GeoLog

Field Work

Imaggeo on Mondays: Robotics at the service of the polar science

Imaggeo on Mondays: Robotics at the service of the polar science

This picture was taken in the Arctic in May 2018. It shows the unmanned marine vehicle Proteus in front of the tidewater glacier Conwaybreen in the Kongsfjorden in Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago. The front of tidewater glaciers is an almost vertical wall of ice standing over the sea where direct measurements are very critical due to the possibility of sudden fall of enormous blocks of ice. For this reason there is a lack of environmental data in this areas. The use of Proteus to collect data allowed to increase the understanding of phenomena related to the global climate change, especially ice melting.

PROTEUS was equipped with an autonomous water sampler and with two winches for the management of various sensors. One winch was used to release and recover a cluster of underwater sensors and the other to release and recover an air balloon carrying air quality sensors. With this solution it was possible to obtain a good characterization of the whole marine-air column in the proximity of tidewater glaciers.

Description by Angelo Odetti, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Weathering the storm from a research vessel

Weathering the storm from a research vessel

Fieldwork can take geoscientists to some of the most remote corners of the Earth in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, but stories from the field hardly make it into a published paper. In this blog post, Raffaele Bonadio, a PhD student in seismology at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland, shares a particularly formidable experience in the field while aboard a research vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean.  

We knew it would be stormy that night. At the previous evening’s briefing, the captain of the ship, composed and collected, notified us that we needed to make a diversion from the planned route to avoid getting too close to the eye of the storm, “We’ll slow down the vessel…” “kind of five metres swell expected”. He was calm and comfortable. The crew members were calm and comfortable. We, the guest scientists, were not.

Why were we in the middle of the ocean?

I was part of a team of researchers from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies working on the project SEA-SEIS (Structure, Evolution and Seismicity of the Irish offshore). Our task was to deploy a suite of seismometers on the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean from our research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer, to investigate the geological evolution of the Irish offshore.

A map of the North Atlantic Ocean, showing the locations of seismometers deployed by the team’s research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer. Credit: Raffaele Bonadio

Why study the Irish offshore?

The tectonic plate that Ireland sits on was deformed and stretched to form the deep basins offshore. The plate then broke, and its parts drifted away from each other, as the northern Atlantic Ocean opened. Hot currents in the convecting mantle of the Earth caused volcanic eruptions and rocks to melt 50-100 km below the Earth’s surface. These hot currents may have come from a spectacular hot plume rising all the way from the Earth’s core-mantle boundary (at 2891 km depth) to just beneath Iceland.

What do ocean bottom seismometers do?

Ocean bottom seismometers record the tiny vibrations of the Earth caused by seismic waves, generated by earthquakes and ocean waves. As the waves propagate through the Earth’s interior on their way to the seismic stations, they accumulate information on the structure of the Earth that they encounter. Seismologists know how to decode the wiggles on the seismograms to obtain this information. With this data, they can do a 3D scan (tomography) of what’s inside the Earth.

One of the research team’s seismometers being dropped into the North Atlantic Ocean. The instruments sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they measure the Earth’s movement. Credit: SEA-SEIS Team

In this project, we want to better understand how the structure of the tectonic plate varies from across the North Atlantic and what happens beneath the plates. And is there an enormous hot plume beneath Iceland, responsible for the country’s volcanoes today and the formation of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland? This is what we hope we will find out!

Experiencing an ocean storm

We were aboard the ship about 9 days and had just deployed “Ligea”, the 14th seismometer before the captain had notified us that a storm was heading our way.

While we were told in advance of the approaching storm, there was no way we could have imagined what it would be like to be in the middle of a stormy ocean. I had only heard some stories and I didn’t fully believe them…

I was awakened by the sound of my table lamp smashing on the ground, even the 15 cm protection edge around the table couldn’t help. The closet door opened and hit the wall. I managed not to fall off the bed, pointing my legs and make a crack with my back. I heard one of my colleagues laughing in the next cabin after a loud thud. “Did he just fall off the bed?” I thought to myself – his laugh did sound a bit of hysterical.

I realized a big wave had crashed on the side of the ship. I couldn’t believe that water and metal crashing together could make such a harsh bang. The previous evening was a continuation of bangs, splashes, sprinkles, bloops, clangs, and creaks … but even with all these noises and disturbances, I managed to sleep, exhausted from dizziness and sea-sickness.

I checked the clock on the wall: it was 3:20 in the morning. I looked at the porthole, due to the vertical movement my cabin was underwater half of the time. I walked through the cabin, trying to reach the toilet. “Oh, I wish they made the cabin smaller! I can’t reach both walls with my arms,” I said to myself. I opened the tap to refresh my face, the flowing water danced right and left across the basin. I then climbed up to the deck, I had to literally climb up the stairs. Up there I couldn’t see anything but darkness; I couldn’t see the boundary between the sky and the sea.

