors, a high definition camera, a 27 kilometer fiber optic cable relay, and plastic milk cartons to safely store extra tools (yes, the cartons found in any middle-school).
But I digress. The ROV visited these vents to collect samples for us surface dwellers. At each vent, the submersible’s titanium arm would place a collection wand with a thermometer deep inside the vent to sample the recently ejected water and determine its chemical composition (the warmer the water, the more recently it was ejected, and therefore the less contaminated with normal sea water it is). The ROV would also take biological samples. The vents hosted a variety of micro and macro-organisms, including bio-luminescent shrimp that the ROV—in the name of science—would occasionally vacuum up.
No joke. Attached to the submersible was a long, transparent plastic hose, much like the one attached to your vacuum cleaner at home. This hose led to a collection tank, which needed to be filled with a few dozen shrimp from time to time—still for science. To collect these shrimp, the team would position the ROV’s arm, hose in hand, over an unlucky shrimp before turning on the suction. At this point, the shrimp was treated to the ride of its life before being deposited in the collection box with its brethren (all for our viewing pleasure). Frankly, this was hilarious and awesome to watch, especially since the shrimp were deceptively challenging to capture. An apt analogy would be the claw machine at your local grocery store, the one that dropped the toy repeatedly while whittling away your allowance. And honestly, I imagine the shrimp were just thinking “The Claw!” the whole time.
Before I conclude, I want to draw some attention to the Herculean effort these tasks—mundane at a cursory glance—require. Collecting a water sample directly from the vent at four hundred degrees, for instance, is deceptively challenging. The titanium arm, while elegant, lacks the flexibility and responsiveness of a human arm, and the HD cameras provide poor depth perception. It takes infinite patience on the controller’s part just to pick up a tool (a process of trial and error), let alone position a collection chamber in the middle of a black smoker. Compounding this challenge are the underwater currents and turbulence from the vent constantly bombarding the ROV; standing still requires constant effort, and the team has to respond from over 5000 meters away. And don’t forget the fiber optic cable trailing the ROV, which could be cut by the rotor on the ROV or accidentally get melted in one of the five surrounding black smokers (did I forget to mention one dive was into a field of vents?).
Despite these challenges and handicaps, the team expertly guided the submersible, patiently performing each collection with expert precision. It serves as a humbling reminder to the Undergrad struggling to grip a sample with his or her forceps to not complain. Things could be worse…so much worse.
Well, I’m going to end this entry here, since I want to go back to watching the live-feed. Tune in next week, wherein the author reports on his own results and proves he is not just watching TV all summer.
Oh! Here are some links for relevant sites! You too can watch a shrimp’s incredible journey through a vacuum, or learn why it’s necessary, or just about the expedition to the Cayman Rise in general (as well as upcoming voyages).
Sarah Harrison ’13 and Shelby Lyons ’15 are currently at sea, participating in a research cruise with the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative funded group CARTHE on the R/V Pelican in the Gulf of Mexico. They did manage to send me these photos before they set sail upon the seas of patchy internet. Check back for posts when their internet returns.
Even though I am stuck on land, I am still able to explore the murky depths from my office by following two amazing live feeds from current research cruises here and here. Deep sea TV doesn’t get much better than this.