Packing up our toys

22 May 2019

It’s been a busy couple of days on the James Cook – so busy I haven’t even been able to write a blog post since Monday! The North Sea is back to its old ways with white capped waves slowly filling the horizon as the ship sways more and more.

Stormy skies over the North Sea

With that in mind we’ve decided to wrap up the controlled release experiment. After 11 days of continuous gas injection and an insane number of surveys, we’ve finally turned everything off and have started to pack away our toys.

Final call on the water samples before we pack everything away

Unfortunately, with the swell increasing we only had a few hours to operate the ROV safely before conditions became too rough today. With only enough room on the sled for one lander at a time it was decided to rescue the benthic chamber as its water samples would soon start to deteriorate, and move the other landers somewhere else. So ISIS rushed down to the release site and one by one moved all our landers off site, creating a kind of underwater parking lot where they can wait out the weather and be clear of any coring our friends on the Poseidon might do.

Of course that’s not the only thing that’s been going on. We’ve been continuing our web-based school sessions with high school students from Oasis Academy Mayfield and Cantell School, as well as Birchgrove Primary School where I finally made my big screen debut! It’s been really rewarding chatting to everyone about our work and despite child labour laws I’m really excited to see just how useful they’ll be as data analysts.

Big screen premiere for Ben at Birchgrove Primary School!

The next few days are set to be a little rough as we wait for the weather to improve with little else to do on the ship but we’ll strap everything down and start writing our cruise reports.

Phoning home

20 May 2019

There’s less than 10 days left on the expedition but the team’s showing no signs of lagging as we push on through for our last few days of surveying. The morning kicked off with another Gavia survey, tracing out a rather spectacular spiral pattern above the experiment site whilst collecting seawater pH data, photographing the seabed and collecting seismic data.

Gavia gets back to work…

…and keeps busy with a complicated survey pattern!

Meanwhile back on board, worried that the great news about our experiment wasn’t reaching enough people, we carried out a live Q&A session with a group of Year 8 students from my old school Whitchurch High. We chatted over Skype about climate change, carbon capture and storage, the controlled release experiment and what it’s like to live on a ship. It was a really enjoyable experience for everyone (even if the AUV team tried to take the opportunity to send an SOS!).

Skype call with students from Whitchurch School

“SOS” from the ROV team.

Of course my motivation for arranging these sessions isn’t entirely selfless. I’m personally too busy operating all my landers (and writing the blog!) to process all the data I’m getting, so the students have kindly “volunteered” to analyse it for me. They’ve been sent a short snippet of footage from the optical lander and following our chat are ready to measure the size and speed of bubbles to help inform my interpretation of the acoustic data.

Part of me feels bad for giving them a load of difficult homework right before the school holidays… but in my defence they are now official a part of the coolest CCS experiment ever!


Sample, sample, sample

19 May 2019

It’s been another grey day on the North Sea, though luckily everyone’s as happy as a kid in a candy shop. Well, if the kid was a highly trained scientist and the candy was fresh samples for analyses…

We’ve been collecting 3 different types of samples during this cruise: sediment, water and gas. Together they are giving us a full picture of exactly how the release of CO2 is affecting the area.

The gas samples are collected by the ROV, catching escaping bubbles in a reverse funnel before sucking them into a vacuum sealed bottle. These are then analysed back on board by Anita who’s looking for exactly how the gas content has changed from what we initially injected.

Clever use of an inverted funnel…

Anita working her magic with the gas samples

The sediment samples are collected using push cores. These empty cylinders are slowly pressed about 30cm into the sediment by the ROV before being pulled up, with all the mud and sand from the seabed wedged inside. Once on board Doug and Kate work to dissect the samples so we can later examine how the chemical properties vary with depth.

Keeping samples cold and clean is important in order to get the most accurate measurements – good job Doug has his trusty STEMM-CCS beanie to keep him warm in the cold lab!

Water samples are being collected in a whole manner of different ways. The easiest to understand is probably the benthic chamber lander, which sits on the seabed and sucks in water samples using on-board syringes. Once back on the surface, Jonas sets to work prepping them for later analyses.

Jonas prepares the benthic chamber samples for analysis – delicate work!

Perhaps the most impressive water sampling system we have though belongs to the sensors team of Allison, Sam and Rudi. Their “Lab on Chip” system allows them to collect water samples and analyse them all under the sea. With sensors attached to the baseline lander, the benthic boundary lander and also the ROV, they are able to measure levels of phosphate, nitrate, total alkalinity, pH and dissolved inorganic carbon without even lifting a finger. You’d think that free up a lot of their time but sadly the sheer number of sensors require a lot of maintenance.

The sensors team: there’s not much they can’t detect with their array of super-sensitive sniffers!

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…