29 July 2015

Cruise trivialities

All work and no play make 52 people on a ship a dull bunch. So even though some days are pretty full-on, with cores coming in on deck in rapid succession, only beaten in speed by the cores coming in from the core scanning lab, we do have (make?) time for some fun. Sometimes that fun is someone else’s job; for instance, we spent an afternoon helping out our resident photographer and filmmaker with a stop-motion animation of a retreating ice shelf, the sediment that produces, and of a little cartoon boat coming in and taking a core out of these. That was fun! And a mountain of editing work for the poor photographer.

My hand for scale: the protagonists of the stop-motion animation

Making dropstones fall out of icebergs

We also had some visitors; while we were coring in the middle of the North Sea, suddenly a pigeon appeared. It turned out to be a racing pigeon, not doing very well on a rave from Thurso to Dorset. When it landed on deck, it immediately tried to drink from the puddles there, but the water had come out of the vibrocorer, so it was salty. When the bird retreated for a breather in a corner of the aft deck we brought it some freshwater and some breakfast cereals. The next morning it was gone! It may have made it home. 

Chris with the not-so-successful racing pigeon

This pigeon was only the first of (so far) three distracting birds; the night shift was visited by a sandpiper, and we had some sort of finch entertaining us, when we were still in the central North Sea. Far to fly for such a little thing! He got the water-and-cereal treatment too, but he vanished within an hour. I hope he’s well.

The night shift are a sporty bunch; they have a habit of making balls of gaffer tape and playing football with it, and they even taped up a toilet roll to improvise a rugby ball. And they have two ukuleles in their team. Neither of the owners had any idea the other one would bring their instrument! There seem to have been ukulele play-offs on deck. 

At the end of our shift we sometimes get to see a nice sunset, and we’ve also seen some dolphins, albeit not anywhere as many as last year. But we do get oil rigs instead! Not quite the same, but these things van be rather impressive, especially during sunset. 

 Small bird (some googling makes me think it is a chiffchaff) having a rest in the wet lab

Last year I barely visited the bar. We had one night there to celebrate a birthday, but apart from that I tended just to go to bed after my shift. This year is a bit more frivolous! If you sleep during the day you need more sleep, it seems, but as I sleep during normal hours this year I can afford to sometimes have a pint with the team. We had some nice ones on the forecastle deck, admiring the scenery, but these days maybe over; by the time the bar opens it’s now dark, as we’re a lot further south than previously. But a beer in the bar is nice too! And if you have Chris you never run out of weird stories. What a life that man has lead!

I have even seen three movies already; we started with Unforgiven (or the Unforgiven, I can't remember"; it being a shoot-em-up it's not quite my cup of tea but it's nice to do some non-work-related things with your team mates once in a while. The next one up was the Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover; the third time I saw it, but still well worth it. And we saw Black Sheep; a must-see if you have a sheep farmer in your team. It's the silliest movie I saw in years but it was fun! And I hope to see 127 hours before we get back to Southampton. Time is runnign out but we might manage!

And then there are of course the standard activities: reading and running. I’m reading one book in my Read the Classics series, and one Welsh book; the first one I read which is written for the general public and not for Welsh learners, and which I read having A levels in mind. I rely heavily on the dictionary, and I should start having a go at trying to memorise what I look up as I keep getting back to the same words. And I try to run 7k every second day; during the first transects that wasn’t happening as the cores came in thick and fast, but now on Transect 2 I manage. And the treadmill has in the meantime become a battle ground; the nightshift invented the "1k challenge"; a competition in who can run a kilometer the fastest. I'm in, of course. I'm currently the leading lady (of three), but there are still two men in front of me. One is out of reach with 3:38 (mind you, the treadmill starts at 0.1 km/h and you have to crank it up manually), but the other one, Tom, "my" transect leader, is only two seconds ahead. I am keen to overtake him before the cruise is over! And the photographer is only six seconds behind me; I will have to keep fighting him off too.  Watch this space for the final scores!

This seems to be an oil tanker loading structure

25 July 2015

After the first transects

The North Sea. It has quite a reputation. I packed sea sickness medication when I got ready for the cruise. We’ve been in the North Sea since July the 16th, but we haven’t seen much other than mirror-like seas. Sometimes the wind picked up at the end of our shift, and we got rocked to sleep nicely, but then all was calm again by the time we got back to work, and the coring was never threatened. So far it’s been a doddle! Will it stay that way? Hold that thought!

The times have changed since we got to Transect 2. As the distances here are larger, there are more periods with nothing to do other than stare at geophysics. That leaves me time to start on my processing. So I have washed and photographed all my 14C samples, I have labelled all the photos, I have made a list with what kind of sample they are and what sedimentary units they are from, I have made a list of in what sort of sections the cores have been cut (in the beginning, documentation of such was a bit sloppy) and corrected all the pictures with wrong labels, and I have done the editing of the pictures that were forgotten the first time around. I have made a list of all our cores, and information on where and when they were taken, how long they are, how much I like the sediment and more such things. I made maps of where the good cores are and from which ones we have a 14C sample. There is still more to do but it’s good to see so much tedious work being out of the way even before we’ve stopped coring! The only thing is that even though the days are less busy with coring and core splitting, I am more tired than I was before. But it’s worth it! No need to do all this tedious inventory work in the office! 

