Grey skies

18 May 2019

It appears the uncharacteristically nice weather of the last few weeks has finally left us. The beautiful blue skies have been replaced with a shroud of white fog giving the boat an extra spooky feel today. Not that that’s anything to deter us… this far into the cruise, preparing and deploying all of the landers has become second nature to us all. So much so that we’ve begun designing new experiments and different uses for the landers.

Grey skies greet us this morning

Having already proven its adaptability following its resurrection, the optical lander was the first pick for such work. In order to investigate how the size of bubbles changes as they rise upwards, the lightning panel was removed from the lander and turned into a rather unwieldly mace for our ROV ISIS to hold. The screen was then held behind a bubble stream as the ROV slowly rose upwards, recording the shrinking of the bubbles as the CO2 slowly dissolves into the water column. These kind of experiments normally take months of planning, so being able to MacGyver them at sea really shows just how talented everyone on board is.


Planning changes to the benthic chambers

The bubble screen experiment in action

Sadly, the weather did deteriorate briefly enough to delay an ROV deployment but the team on board made the best of free time with a friendly game of Trivial Pursuit. Naturally, I was the winner – even though I had to carry my team mate, project leader Doug Connelly (it’s OK, he’s far too busy running things to read the blog… I hope!)

HIgh stakes on the Trivial Pursuits board

Upping the pressure…

17 May 2019

The sun has set on another day jam-packed day of science on the James Cook.

We returned to the site bright and early this morning, and set off our trusted AUV Freya to survey the site. She collected new seismic data that will hopefully reveal how the gas is pooling in the seafloor sediment. She also took a series of pictures of the seabed that are being used to create a detailed photomosaic of what life is like under 120m of water. You can see an example of the kind of creatures we’re seeing below, try and have a go at naming them all!

Meanwhile everyone else on board has been working hard to stay on top of all the exciting new data that’s been coming. Not an easy task given how much is actually going on at any given time. Fortunately, our chef Charlotte was able to keep everyone motivated with some freshly baked cake, which you can see was particularly enjoyed (and mainly consumed by) the AUV team after their busy morning.

Finally, we wrapped up the day with an ROV dive. This time to up the pressure heading into the pipe to see how this will affect the gas escaping out the other end. Now we are at an amazing 30L/min!

Lights, camera, action!

16 May 2019

It’s been a glorious day on board the James Cook for a number of reasons. First and foremost (for me!) being the successful deployment of the optical lander or, as it was dubbed after its disastrous first dive, the “Zombie Lander”. Our emergency repairs involved all kinds of creativity, including stealing the spring from a clipboard, but it was an amazing job – another testament to all the great people we have working on board.

And here it is – our first up close look at the bubbles escaping from the seabed. We even managed to catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife (it seems everyone wants to be on TV…).

The footage of bubbles will be analysed to determine their size, shape and speed. However, this is an incredibly time-consuming process that either requires a lot of computing or man power, neither of which we have much access to on the ship. So, in order to get some preliminary results whilst at sea, we’re subcontracting the work to a number of schools in England and Wales. Students will examine the footage and relay results to us next week during a live online Q&A session.

Elsewhere on the ship the benthic chambers were placed on the seabed before wrapping up a comparatively easy day for the ROV team. We’ve since left the area to let our fellow research ship Poseidon carry out some water column tests of their own but we’ll be back tomorrow to resume work.

Benthic chambers in action

Dive, dive, dive…dive

15 May 2019

How many ROV dives can you fit into single day? This appears to have become the secondary research objective of this cruise as we continue to push the ROV team more and more as we work ISIS harder and harder. Today we managed not 2, not 3, but an unprecedented 4 dives in a 24-hour period.

A busy day for ROV Isis!

The first dive late last night continued our regular microprofiler surveys, moving the lander progressively closer to seep site. Or should I say seep sites – plural! As the experiment has progressed the area has become a real hive of activity. We’ve seen dozens of small CO2 gas seeps appear and disappear in the area, with a few long-lasting ones forming small pockmarks (craters in the sediment surface, formed by the bubbles). This dive also included the traditional gas and water sampling alongside sediment core collection for analyses back on board.

Microprofiler on the move…

The second dive was comparatively simply as ISIS collected one of the hydrophone walls from the site and brought it back on deck. The hydrophone wall has been recording noise around the seep. This gives us an important insight into manmade sounds in the North Sea – notably the ROV and James Cook itself, but also things like the laying of undersea cables far away. All these data help inform our analysis of bubble acoustics.

Hydrophone wall: wired for sound

The third dive was a classic switcheroo as one benthic chamber was swapped out for another to ensure a continuous time series of data throughout the experiment. And of course the dive was rounded off with more gas and water samples.

