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  • Kelsey Lane

The Final Frontier: Science in the Open Ocean

As we leave the protected bay and enter the open ocean, the ship immediately starts leaping up and down. Sea sickness sets in for over half the science party as the boat pitches, rolls and heaves in a strange corkscrew motion. We check the lab and back deck to make sure our equipment is safely secured and stowed. Within a few hours, we’ll be at our first sampling station, deploying massive gear to study the waters underneath. Once we start, the pace won’t let down until we return to port, as these vessels cost tens of thousands of dollars a day to operate. The data we collect, however, is invaluable, as questions about the ocean’s chemistry, biology, and currents can only be answered while at sea and ultimately the ocean impacts global climate and people everywhere. Life as a sea-going oceanographer can be hard to describe, but studying the open ocean is uniquely challenging and rewarding.

We’ll spend the next few weeks with the same forty people on a 200-foot vessel, fitting in as much science as we can beyond the sight of land and cell service. For that brief period, the ship becomes our whole world. We’ll tow nets through the water, lower huge cages of sensors over the side on a wire to great depths, probe the seafloor with multiple depth sounders, and continuously monitor the surface ocean with our instruments. Thousands of samples and terabytes and data will be collected and shipped back to home labs and universities. Often a single cruise represents years of work for a researcher, as they analyze and process the incredible amount of data. These lengthy cruises are still just skimming our understanding of the marine environment.


A rainbow in the sky spreading over over the back deck of a research vessel
Figure 1. It's not all rainbows at sea! Rainbow after a squall on the R/V Sally Ride in March 2023.

The ocean is one of the last frontiers on the planet. According to the National Ocean Service, over 80 percent of the ocean is unmapped and unexplored. Studying the ocean is an interdisciplinary effort and most research cruises include biologists, chemists, physicists and geologists, as well as a trained crew of mariners and technicians, all working together. Unfortunately, getting the equipment, time and funding is incredibly challenging. A single expedition can cost millions of dollars, involve coordinating logistics in far-flung foreign ports, and require days of motoring to get out to unexplored areas. When issues arise, like rough weather, diverted cruise tracks, or equipment failure, valuable information can be lost because the ship has to keep its schedule. There are no guarantees of success when going to sea.

Oceanographic exploration requires epic output of resources, time and expertise. Oceanographers working together and pooling resources has become very important and scientists have banded together to sample the ocean in international collaborative efforts. One example is the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE.) Spanning over a decade and including dozens of research cruises, WOCE collected seawater from the surface to the depths at over 17,000 stations (as illustrated in Figure 2.) This data was analyzed to better understand the ocean’s chemical and physical characteristics.


A globe focused on the ocean, with red transect lines covering most of the ocean, showing everywhere ocean data has been collected.
Figure 2. Over 17,400 stations where bottle data has been collected. Image from: http://ewoce.org/data/whp/WoceBtl_All_StationsMap.gif

The dataset is ground-breaking, especially if you consider that each of those dots represents a crew, ship and scientists spending hours on station prepping instruments, sampling the water, processing the water, analyzing the information and compiling the data until it could become those dots on a map. And still look at all those blank space in between! The Southern Pacific Ocean is particularly challenging to study because it is so far from any major port or continent and prone to foul weather and strong winds.

Currently, new technologies like remote sensing from satellites and automated profilers provide valuable information about the ocean without requiring anyone going to sea. Satellites can measure dozens of different qualities about the ocean surface, but they still can’t answer everything and require ground-truthing. Sea-going oceanographers are still a vital necessity and will continue to be if we want to explore this final frontier: the ocean. The resources and time required to conduct this research cannot be taken for granted, as the ocean is a dynamic and trying environment on which to conduct science, but worth every effort.



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