NOAA Teacher at Sea
(Almost) aboard NOAA Ship Pisces
May 04, 2016 – May 17, 2016
Greetings from Garibaldi, Oregon. My name is Denise Harrington and I teach Second Grade at South Prairie Elementary School in Tillamook, Oregon, along the north Oregon coast. There are 300 amazing second and third graders at our school who can prove to you that no matter how young you are, you can be a great scientist. Last year they were caught on camera by Oregon Field Guide studying the diversity of life present in our ocean.
I applied to become a NOAA Teacher at Sea because I wanted to work with scientists in the field. I seem to learn best by doing. In 2014, I joined the crew of NOAA ship Rainier, mapping the ocean floor near Kodiak Island, Alaska. I learned how vast, connected, and undiscovered our oceans are. Students watched in disbelief after we discovered a sea floor canyon. I learned about the technology and skills used to map the ocean floor. I learned how NOAA helps us stay safe by making accurate nautical charts. It was, for our students and myself, a life changing experience.
Now, I am fortunate enough to participate in another NOAA survey. On this survey aboard NOAA ship Pisces, scientists will be collecting data about how many fish inhabit the area along banks and ledges of the Continental Shelf of the Gulf of Mexico.
NOAA believes in the value of sharing what they do with the public, and students in particular. The crew of Pisces even let fifth grader students from Southaven, Mississippi name the ship after they won a writing contest. Maybe you can name the next NOAA ship!
On May 3, 2016, Ship Pisces will begin Leg 3 of their survey of reef fish. I have so many questions. I asked Chief Scientist Kevin Rademacher why the many survey partners chose snapper and grouper to survey. He replied “Snapper and grouper are some of the most important commercial fisheries here in the Gulf of Mexico. There are 14 species of snapper in the Gulf of Mexico that are good to eat. Of those the most commercially important is the red snapper. It is also currently over-fished.” When I hear “over-fished” I wonder if our second graders will have many or any red snapper to eat when they they grow up. Yikes!
Another important commercial catch is grouper. My brother, Greg, who fishes along the Kenai River in Alaska understands why grouper is a focus of the survey. “It’s tasty,” he says. I can’t believe he finds grouper tastier than salmon. NOAA is making sure that we know what fish we have and make sure we save some for later, so that everyone can decide which fish is the tastiest when they grow up.
I have so many questions keeping me up at night as I prepare for my adventure. What do I need to know about fish to do my job on the ship? Will I see evidence of the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon spill? How crowded will we all be aboard Ship Pisces? If I dissect fish, will it be gross? Will it stink? Will I get sea sick? With my head spinning with questions, I know I am learning. Yet there is nothing more I can do now to prepare myself for all that I will learn, except to be early to the airport in Portland, Oregon, and to the ship in Pascagoula, Mississippi, on May 3rd.
I will get home in time to watch my daughter, Elizabeth, graduate from high school. Ever since I returned from the NOAA cruise in Alaska, she has been studying marine biology and even competed in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.
During research in the Gulf of Mexico with the crew of Ship Pisces, I will learn about the many living things in the Gulf of Mexico and about the technology they use to protect and manage commercial fisheries. Soon, you will be able to watch me collect data about our ocean critters. Hope for fair winds and following seas as I join the crew on Ship Pisces, “working to protect, restore, and manage the use of our living ocean resources.”
The last couple of days have been the best ever: beautiful weather, hard work, deep science. We acquired data along the continental shelf and found a cool sea floor canyon and then set benchmarks and tidal gauges.
In hydrography, we gather data in seven steps, by determining: our position on Earth, depth of water, sound speed, tides, attitude (what the boat is doing), imagery and features. Step 1 is to determine where we are.
In Step 2, we determine the depth of the water below us.
Bathymetry is a cool word that means the study of how deep the water is. Think “bath” water and metry “measure.” When your mom tells you to get out of the tub, tell her to wait because you’re doing bathymetry.
As I explained in my first blog, we measure depth by sending out a swath of sound, or “pings,” and count how long it takes for the pings to return to the sonar, which sits beneath the ship or smaller boat.