Swapping out the benthic chambers…

The fourth and final dive of the day saw the return of a fan favourite, as the newly resurrected bubble frame was sent back down (see the blog entry from 13 May). The team managed to salvage one of the camera housings and dipped it over the side of the boat to ensure it really is waterproof this time before risking our final camera in it. And as a great example of inter-team cooperation the AUV guys have lent us one of their cameras to use on the lander as well. We should know tomorrow whether the newly dubbed “Zombie Lander” has worked or not. Which means Thursday’s blog will either include amazing close ups of bubbles or a new author as I go into mourning…

As above, so below…

14 May 2019

Looks like our luck is back and stronger than ever as we round off another full day of surveying with some fascinating new finds. After spending the night away from the experimental site we returned this morning to redeploy our old favourite Freya, the Gavia AUV. Although initially reluctant to dive she eventually spent a few hours patrolling the site collecting sidescan sonar and sub-bottom data.

Launch of the AUV Gavia, aka Freya, with the Goldeneye platform on the horizon

The sub-bottom data is created by sending out a series of high frequency sound waves into the seabed and observing the strength of the sound waves reflected back, like sonar. However, unlike sonar, the sound waves actually travel into the underlying sediment and reflect off the interior layers in the sediment, allowing us to see what is under the surface. Today’s sub-bottom survey was particularly exciting as it revealed the exact position of the gas pipe we’ve been using in the experiment, and shows our gas escaping from it just as we planned.

Sub-bottom profile data showing the position of the pipe (black dot) and – to the trained eye – the gas escape above it (the fuzzy bit!)

That’s not the only thing going on today though – the sensors team is hard at work processing the data from their landers. Despite the rate of bubble release being relatively low, less than 30ml/min, they’re already seeing distinct changes in the chemical properties of the water and the sediment in response. We’re so pleased with these results we’ve decided to roll onto the next phase of the experiment, upping the flow of CO2 from the tank to increase the rate of bubble release. Stay tuned to find out what happens over the next few days…

PS – How cool is this? Footage from the ROV of CO2 gas bubbling out of the seafloor sediments at the experiment site!

Almost as cool as the STEMM-CCS beanie hats that the team is sporting today…

Everyone is working hard – clockwise from top left: Isabella, Rudi, Paul & Chris, and Dirk. Team beanie hats abound today!

Small hole, big problem…

13 May 2019

Well, it was bound to happen eventually… we’ve used up more than our fair share of good luck these last couple weeks and have finally suffered our first failure. And of course it had to be something I (Ben) was in charge of: the bubble frame which was put in place on the seabed late last night. Equipped with two underwater cameras and an illuminated back panel  (against which to see the bubbles rising) it was supposed to give us a glorious close-up view of our bubbles.

Unfortunately, on its return to the deck of the ship the waterproof casing that houses one of the cameras immediately started pouring out water – always a bad sign. What small iota of hope I had for the second camera being safe was sadly shattered when the first clasp on the housing was released and the insides instantly shot out along with a nice spray of water. At this time, I can report both battery packs and one camera are dead, with the other in a critical condition (i.e. in a bag of rice).

Arghh. ARGGH. Soaked cameras…not a good outcome!

A post-mortem of the camera housings revealed a small manufacturing default just beneath the lens of both sets which had allowed water to slowly seep in over time and flood the camera. Just goes to show that sometimes you can do everything right but things still go wrong.

Kev and Rob perform an engineering post mortem

Of course we’re not ones to cry over spilled milk on the James Cook, we’re problem solvers here. As the great hotel reviewer Bear Grylls says “improvise, adapt, survive.” With a full understanding of what went wrong, Rob is already hard at work fixing the housings whilst backup cameras are being prepared. Odds are that the bubble frame will be back in the water before the week is out!

Steering the blog away from my problems, everything else has been going amazingly well. Gas and water samples are continuing to be collected and analysed and the benthic chamber has been redeployed. We’ll be moving off site soon so the RV Poseidon can carry out some water column surveys using CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth – the three basic measurements of seawater properties) before we all leave the area to give the hydrophone walls some “quiet time” with the bubbles.

Kate hard at work analysing water samples in the cold lab. Nice hat, Kate!

Laughing…or crying? Our blog author Ben, who has not had the best day at sea today.

Catching bubbles

12 May 2019

It’s been our first day of post gas release surveying and boy, has it been a busy one! ISIS worked throughout the night, monitoring the injection gas pressure at the CO2 tank and carrying out a transect of the site using our micro-profiler. This small lander takes various measurements from the underlying sediment and once analysed will reveal exactly how the release of CO2 gas has affected the surrounding sediment.

Of course we don’t just want to know how the sediment changes but also how the water and even the gas itself reacts. Thankfully to that end we have Anita on board who’s been using the ROV to collect water and gas samples. The gas samples are by far the most entertaining as ISIS attempts to use an inverted funnel above the seep and capture each bubble as it escapes – not the easiest task!

Stay tuned tomorrow as we get our first post-release data and some up close visuals of the bubbles.

Anita closely monitors the work of ROV Isis via the screens in the control van on the ship

This is how you catch bubbles: with a robotic arm and an inverted funnel!

Once the gas samples are back on board the ship, Anita carries out chemical analyses in the wet lab