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


11 May 2019

Huge news from the James Cook today as we kick off the controlled release experiment in style and finally see our first real bubbles!

The CO2 tank was linked up with the pipeline late last night by the ROV. After some initial pipe testing this morning we were confident enough to slowly pressurise the pipe and drive out any water that may have been stuck inside. Then, with bated breath, we increased the pressure and stared eagerly at the flow gauges and EK60 data. The flow gauges would let us know as soon as gas started flowing out of the tank, through the pipe and into the sediment, whilst the EK60 – a type of sonar – would let us know the moment any gas escaped into the water column. This was a moment 4-5 years in the making!

Within 10 minutes the flow gauge began to move and simultaneously a bright spike appeared on the EK60 data – you couldn’t ask for a better sign. ISIS quickly headed off to the release site to scout out the newly-formed seep. The ROV control van quickly filled with scientists desperate to be the first to spot the seep. And of course who better to first see bubbles than our project leader Doug Connelly!

Waiting for bubbles…a tense moment for project leader Doug Connelly

There they are! First sighting of CO2 bubbles at the seafloor

To say the team was excited and maybe a little relieved would be an understatement (just look at Chris!). This was a huge undertaking and there were a lot of doubters out there but we did it! And I’m definitely using the royal “we” here as credit for the successful gas release goes almost entirely to our engineering team of Hannah, Rob and Kev. They have been working tirelessly to pull off this incredible feat the entire length of this expedition, not to mention the months of hard work they put into building the CO2 tank, and the years they put into designing it. So a massive thank you to them! Enjoy a well-deserved break!

Chris – are you excited? Er, just a bit.

Smiles all round from Hannah and co.

However, for the rest of us there’s no rest for the wicked – and we’re straight into planning the next round of deployments. After all, this whole project is about testing methods of detecting CO2 escape, and that now we finally one (albeit a fake one!), the fun can really begin!

Despite today’s huge achievement, the job isn’t over yet – Kev and Rob (our engineering masterminds) have to stay focused to make sure the equipment continues to perform as it should…

…and of course, for cruise leaders Doug and Chris the planning continues apace

Two’s company…

9 May 2019

Looks like this blog has really caught on. So much so that the German research ship Poseidon has turned up to have a look around. I can’t take all the credit though as this date has been part of the plan all along. The controlled release experiment is so ambitious we actually need two research ships to get everything done on time. Our counterparts on the Poseidon will be doing a large part of the water column chemistry and collecting long sediment cores to better understand the area before and after the gas starts bubbling. The team on board are also posting regular updates of their activities – you can read the English version here.

Ahoy there! The RV Poseidon is spotted on the horizon, primed and ready to play her part in the controlled release experiment

The team on board RV Poseidon will make crucial water column measurements and observations in the area surrounding the experimental site during the gas release, and then undertake the final comprehensive survey of the site once everything is finished and all the equipment has been removed.

But back to the James Cook where the real action is happening. Everyone on board has really found their rhythm now as we manage to get ahead of schedule today despite another busy roster. We arrived back at Aberdeen early this morning for a quick ship transfer of equipment (and onions) before speeding back to site and carrying out two more ROV dives. These involved swapping out one baseline benthic lander with another to ensure a continuous sweep of data, and depositing a second hydrophone wall (two really is better than one today!).

Loading the benthic boundary lander onto the ROV, ready for deployment at the seafloor

More action in the ROV control van…

…And full concentration required from Chris, Paul and Isabella!

Tomorrow is the big day as we will connect the gas tank with the pipeline and enter the final stages of release preparation…stay tuned!

Another day, another dive

8 May 2019

We’re fully in the swing of things now having spent another full day deploying equipment on the seabed. The teams are definitely getting their money’s worth out of our ISIS ROV, keeping it busy in the water for over 10 hours across 2 dives today.

Isis has been busy today…

All eyes on the multiple screens on the ROV control van back on the ship

Today’s first dive revolved around the micro-profiler. This device analyses the chemistry of the sediment below it by slowly inserting glass micro-sensors into the sand on the seafloor. This only takes around 45 minutes, which means ISIS can wait for the profile to be finished before moving it somewhere else and repeating the process. This allows us to learn about the sediment chemistry along a transect line leading away from the future release site.

The microprofiler in place on the seafloor, surrounded by optodes and with the hydrophone wall in the background

However, even though the micro-profiler will provide a comprehensive survey all by itself, it’s  still not enough for us! So we rounded off the day deploying the benthic chamber to collect even more background data.

So ends another jam-packed day on the James Cook. Thankfully for the ROV team, tomorrow should be a little easier as we’ll be quickly swinging back past Aberdeen to pick up some last minute parts before returning to the experimental site.

A hard day’s work

7 May 2019

We’re back on site and hard at work to make up for our time away. The ROV has been deployed not once, not twice, but three times – each time ferrying down a different collection of sensors and equipment.

First thing this morning the ROV Isis collected some push cores (small tubes of sediment from the uppermost part of the seafloor) and carried down the sediment optodes. These small spike-like sensors were slowly inserted into the seafloor sediments, where they’ll stay for the next few days to record the pH.

