Preliminary results from our cruise

The whole science crew standing in front of ROV Jason.

The whole science crew standing in front of ROV Jason.

As we head back to shore we’ve all been scrambling to pack up our gear, copy video dvds from the Jason cameras, catch up on sleep, and look at the data that we’ve collected (not necessarily in that order!). The weather is deteriorating as we head east and the swell is getting larger. It’s getting harder to walk around—impossible to walk in a straight line and making dart throwing extra dangerous. They’ve rolled out the anti-slip mats in the galley to keep our plates from sliding around. It’s a perfect time to post about some of our results so far.

During the cruise we redeployed three BPRs, replacing one that was buried by the 2011 lava flow and exchanging the other two. We installed six new benchmarks total—two to replace benchmarks that were buried by the 2011 eruption and four to expand our coverage and tie our network to the OOI cabled observatory nodes that will be coming on line soon. We then made ROV-based campaign-style pressure measurements on our array of seafloor benchmarks. The preliminary results from our combined BPR instruments and ROV-based pressure survey show somewhat surprising and unexpected behavior from the volcano over the past two years.

Plot showing drop of caldera during 2011 eruption and uplift after.

Plot showing drop of caldera during 2011 eruption and uplift after.

1.) The post-2011 eruption inflation rate is higher than we expected to see. We measured about 1.22 m of uplift since August 2011, totaling 1.57 m of reinflation since the April 2011 eruption, which is an average rate of 61 cm/yr. For comparison, during most of the period between the 1998 and 2011 eruptions, we saw steady inflation at only 15 cm/yr.

2.) In addition, we expected to see a gradually decreasing rate of uplift since 2011. Instead, there was an almost a doubling in the inflation rate in September 2012, recorded on both of the BPRs that were in place during 2011-2013.

3.) Overall, this means that Axial has already recovered 65% of the -2.4 m of deflation that we measured during the 2011 eruption. If this inflation rate continues, it will be back to its pre-2011 level of inflation within only another year and a half (by January 2015).

We aren’t prepared to speculate on what this means, but it is clear that the volcano is in a very active phase right now! Once we’re back on shore we can begin to build models to understand our observations. We will be making a stop in Victoria, Canada tomorrow to let some of the science party off the ship to board a different research vessel and head back out to Axial for another two weeks. This gives us an opportunity to walk on solid ground and explore the city for an afternoon. Tomorrow night we will leave Victoria and head to Seattle. It has been a great trip!

View of the sunset off the ship.

View of the sunset off the ship.

Biology on the Thompson

Photo showing red and orange mat atop of a bridge held up by pillars.

Photo showing red and orange mat atop of a bridge held up by pillars.

One of the groups on the ship is interesting in the microbiology associated with the hydrothermal vents in the area. Biology on land and in surface waters get their energy from the sun and since there is no sunlight that reaches the bottom of the ocean, the microbes at Axial have evolved to thrive on different energy sources. These sources include rock, and gas combinations like hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and methane. This research group is studying microbes living near vents with low hydrogen values. The high temperature loving microbes that live at the vents “eat” hydrogen and carbon dioxide to produce methane. These microbes are called methanogens, since they produce methane, and the group is trying to help understand how these microbes live near the vents. One possibility is that there could be other microbes in the vents that create hydrogen allowing the methanogens to live compatibly at the same vents with one creating the hydrogen and the other utilizing it. Another microbe they are studying “eats” rocks and produces magnetite (a magnetic mineral), it is pretty awesome!

 

Taking a syringe sample of red mat.

Taking a syringe sample of red mat.

In a previous blog post a project involving searching for bacteria that can help develop new antibiotics was mentioned. This involves searching for blue and red bacterial mats, taking syringe samples of them, culturing them, and extracting their DNA. Studying bacteria near hydrothermal vents for medical purposes has not really been done, so this is new and exciting research taking place. The goal is to extract chemicals of the bacteria and expose them to several types of cancer, E. coli, cholera, and Staph infection to see if the bacteria stops the growth of the disease. Searching for the red mat on the seafloor was difficult at first, but worth the wait. The Jason crew was given a latitude/longitude coordinate from a previous group who saw the red mat about a month ago. Upon arriving at the location there was no red mat in sight, so Jason drove around for about an hour before finding a small section with bright red mat. A sample was taken, and Jason continued to explore the area when all of a sudden there was an impressive scene of basalt pillars and bridges covered in bright red mat!