The work goes on: taking the core catcher out of the core liner once it's on deck

Making boxes for the cores sections to be stored in

So does anything become apparent doing all this work? Yes! We have 58 radiocarbon samples, which isn’t bad, and some of them are beauties. We don’t have as much good data from the Minch as we had hoped, as we had to make do without the vibrocorer for several days, and once it worked again we hit a few duds, but we have enough to work with. The other areas all have yielded nice cores, and the area around Shetland has proven to be the richest ground for 14C samples. Funnily enough, the best cores we took were from north of Cape Wrath (see also the blog post one of the cores got on its own), which was an area we hadn’t initially planned to core. I had just seen, during my visits to the BGS, that they had cored up some nice materials there, and we bolted on a little transect to see if we could too. And we clearly did!  

Sometimes things you can date using radiocarbon do rather stand out in a core 

So what about this North Sea, is it going to stay a millpond? Probably not! As I write this, the southern North Sea (we are still quite far up North, above Newcastle) seems to be a boiling churning inferno, while we are still steaming though dead calm waters. We only have just over a week to go; will the tail end of the cruise be curtailed by bad weather? Stay tuned!

 Oil rig in dramatic evening sky

21 July 2015

End of northwestern transects

We’re coring in the northern North Sea. Some days ago we were coring in the northern North Sea. But something is different. Back then we were doing the last stretch of what we call Transect 1, and today we are on Transect 2. Does it matter? It does for me.

As there are two postdocs doing the work on this project, we had to distribute the load somehow. On this cruise, we do two small transects and one big one. The small ones are in the Minch (between the Hebrides and mainland Scotland) which is Transect 8; and around Shetland which is Transect 1. And no we don't bother about numerical order. The large one, Transect 2, covers pretty much the entire North Sea, except the little bit just East of Shetland. And the North Sea transect was planned by two men in Durham. As Louise is based in Durham, it made sense to have her do the big transect, with me doing the two small ones. These were organised by a chap based in Stirling, but seen from Bangor, Durham and Stirling are both in the same category of Far Away.

Sailing past Shetland's northern point

The sea was surprisingly calm during Transects 8 and 1

After the cruise, I will take all deck sheets (on which we take notes pertaining to the coring) and the log sheets (on which we have made core descriptions) from the Transects 8 and 1 home. And the radiocarbon samples. Louise does the same with the Transect 2 equivalents. And I will work on the cores from the first two transects.

By finishing my transects my time on board has changed. I know know exactly what material I will have for working on in the coming year, and I can start processing the data. Having my transects first is a privilege; I can make an overview of the interesting cores, a list of samples, and more such things at a leisurely pace. Louise will have to do that in a hurry during the transit back to Southampton. And since we're still coring and splitting and working hard I only do an hour or so now and then of data processing, but added together over two weeks that's a lot of work I won't have to do back on shore. So bering on an unfamiliar transect doesn't mean stuff gets less exciting!

16 July 2015

Comparing cruises

Two cruises, same project. Same boat, same starting port, largely same crew. Same cruise? Hell no!

Doing a second cruise makes for a nicely familiar feeling. It’s the same ship, I have the same cabin, we get the same routines. I knew many of the faces; more than half of the crew we have this time was there too last time. But the trips are profoundly different.

Last year we left when I had only been in the job for a few months. We didn’t have any cores yet, as we wouldn’t get any until we went off to sea. I had been looking at some potential core sites in the Celtic Sea, but that was only a small part of the cruise. Most of my suggested sites were dropped for reasons of time anyway. And during the first leg, which was the leg I would work on (Louise would do the second leg), we had our transect leader on board, and the coring team was lead by the transect leader of some of the transects of the second leg. So there was a flurry of people higher up in the pecking order, one of which very keen on emphasising just that. Altogether that lead to me being little more than a deck hand. I was just there to carry things and cut things and label things. And it’s noble work that needs to be done, but it’s not anywhere as satisfying as being actively involved.  


The second leg was slightly better; our coring team leader left during the port call, so before her own transects were done. That’s a bit of a strange situation, but it had something to do with child care. So this leg I was coring team leader, but I had nothing to do with the transects, neither in preparation nor processing the data, so I knew little of it and there wasn’t as much at stake as during the first leg. Furthermore, the others in the coring team were only involved in a small part of the project, so when their part was done they were not particularly fascinated by the goings on anymore. Altogether the second leg was a lot more relaxed, but it wasn’t as fascinating as a cruise can be.

This year is different. I have been actively involved in the planning, and of course all planning goes overboard once the data gathered in situ comes in, but Tom, my transect leader, tries to keep me in the loop. I know now where we go, why we go there, what we lose if we don’t go there, and all such things. And I’ve been working on the first batch of cores, so that makes the second batch a lot more evocative. I can now already see the analyses I’ll do, and make sure all is ready for them. This time I’ll hit the ground running and it feels good.