More than a week had passed since our departure, yet my body had still not adapted to this incessant movement. My eyes could not follow my body and my stomach did not react well, I couldn’t see anymore what was horizontal and what wasn’t. However, I wasn’t even scared, I believed nobody on the ship was (or is it only that I wanted to believe this?). It wasn’t fear, but rather an unceasing uncomfortable feeling: I knew I was more than 900 km from any dry land, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, on a 66 m long vessel; I knew the captain and the crew were working hard to take us far from the storm. I was not scared…

In a few hours we were planning to deploy an ocean bottom seismometer, a very sophisticated device that is able to operate at huge pressures at the bottom of the ocean; released from the ship it would sink and install itself on the seafloor 4 km under the surface of the waves. In other words, a 200 kg ‘little orange elephant’, as the students who supported us from land every day liked to call it! “Will we be able to deploy? Will we be able not to crash the instrument on the sides? Will we instead be able to keep our balance and walk up to the deck?”

“Yes, we will.”

How did this look like? Find out more in this video:

 

So, what did we accomplish?

As part of the SEA-SEIS project, led by Dr. Sergei Lebedev, our research team successfully deployed 18 seismometers at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. The network covers the entire Irish offshore, with a few sensors also in the UK and Iceland’s waters. The ocean-bottom seismometers were deployed between 17 September and 5 October, 2018, and will be retrieved in April of 2020.

To find out more about the SEA-SEIS Projects, have a look at SEA-SEIS or check out our introductory video.

By Raffaele Bonadio, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Ireland

Imaggeo on Mondays: Our QUEST for innovative tools to understand changing environments and climates

Imaggeo on Mondays: Our QUEST for innovative tools to understand changing environments and climates

The photo shown here shows typical sampling work underground. You can see Ola Kwiecien and Cinthya Nava Fernandez, researchers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, collecting dripwater in New Zealand’s Waipuna Cave as part of a four-year EU-funded monitoring programme. Our research aims at developing innovative geochemical indicators that we can use to quantify changes in the hydrological system or biosphere above the cave that result from variations in weather patterns and climate.

Caves are fantastic natural archives and laboratories. One can imagine caves like libraries of natural history: they host carbonate formations (such as stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones etc., collectively known as speleothems) which, like books, can be read by geochemists to learn about past climatic and environmental conditions. Importantly, these ‘stone books’ must, on the one hand, be protected from destruction by weathering, and on the other, must be written in a language that we can decipher. The secluded cave environment greatly helps protect speleothems from erosion and weathering, while monitoring the cave environment and hydrology allows us to learn the alphabet which nature uses to write natural history into the speleothems. Only then can we reconstruct, and ideally quantify, past environmental conditions.

Of special importance for our work in New Zealand is the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the southern Westerlies. These two atmospheric subsystems strongly influence weather and climate in New Zealand. Southward or northward shifts of the Westerlies influence New Zealand crop yields and tourism, as well as the fishing economy, among others. El Nino and La Nina have equally strong impacts on weather patterns in New Zealand (and, in fact globally).

Despite many years of research, the mechanisms that cause changes to the ENSO and the Westerlies, and their interaction, still remain poorly understood. This lack of knowledge limits scientists’ efforts to estimate the magnitude and direction of changes that might result from ongoing global warming.

Our team of German, British and New Zealand geochemists, mathematicians, palaeoclimatologists and modellers set out to develop innovative tools and methods that would allow researchers to quantify, for example, changes in rainfall or seasonality, with the ultimate goal that these should be applicable globally. The manual sampling depicted in the photo might soon be replaced by an automatic sampler, which would greatly reduce the costs for regular fieldwork. Especially in remote settings such robots would be of great benefit for our research.

Our team also developed new proxies, such as a lignin-based (biomarker) proxy that allows us to reconstruct changes in vegetation above the cave. We also explored how transition metals behave in the hydrological system of caves, and the factors that control how these metals are transported and incorporated into speleothems. These research activities will hopefully give us powerful and very sensitive tools to quantify changes of environmental parameters, including rainfall, temperature, soil and vegetation and the underlying forcings, like ENSO. Until we have our tool kit properly calibrated, we continue our visits to Waipuna and other caves in New Zealand and Germany.

Our QUEST project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme and the Royal Society of New Zealand. Find more at http://quest.pik-potsdam.de/

By Sebastian Breitenbach, Ruhr University Bochum (Germany), and Adam Hartland, University of Waikato (New Zealand)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.