 There are innovative and interesting science advances that are happening right now aboard the ship and it is exciting to be a part of it!

Life aboard the Thomas G. Thompson

Part of the breakfast lineup one morning.

Part of the breakfast lineup one morning.

After living aboard the Thomas G. Thompson for almost two weeks, I have a much better idea of what it really is like to be at sea for an extended period of time. Before coming out I had heard both good and bad stories regarding ship life , this cruise definitely falls into the good category. It seems that the mood of everyone on board can be swayed by the quality of food and we have had some great food! During the first few days people were joking that no one would be able to fit into their clothes by the end of the cruise from over eating at most meals…this joking may actually become reality. The meals have all been delicious and almost nothing has been repeated. Because of this, almost everyone (myself included) wants to try most options every meal, we have even been treated to two barbecues out on the bow. I don’t know what is going to happen when I get home in a week and don’t have my meals prepared for me three times a day!

Hanging out on the bow during the first barbecue.

Hanging out on the bow during the first barbecue.

For the most part, everyone is really busy tending to samples, preparing equipment, and analyzing data. However, when there is down time, you can always find something fun to do. I haven’t ventured much into the entertainment room, but there is a large selection of movies that people are taking advantage of. Since we have been graced with wonderful weather the entire trip, there is no sense in spending the whole time indoors and I have found it more enjoyable to lay out on the bow in the hammocks that have been hung. There are usually a couple of people outside who will strike up a nice conversation, or picking up a book from the library to read in a hammock is another great option. I have played more darts and chess than I think I ever have. If you ask me, having a dart board on a moving ship sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but I have managed to miss the board only once or twice!

Since there are geologists, microbiologists, chemists and engineers on board, there is always something to learn. In my opinion, one of the best aspects of this cruise has been talking to people in these different fields and learning about the research they are doing. For example, we have someone who is collecting microbial mats (bacteria on the seafloor) in hopes of using them to develop new antibiotics. Yesterday during the dive, Jason was exploring one area looking for a red microbial mat. Eventually it was found, and the images that came with it are absolutely astounding!

We are currently in our second to last Jason dive and will be leaving the area on Monday. The forecast is showing that the winds will be picking up, which could interfere with Jason being in the water (since we currently have no bow thruster), so hopefully things go smoothly and we are able to complete the rest of the science objectives with no problems.

Looking out to sea.

Looking out to sea.

 

- Elisa

Q&A with Korey from the Jason crew

Q: What are the duties of a Jason:

  • Pilot: The pilot could be considered the watch leader for the group. He is responsible for the ROV at all times, as well as managing the navigator and the engineer to safely maneuver and accomplish all science objectives. He is the one who moves Jason’s arms with the joystick to put science gear in place and complete everything the science watch leader asks.
  • Engineer: The engineer is really like a right-hand man and more of a co-pilot than an engineer. He can use the manipulator to drive the ROV, like the pilot, which allows him to take care of things when the pilot needs an extra hand or extra set of eyes. The most important jobs of the engineer are managing the power, keeping an eye on the functions of the vehicle (leaks, etc.), and making sure that Medea is at a safe height in relation to Jason.
  • Navigator: The navigator is in charge of the positioning of the ship, during ROV operations. He has to make sure that the ship is in a place such that Medea is in a spot where the pilot can safely maneuver Jason. This can be a complicated task since Jason and Medea are dangling from a cable about a mile below the ship. To track the position of the ROV from the ship we use a USBL (ultra-short baseline) system. To use this system we put a pole in the water with a head on it that sends acoustic signals out to Jason and Medea and listens for their replies. The timing and direction of these replies tell us their position relative to the ship. Since we know the GPS location on the ship, the USBL system can then place Jason and Medea in the real world. The uncertainty is generally about 10 meters, so we have a really good idea of where Jason and Medea are at all times. This system is crucial for scientists because if we find a vent, or place a benchmark on the seafloor, we can get the actual GPS coordinates and make sure that anyone will be able back to the same location in future. The navigator is also in charge of being the DJ in the control van, this can sometimes be really good, or terribly awful.