Yesterday we used the multi-beam sonar to scan the sea floor. Here is a screen shot of the data we collected. It looks like a deep canyon, because it is!
Here I am, gathering pings.
Step 3, we take into consideration the tide’s effect on the depth of the water. Tides are one predictable influence on water depth. There are over 38 factors or “constituents” that influence the tides. The gravitational pull of the sun and the moon at various times of the day, the tilt of the earth, the topography, and many other factors cause water to predictably bulge in different places on earth at different times. The Rainier crew works 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, so they must find a way to measure depth throughout the days and month, by taking into account the tide. Arthur Doodson, who was profoundly deaf, invented the Doodson Numbers a system taking into account the factors influencing tide in 1921. Flash forward to the 21st century, our Commanding Officer, Commander Rick Brennan worked with a team of NOAA scientists to develop a software program called TCARI, as an alternate method to do tide adjustments, taking into account 38 factors, even the moon’s wobble. Inventions abound at NOAA.
The Rainier crew worked for 14 hours today to set up a tide gauge station, an in depth study of how the tide affects our survey area. On this map, there is a Red X for each tide gauge we will install. This process only happens at the beginning of the season, and I feel fortunate to have been here–the work we did was….amazing.
You can see an animation here that shows the combined effect of two sine waves that produce a signal like our tide data. Just imagine what it looks like when you factor in 38 different variables.
Low tide is the best time to see sea stars, mussels and barnacles, but it is also a more hazardous time in the tidal cycle for mariners to travel. Therefore, navigational charts use the mean lower low water level, low tide, for the soundings, or depth measurements on a chart. The black numbers seen on a nautical chart, or soundings, represent depth measurements relative to mean lower low tide. Driver Bay, the area on the chart where we installed the tide gauge today, is the crescent shaped bay at the northwest end of Raspberry Island.
Installing Tide Gauge Stations
Before gathering sonar data, ground and boat crews install a tide gauge to measure changes in water level and to determine the mean lower low water level datum. A tide gauge is a neat device that has air pumped into it, and uses air pressure, to determine how deep the water is. The tide gauge uses a formula of (density of sea water)(gravity)(height) = pressure. The gauge measures pressure, and we apply factors for gravity and sea water. The only missing factor is height, which is what we learn as the gauge collects data. This formula and nuances for particular locations is a fascinating topic for a blog or master’s thesis. Scientists are looking for tidal fluctuations and other location specific variances. Then, by computer they determine the mean lower low tide depth, factoring in the tidal fluctuations.
There are permanent tide gauge stations all over the world. The nearest permanent tide gauge station to our study area is in Kodiak and Seldovia. These permanent gauges take into account many factors that affect tides over a 19 year period of time, not just the gravitational pull of the moon.
The tide gauge stays in place for at least 28 days (one full tidal cycle). During the month, data of the tides is collected and can be compared to the other tide gauges we install.
Installing the Tide Gauges and Benchmarks
Excitement built as the crew prepared for the “Tide Party,” packing suitcases full of gear and readying the launches. Installing Tide Gauges signals the beginning of the season and is one of the few times crew gets paid to go on shore.
Why Bench Mark?
There are three reasons I have figured out after many discussions with patient NOAA crew as to why we put in bench marks.
The first reason we install benchmarks is to provide a reference framework to ensure both our tide staff and the tide gauge orifice are stable and not moving relative to land. The second reason is if we ever come back here again to gather or compare data to previous years, we will know the elevation of the tidal datum at this location relative to these benchmarks and can easily install a new tide gauge. The third reason is that the earth and ocean floor changes constantly. As scientists, we need to make sure the survey area is “geologically stable.” We acquire several hours of GPS measurements on the primary benchmark to measure both its horizontal and vertical position relative to the earth’s reference frame. Should there ever be an earthquake here, we can come back afterwards and measure that benchmark again and see how much the position of the Earth’s crust has changed. After the last big earthquake in Alaska, benchmarks were found to move in excess of a meter in some locations!