Veerle and the team monitor progress at the seafloor via the monitors in the ROV control van

Technical crew also keep an eye on progress

Straight after lunch the hydrophone wall was loaded onto Isis. As its name suggests, this apparatus contains 5 hydrophones – a type of underwater microphone – arranged in an X shape on a frame that will sit at the seafloor. These hydrophones will (we hope!) eventually record the sound of gas escaping from the seabed, giving us a measurement of gas flux.

Wall of sound: this is the hydrophone wall, specially designed and built to detect bubbles in the water column, in position on the seafloor. Exciting times!

Last but not least today the baseline baseline boundary lander was deployed. This impressive lander will conduct a pre-programmed time-series sampling of the water at the seafloor over the next 48 hours. This will provide us with a wealth of information about the background chemistry of the area before we begin the controlled release experiment.

And with that, the work for the day is finished and the ROV team take a well-deserved break. We’ll be similarly busy day tomorrow so stay tuned!

A musical interlude

6 May 2019

We’re officially on the 2nd leg of the expedition now as RRS James Cook set sail from Aberdeen earlier today. With any other expedition you’d probably find a certain reluctancy to leave port (especially one like Aberdeen) but here its quite the opposite. Everyone is eager to get back to work and finally start making some bubbles!

And of course what better way to whet everyone’s appetite than an all-hands science meeting to plan the exact position of our landers on the seabed. Again, for any other expedition the thrill of getting to use Chris’ war room style map would be more than enough… but not for us. We managed to combine the session with a test of the James Cook’s intercom system, meaning (questionable) pop music was blaring out of the ship’s speakers throughout. While this made hearing everyone a little difficult, it certainly made for a unique experience – and after all that’s what we’re all about here at STEMM-CCS.

It’s an early night for everyone today as we move into 24 hour operations and begin our first ROV deployment at 7am tomorrow!

Out with the old, in with the new

5 May 2019

The James Cook is in port today as we finalise preparations for the 2nd leg of the expedition. New pieces of equipment, including our underwater camera frame and sediment optodes (instruments that measure things like oxygen in the seafloor sediment), are being loaded on board ready for the controlled release experiment. But more important than the new pieces of kit are the new scientists coming with them… Dirk, Isabelle, Jonas and Paul were barely on the ship for 5 minutes before taking part in an ‘all hands’ meeting and getting caught up on the events of the first leg (as if they hadn’t been reading the blog!). Paul even received a crash course in seismic processing.

All hand science meeting: preparing for the start of the controlled release experiment

Chris and Doug brief some of the new arrivals

Paul (right) receives a crash course in seismic processing

Sadly, with such a big team involved in this project, new scientists coming aboard means some people have to leave….so goodbye to Estelle, Jianghui, Jon, Mark and Michael – thanks for all your help!

Homeward-bound for some of the team!

Those of us remaining on the ship for the next leg are making the most of our time in Aberdeen as we set sail again tomorrow and won’t be on land again until the end of the month!

Storms on the horizon

2 May 2019

It looks like our incredible luck with the weather here in the North Sea is finally starting to fade. The pond-like conditions of the last few days are slowly becoming choppier and choppier as the James Cook begins to gently sway. Not that this has put off anyone on board – all veteran sailors now – though lunch may have been a little lighter today.

We continued our work surveying the area outside of the release site using the on board multibeam systems, a type of sonar device that lets us map the topography of the seabed. We have observed a number of man-made trawler marks and natural pockmarks. Pockmarks (a kind of circular 3-5m depression in the seabed) are of particular interest as they formed by the natural release of gases like methane and CO2 over long time periods, giving us great insight into the natural history of the area.

Sadly, with the weather slowly turning we’ve decided to head towards Aberdeen a day early and hide from the coming storm, but given how much we’ve already achieved this leg this is hardly a setback. To misquote the great orator Arnold Schwarzenegger: “We’ll be back”. We’ll return in a few days’ time to position the final few pieces of equipment and finally start blowing some bubbles. In the meantime, though we’re all enjoying a little downtime after what has been an increasingly busy first leg…

Table football is a popular activity on board the ship…but requires a bit more skill in a heavy swell!

The team relaxing in the bar area after a busy week’s work. Next stop: Aberdeen.

Fishing for data

1 May 2019

It’s the end of our first week at sea and things have settled into a steady routine. In comparison to the last couple of days today has been relatively calm… the perfect time to go fishing. Not the normal kind of fishing though – we’re off catching sophisticated underwater robots!

Our goal today was to complete a comprehensive study of the area to identify all the natural and pre-existing man-made features on the seabed. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is when using our Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), the Gavia  – or as we call her – Freya. Unlike our ROV Isis, Freya does everything on her own. The team just needs to programme in the survey route, drop her in the water and away she goes.

Away she goes: launching the AUV Gavia (or Freya as she’s affectionately known) over the side of the ship

Looking like a mini torpedo, Freya carries an impressive array of kit. Today she carried an underwater camera, a sub-bottom profiler and a SeaFET chemical sensor, all of which will provide invaluable information about the area around the experimental site. The most difficult task for us on the ship is getting the AUV back on board. Once the Gavia surfaces the team sets out on a mini “fishing trip” in the smaller speedboat to hook her up and drag her back to the ship where she can be winched back on board.

Fishing for data: the recovery team use a grapple hook from the smaller speedboat to catch the AUV once her mission is complete.

Once safely back on board the ship, we can retrieve the data and find out what she saw on the seafloor!

And for those of you who prefer action movies, here’s the AUV recovery process in high speed…