 

Q: What is your educational background and how did you get to where you are today?

Korey

Korey

A: I graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee with major in computer science and a minor in electrical engineering. While in school, I joined our university’s MATE (Marine Advanced Technology Education) ROV team out of Monterey Bay. I was the president for three years and went to three international competitions. For the competitions, each team had to build a small ROV to accomplish some task, one year it was operating underneath ice. Being in this organization allowed me to understand what really goes into operating and building an ROV. In addition to being involved with the MATE ROV team, I was working for the WATER institute (now the school of freshwater sciences) and got a job helping to design, build, maintain, and deploy a scientific buoy array. After graduation, I knew I wanted to work with ROV’s and thought I had a pretty good background to accomplish this. I went to apply for jobs and found a posting for an electronics guy working with the Alvin submarine. I filled out the application, sent in my resume and within 3 days I got my first call for an interview. It took 8 months to get through the whole process, but eventually I got hired! I worked there for about 3 years then moved over to working with the Jason ROV crew.

 

Q: What is the most exciting part about your job?

A: The fact that I get to operate a $6 million vehicle–piloting Jason makes me really happy! The technology that goes into being able to sit on the ship miles above Jason and the seafloor, manipulating an arm to just even push a star fish out of the way blows my mind.

 

Q: How often are you out at sea each year?

A: About 5 or 6 months out of the year, and I love it. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t.

 

Q: How long have you been working with Jason?

A: About 2 years.

 

Q: What has been the best science moment you have been involved with?

A: Working in Alvin I helped discover a couple species of mussel when we were on a dive with an astrobiologist (looks at the seafloor and vent areas to study similar environments to other planets). It was my 3rd dive in Alvin and she asked me to take a push core of part of the bacterial mat that had mussels. We brought it up to the deck and turns out, it was a species they had never seen before!

On a later Jason dive I was a part of, she was out with a group and we found another new species of mussel!

 

Q: What exciting places have you visited because of your job?

A: Guam, Tokyo, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Newfoundland, The Azores, Bahamas and Barbados!

Interesting Deep Sea Adventures!

Dr. Nooner, what is the most interesting thing you have seen in the ocean?
I have seen a lot of interesting things over the last 14 years. For example, when I was lowly graduate student on one of my very first cruises, I was out at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge on the R/V Atlantis. We were doing Alvin dives during the day and using a towed video system to image the seafloor at nighttime. I was, of course, stuck in the midnight to 4:00 am watch when we discovered an entirely new type of hydrothermal vents that had never been seen before. This type of hydrothermal vent is caused by a chemical reaction between the ocean water and rocks on the seafloor that have been brought up from deep within the crust by motion on a fault. This chemical reaction is called serpentinization and gives off heat, apparently enough to cause hydrothermal venting! It was very exciting!” – Dr. Nooner

Jason holding the steak knife, ready to cut a strap.

Jason holding the steak knife, ready to cut a strap.

Sitting in the Jason Control Van for hours on end with live video feed of the seafloor reveals interesting creatures and strange happenings.
During my second four hour watch shift in the Jason Control Van, one of the research groups was installing a large tower like structure over one of the hydrothermal vents. They are trying to prove it is possible to generate power from the heat coming out of the vents. To set everything up, Jason had to lift this tower from the location where it settled after being deployed and move it to its permanent spot above a vent. There were straps on the tower that needed to be cut and the way this was achieved was pretty awesome! Apparently one of the standard tools on Jason is a steak knife that has a T-handle hose clamped to the top. Surprisingly, this is not so Jason eat his dinner at the bottom of the ocean. Once he was in position in front of the tower, one of his mechanical arms reached down, grabbed the handle, pulled up, and a steak knife appeared. He then moved the knife in place and easily cut the straps. It was definitely a very strange sight seeing an ROV use a knife at the bottom of the ocean!