This time, I’m a coring team leader during the entire cruise. And my team is amazing; we have Maria, a crazy and enthusiastic Basque, and Dave and Chris, who are project bigshots. Dave is leader of a transect in the North Sea, and Chris is the PI. They have both been involved in the project from the beginning. They are emotionally involved in all of it! So wherever we are sailing; they care about what cores come up. It’s nice to work with people who have a genuine interest in what’s going on. It also means they have a vested interest in doing all the work well. And the men are very practical chaps; Chris, for instance, is not only an academic but also a sheep farmer. If a router plays up, for instance, they sort it. They are all a pleasure to work with!

Chris happily lumberjacking off with a core section
Maria and Dave enjoying the sunset after a long shift

One small thing that matters a lot is that this time, we have music in the lab. When you’re splitting and describing piston cores with metre after metre of homogenous mud you want some distraction. So this year I brought a speaker! And we all have music with us, so we take turns in plugging our iPods in and letting the lab ring with our tunes. Great! 
Altogether it’s the same ship, many of the same people, but I’m having a lot more fun! We’re almost halfway; more than two weeks of hard but very satisfying work to do!

14 July 2015

Things are looking up

The BGS chaps were recognisable by the dripping helmets, the dirty clothes and the tired looks. Hour after hour they spent trying to get the vibrocorer back on track. And then, one afternoon, their team leader walked into our main lab, all dripping and dirty and tired, and uttered the liberating phrase “it’s fixed”. We were all very happy. We couldn’t wait for the first successful core to come up. It was dinner time when it did; we didn’t care. We wanted mud! We could eat later. And it came up full of mud. Success! Colm, our chief scientist, immediately bought Iain, the BGS team leader, a beer. He knows what’s important. And from then on we would keep coring for at least 36 hours (when I’m putting this online). The BGS saved the day! The project is saved!

 Back in business!

12 July 2015

More trouble

I wrote about trouble with the corers. I had seen nothing yet. We cored happily for some two days, and then things deteriorated. The vibrocorer came up empty. Can happen; it may hit a big rock that prevents sediment from coming in. It happened again. We started to think the currents in the area we were coring were so strong they had washed away all corable sediments. But after several more duds we found out it was vibrocore failure. The BGS did their best to fix it. They tried and tried. In the meantime we just sought the deeper basins in the area; the piston corer worked fine. We got one after the other. I’m not so keen on them. They don’t give us the deglacial contact we like so much. But one has to make do with what’s available! My coring team didn’t share my dislike at first, but after they had logged metre after metre of homogenous Holocene clay they started seeing my point of view. 

Working the winch of the piston core

In the end the BGS (Broken Gear Squad, according to one of the galley staff) figured out the fault was in the so-called umbilical cord of the corer. The worst place it could be! But still repairable. It would take time, though. And with that time ticking away, the amount of data and samples we could collect slowly but steadily shrunk. How much would we have to sacrifice to this fault? Would we be able to complete the project more or less as planned? Stay tuned…

Still trying to repair the vibrocore

09 July 2015

Starting science (badly)

After three days of transit we would finally, finally start doing geophysics, pick final targets, and start coring. The geophys looked nice, and we had plenty of targets to choose from. And then we started! The first core came up. It looked good when it came out of the barrel! And it’s a bit of a faff to get it all cut up and labelled with a new coring team, but very soon we’ll be a well-oiled war machine. It was good to finally get proper mud in our hands. But as soon as we had the core on the bench the crew started lifting the vibrocorer with the cranes. What? It turned out there was a problem with the hydraulics. Oh dear! It would take hours to fix. Our next station was another vibrocore station, but we had to skip that and move straight to the piston coring station that was next up. I had seen the seismics and was rather sceptical this was sediment the piston core could cope with, but hey ho, we didn’t have much choice.

The other coring crew working in the evening light

As I thought, it came up banana-shaped. Oh well, it’s only a steel pipe, there’s more where that came from. We were more interested in what was inside. And we found: 4m of Holocene sand. Hmm! Not quite what we wanted. But by then the vibrocorer was repaired, so we just gave it another go with that. And to my surprise, a good core came out. The piston corer had probably been swept away by the current, and gone into the sediment at an angle, thus only getting modern stuff. The vibrocorer had gone in vertically and sampled great stuff. We just managed to process sit before our shift ended.
When it did end, the sun was about to set, so I walked around for a bit, trying to get some nice pictures. That way I was still up when the BGS proclaimed the vibrocorer had broken again. No! This time it would take them a whole lot longer to repair. We had to abandon our transect for now, and do geophysics elsewhere. I went to bed.
Fixing the vibrocorer in Scottish weather

I woke up in the middle of the night from some disturbance. I noticed the swell; we must have gone further offshore! I went back to bed. In the morning I heard the weather had gone too bad to core. And the corer was still broken. We had to go further inland, to be sheltered from the incoming heavy wind, and core there when it was possible again. So on the first day we had broken the vibrocorer twice, bent the piston core barrel, and run into weather that was too bad for coring. Not a very good start! But let’s hope from now on, it will only get better…