Installing the Benchmark
Today, our beach party broke into two groups. We located stable places, at about 200 foot intervals along the coastline. We drilled 5 holes on land and filled them with concrete. A benchmark is a permanent marker you may have seen at landmarks such as a mountain peak or jetty that will remain in place for 100 years or more. We stamped the benchmark by hand with a hammer and letter stamps with our station identification. If we chose a good stable spot, the benchmark should remain in the same location as it is now.
As one group sets up benchmarks, another group installed the tide gauge.
To install the tide gauge, you must have at least three approved divers who install the sensor in deep water so that it is always covered by water. Because there were only two crew on board trained to dive, Lieutenant Bart Buesseler, who is a dive master, was called in to assist the team. The dive team secured a sensor below the water. The sensor measures the water depth with an air pressure valve for at least 28 days. During this time there is a pump on shore that keeps the tube to the orifice pressurized and a pressure sensor in the gauge that records the pressure. The pressure is equal to the number of feet of sea water vertically above the gauge’s orifice. An on-board data logger records this data and will transmit the data to shore through a satellite antenna.
After the gauge and benchmarks are in place, a group does a leveling run to measure the benchmark’s height relative to the staff or meter stick. One person reads the height difference between 5 different benchmarks and the gauge. Then they go back and measure the height difference a second time to “close” the deal. They will do the same measurements again at the end of the survey in the fall to make sure the survey area has not changed geographically more than ½ a millimeter in height! Putting the bubble in the middle of the circle and holding it steady, leveling, was a highlight of my day.
Finally, a person–me– watches the staff (big meter stick above the sensor) and takes measurements of the water level with their eyes every six minutes for three hours. Meanwhile, the sensor, secured at the orifice to the ocean floor by divers, is also measuring the water level by pressure. The difference between these two numbers is used to determine how far below the water’s surface the orifice has been installed and to relate that distance to the benchmarks we have just leveled to. If the numbers are consistent, then we know we have reliable measurements. I won’t find out if they match until tomorrow, but hope they do. If they don’t match, I’ll have to go back to Driver Bay and try again.
As we finished up the observations, we had a very exciting sunset exit from Raspberry Island. I was sad to leave such a beautiful place, but glad to have the memories.
Last minute update: word just came back from my supervisor, Ensign J.C. Clark, that my tidal data matches the gauge’s tidal data, which he says is “proof of my awesomeness.” Anyone who can swim with a car battery in tow is pretty awesome in my book too.
Spotlight on a Scientist
Lieutenant Bart Buesseler came to us straight from his family home in the Netherlands, and before that from his research vessel, Bay Hydro II. The main reason our CO asked him to leave his crew in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, and join us on the Rainier is because he is a dive master, capable of installing our sensors under water, and gifted at training junior officers.
During his few years of service, LTJG Buesseler adventured through the Panama Canal, along both coasts of North America, and has done everything from repairing gear to navigating the largest and smallest of NOAA vessels through very narrow straits. He loves the variety: “if I get tired of one task, I rotate on to another to keep engaged and keep my mind sharp.” He explains that on a ship, each person is trained to do most tasks. For example, he says, “during our fast rescue boat training today, Cal led several rotations. But what if he is gone? Everyone needs to be ready to help in a rescue.” Bart says at NOAA people educate each other, regardless of their assignments, “cultivating information” among themselves. Everyone is skilled at everything aboard Rainier.
In the end, he says that all the things the crew does are with an end goal of making a chart. His motto? Do what you love to do and that is what he’s doing.
Today was a special day for me for many reasons. It is majestic here: the stark Alaskan peninsula white against the changing color of the sky, Raspberry Island with its brown, golden, crimson and forest green vegetation, waterfalls and rocky outcroppings. I’m seeing whales, Puffins, Harlequin Ducks and got up close with the biggest red fox ever. Most importantly, I felt useful and simultaneously centered myself by doing tide observations, leveling and hiking. I almost dove through the surf to make it “home” to the ship just in time for a hot shower. Lieutenant Buesseler’s reference to “cultivating information” rings very true to me. In writing these blogs, there is virtually nothing I came up with independently. All that I have written is a product of the patient instruction of Rainier crew, especially Commander Brennan. Each day I feel more like I am a member of the NOAA crew here in Alaska.