Mega jellyfish swimming by Jason!

Mega jellyfish swimming by Jason!

The marine life in the deep ocean is sometimes astounding. On the descent of the first dive, a large squid hovered around Jason for a few moments before swimming away. Other more common creatures seen are brittle star fish, ratail fish, deep sea cucumbers, and a number of different types of jellyfish. One of the coolest jellyfish we have seen so far is this marshmallow-looking, large, jellyfish. This was during one of the dives when Jason had to come a short ways off the bottom of the seafloor while the ship crew was fixing the bow thruster, which has been giving us problems for most of the trip. Right as he came up, this mega jellyfish swam past. Unfortunately the jellyfish didn’t linger around the cameras for very long, but we were able to grab a couple of good pictures.

The mangled fish being swarmed by brittle stars after experiencing Jason's thruster.

The mangled fish being swarmed by brittle stars after experiencing Jason’s thruster.

Another really interesting event took place earlier this morning. Jason had carefully placed the MPR’s atop one of the benchmarks and began making a pressure measurement, part way through he jolted up. The Jason pilot had no idea what was happening; no one had touched the controllers so he should not have moved. After Jason ran into the benchmark (taking a chip of it with him), he settled down on the seafloor. Everyone in the Control Van looked around on the screens and saw a mangled fish lying just behind the benchmark. Apparently, the fish got sucked up through the thruster causing Jason to jerk. Pretty quickly, a number of brittle stars flocked to the dead fish and had a little feast.
We have a few more days of Jason dives so I am sure that we will get to see a lot more interesting sea creatures and I can’t wait to see what exciting things happen next!

MPR’s and BPR’s

Dr. Nooner, what have you accomplished so far during the pressure dive?
“We have visited the majority of the benchmarks and made pressure measurements at them. In 2011 an eruption at Axial buried two out of six benchmarks that we had in place at the time (along with one BPR, one hydrophone, and a fluid sampler). We have put in new benchmarks for the two that were lost and an additional four to expand the network. For the first visit at each of these new benchmarks we have to move them to a stable, flat location where they will spend the rest of their lives growing old. Then we release the floats which pop up to the sea surface and are recovered by the deck crew onto the ship. This takes a fair amount of time, so this first circuit is a long one.” –Dr. Nooner

Dr. Nooner plugging in the MPR's just before the launch.

Dr. Nooner plugging in the MPR’s just before the launch.

So far our Jason dive is going very smoothly, we have successfully made pressure measurements at 9 benchmarks over the last 24 hours. We are making measurements at each benchmark beginning in the center of the caldera and moving north then east and south in somewhat of a question mark pattern covering all ten benchmarks as efficiently as possible. We are hoping to traverse the course (down and back up) two full times totaling four measurements at almost every benchmark within these 5 days.
For these ROV based measurements, we are using what we call Mobile Pressure Recorders (MPR’s) which are carefully placed in the black rectangular indentions on the benchmarks for about 20 minutes allowing the pressure sensors to stabilize. Essentially, these instruments measure the pressure at that particular location on the seafloor. The benchmarks make sure that we are measuring the pressure at precisely the same location each time we come here. Two of the problems faced by using MPR’s are accounting for tides and drift. Making multiple measurements at all the benchmarks over a short period of time (hours to days) allows us to calculate the drift. The tides are dealt with using a small tide gauge that we leave on the seafloor for the duration of the survey. Once the data is brought back to the lab it is corrected for tides and the pressures are converted to a corresponding depth in meters. We then use the depths to monitor the inflation or deflation of the volcano. Since Axial erupted in 2011 the volcano is currently re-inflating as magma makes its way from deep within the Earth and into the magma chamber, priming it for its’ next eruption!

Jason being lowered into the water for the pressure dives.

Jason being lowered into the water for the pressure dives.

