A biogeochemical Argo float deployed in the Southern Ocean. Photo: Channing Prend

Scientific Resilience During a Pandemic

An aborted research cruise makes the most of the return journey home
Channing Prend

We had just finished setting up and securing the scientific equipment in the main lab of R/V Ron Brown when we found out that our research cruise to the South Atlantic had been cancelled. The ship was being recalled to the U.S. by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration due to growing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The news came mere days before we were scheduled to set sail, after all scientific personnel had already arrived at port in Cape Town, South Africa.

The decision to call off the expedition was understandable given all the uncertainty in the world right now, but it came at the cost of irreplaceable data, which would have helped quantify decades-long changes in the heat and carbon storage capacity of the deep ocean. While our original science plan would not see completion, the captain agreed to a slight detour to deploy six autonomous biogeochemical profiling floats as part of the Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling (SOCCOM) project.

As we prepared to deploy the floats amidst news about shelter-in-place policies being enacted and exponential increases in the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, I struggled with the appropriateness of conducting fieldwork under these circumstances. It seemed frivolous to worry about float deployments given the challenges facing those back on land, and I felt guilty for being somewhat sheltered from the barrage of news, due to the ship’s limited bandwidth. But I have come to think that now, more than ever, our society needs science and science-based policy. The data collected by these devices  will provide new information about the role of the ocean in the climate system, and in doing so, ultimately contribute to a better world. When viewed through that lens, our science mission took on a whole new urgency.

Because of the ship’s orders to return to the U.S., we only had three days to deploy all of the floats. On our first day, we battled large waves and high winds 100 miles off of South Africa. The ship was bobbing up and down in the swell like a toy sailboat, completely dwarfed by the immensity and power of the ocean. Conditions steadily improved though, and our last deployment occurred during a picturesque sunrise. Early morning light scattered across gentle waves at the sea surface as we watched our final float fade into the distance. I felt proud, not in spite of everything going on in the world right now, but because of it.

These floats, which are already reporting data, join a fleet of more than 150 such instruments measuring the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the Southern Ocean. This unique dataset has dramatically increased the spatial and temporal coverage of measurements in one of the most inaccessible and harsh environments on the planet. And in doing so, the float array has led to new discoveries about the oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide and oxygen, biological productivity, and polynya formation, among many other things.

Just as important as the scientific value of these float deployments, however, was the human impact. We had the opportunity to partner with several elementary and middle schools from around the country who each named a float through SOCCOM’s adopt-a-float program. I’ve heard from several teachers that their students are following the floats as they begin their journey, and have provided a way for the class to stay connected in this uncharted era of virtual education. Perhaps the floats can even serve as a source of inspiration amidst all the turmoil.

With the floats deployed, we now have a long journey to Norfolk, Va. I’m writing this from somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, while sitting at a picnic table on the ship’s fantail. The ocean extends to the edges of the horizon in every direction. Gone are the seabirds and dolphins near the coast. Here it seems desolate, empty. But thousands of meters below us is an even more foreign world, where strong currents traverse undersea mountain ranges, and internal waves the size of skyscrapers break and mix the waters close to the seafloor. These are the forces that the SOCCOM floats will reckon with as they drift around collecting data. And in light of how minuscule they are compared to the vast expanse of sea around me, I think it’s incredible that these floats are changing our understanding of the ocean and its interaction with the atmosphere.   

I hope everyone on land is managing to stay healthy and sane. I’ll be thinking of you, from one isolated place to another.

- Channing Prend is a graduate student in the laboratory of Scripps physical oceanographer Lynne Talley. This story is adapted from the SOCCOM at Sea blog

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