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Labs at Sea: Managing Research Miles from Shore

Labs at Sea: Managing Research Miles from Shore

When a piece of equipment breaks in a science lab, it can hold things up for hours. On a research ship 100 miles from port, delays could turn into highly expensive days.

cape-hatteras-053-350.jpgTracy Villareal was several weeks into a 27-day cruise aboard the R/V Cape Hatteras when a part broke on a critical instrument. Fortunately, the ship’s engineer soldered the delicate metal tube back together.

Villareal, professor in the department of marine science, served as chief scientist on a research cruise to characterize effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Gulf of Mexico biogeochemistry. The scientists measured nutrients, pH and oxygen using real-time data from sensors lowered into the water. Additional lab tests on water samples served to calibrate and verify that real-time data.

Data indicate that a significant quantity of oil remains in the Gulf, Villareal says, but it has been changed by physical and chemical processes into a form most people wouldn't recognize as oil. What can be clearly seen is evidence of where the oil caused localized changes in nutrients, oxygen and pH in deep waters.

Besides the usual challenges of basic research, scientists at sea face the possibility of equipment breaking, inadequate or wrong equipment, and lack of access to replacement equipment, parts and other supplies.

“You have to build in a lot of redundancy,” Villareal says. “If you plan to run 30 samples, bring enough chemicals for 150. Out in the middle of the ocean three days from port, you don’t have the option of getting more.”

Weather adds uncertainty to the equation. “If suddenly a gale blows up, 40 knot winds and 20 foot seas, you can’t work,” Villareal points out. “With chemicals, electrical equipment, breakable glass, sharp metal edges and moving surfaces, it becomes too dangerous to put instruments over the side or handle things in the lab.”

Improvisation can save the day, but scientists must then deal with how their improvising might modify data. That requires thorough understanding of the systems used, what is being measured and how.

Personalities can be even more unpredictable than weather. On land, scientists seldom spend 24 hours a day together for weeks at a time, as they do at sea.

“Things that seem funny at first can become incredibly aggravating after two weeks,” says Villareal. “A tough situation can pull people together or do the opposite.” He finds it helpful to be extremely polite.

“Relationships have gone bad at sea and twenty years later, no one has any idea why anymore. It’s bizarre and hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been at sea, but it’s true.”

After 20 years of working at sea, though, Villareal still finds it fun. “Even if the weather really rots and you can’t get a lot of work done, most oceanographers like being at sea. That’s where our interest is and our hearts lie. The blue out there is like nothing else.”

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