Data from the MPR’s is useful for long-term inflation and deflation cycles but since measurements can only be made every year or two (when there is funding for a cruise), Bottom Pressure Recorders (BPR’s) are left on the seafloor for an extended period of time. BPR’s also record pressure in a specific location on the seafloor, but unlike MPR’s they are battery powered and record a measurement every 15 seconds. The main reason that BPR’s cannot solely be used is because the drift of the instruments cannot be distinguished from motion of the seafloor. We constraint this drift using our MPR measurements. Back in the lab, the BPR data is corrected for tides and converted to a corresponding depth. Since these instruments are left on the seafloor for 1-2 years, they are critical for collecting rapid inflation or deflation events, such as an eruption (BPR data confirmed the 2011 eruption).

Combining the data received from both MPR’s and BPR’s proves to be the most efficient and effective way to monitor the overall inflation-deflation cycle of Axial.

Preparing for Pressure Dives

Dr. Nooner, what is the most challenging part of preparing for this type of survey?

“The most challenging aspects occur before we ever go in the water—cruise planning. For example, before coming out to sea we have to make sure the instruments are completely working because once we are out here, it is impossible to get spare parts and tools that we don’t bring. We have to carefully plan out mooring, instrument deployments, and sampling operations. To do all this we need to work with the Jason team prior to coming out to ensure that the MPR instrument can be easily interfaced with the ROV. If the cruise preparations have been done properly, then success will depend primarily on only the weather, ship and ROV problems, and other unexpected problems…which pretty much always occur.”  – Dr. Nooner

From the beginning of this trip, our group has been making sure that everything would be set for our long 5-6 day pressure. We will be making pressure measurements on top of concrete benchmarks that we’ve put on the seafloor. The benchmarks we use are basically small concrete tables; each one has a painted number and a rectangular indention. The numbers allow us to differentiate them from one another on the seafloor and each one is located in it’s own region, mostly within the caldera. The black rectangular indention on each benchmark is precisely the right size so that the mobile pressure recorder (MPR) fits nicely within, allowing us to place the MPR in exactly the same place each time we make a pressure measurement on a benchmark.

Shawn and Elisa attaching a flag to one of the benchmarks.

Shawn and Elisa attaching a flag to one of the benchmarks.

Since we are installing six new benchmarks during this cruise, we had to attach the flags to each one, rig a short mooring, and then deploy them to the seafloor. We put strips of the super reflective reflexite tape on the flags to make them easily visible on the seafloor. The moorings are a series of ropes, chains, glass ball floats that are connected together and to a benchmark. These floats decrease the weight of the benchmarks (which are about 300 pounds in air) so that they can easily be moved by the ROV Jason. Once each benchmark is found and moved to its permanent location, Jason pulls a pull-pin to release the mooring with the floats back to the surface, where it is recovered by the deck crew.

On all surveys prior to this cruise, measurements have been made using one MPR at each benchmark. However, this time we will be using two MPR’s simultaneously (we are calibrating a second instrument). To achieve this, we strapped the two instruments together, one on top of the other, and rigged a handle on the top of them to allow Jason to easily pick them up and set them on each benchmark. Both of the MPR’s are connected to cables that transmit the measurements back to the surface in real time, where we will be sitting in the Jason Control Van recording the incoming data and monitoring the instruments.

Shawn and Elisa helping assemble one of the moorings.

Shawn and Elisa helping assemble one of the BPR moorings.

Since the instruments will be at the bottom of the ocean (which is about 2 degrees Celsius), it is important to have them acclimated to a colder temperature prior to the dive. A few days ago, we scrounged around the ship looking for an empty cooler or some sort of container to store the MPR’s. We found a plastic trash can, put the instruments inside, filled it with ice, and placed the whole thing in the walk in science freezer on board.

After all the steps we have taken to prepare for the pressure dive, everything is set and ready to go. Today is the day! We are about to head out on deck to plug in the MPR’s on Jason and set up the instruments. Once that is finished, he will be ready to launch at 16:00 local time!

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