State of the Planet

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Adapting to the Unexpected

I grew up outside of Chicago and I wasn’t a Boy Scout, so sometimes I feel like I missed out on learning the type of practical—albeit rarely used—skills that would have garnered merit badges. As I mentioned before, I’m hopeless with navigation. I could probably build a fire, but it would take a lot of matches. I don’t know how to whittle. Upon reflection, fire and navigation aside, now that I’m nearing the conclusion of my fourth research expedition at sea, I think I have amassed a few badge-worthy tricks.

The island country of Niue seen through my porthole.
The island country of Niue seen through my porthole.

I can plumb a filter rig like I was born holding Tygon tubing. For example, in my lab space on this ship I had to snake the tube to the vacuum pump through the ceiling, across the floor and up a table leg. And last week I devised a spill-proof method for siphoning 20 liters of radioactive waste into a storage container, no heavy lifting required. You’d be hard pressed to find any Boy Scouts with merit badges for hazardous materials handling. Finally, I can tie a bowline knot with my eyes closed. Of all these obscure, oceanographer skills I’ve acquired, I’m perhaps most proud of this one.

The bowline knot is considered the king of the basic maritime knots; simple but strong, and no matter how hard you pull it’s always a cinch to untie. I use a bowline to secure the rope of our plankton net to the ship each time Andi and I fish for Trichodesmium. If we lose the net to the ocean, that means no more Tricho, and no more Tricho means no more experiments. No more experiments and I might as well walk the plank. I’d bet all of my samples on the security of that knot, but no matter prune-y my hands are, it’s easy to untie when I’m exhausted during clean up at the end of the day.

The bowline knot is a practical trick to ensure the safety of an essential piece of equipment, but I also think it serves as a symbol of life as a scientist on the high seas: strength and mutability. On this cruise in particular, I’ve come to appreciate that when you’re at sea for two months, mutability is key.

For example, when I sailed away from New Caledonia in February I wrote that I wouldn’t see solid ground again until I returned to port in Papeete, Tahiti on April 3. Yet, when I woke up on Saturday morning I smelled land. It was like rain on soil—specific and unmistakable. Sure enough, when I climbed out of my bunk and made my way to my porthole, I was greeted by the sight of one of the smallest countries on the planet: the coral atoll of Niue, population 1,611. Niue is barely three times the size of Manhattan, and it’s completely isolated in the Pacific. However, a crew member of the Atalante injured his knee, and an eight hour detour to the island brought us to the nearest hospital.

Preparing the Zodiac to transport the injured crew member to land.
Preparing the Zodiac to transport the injured crew member to land.

Even though we were within swimming distance from the shores of the island and hours away from our planned cruise trajectory, the labs on the Atalante were still a flurry of activity as scientists sampled water and set up experiments, creating a makeshift station out of what would have otherwise been a floating hospital waiting room.

We’re back on track now, steaming full throttle towards our final long duration station of the voyage. If the volcanoes, tropical cyclones and surprise visits to land of the previous month and a half are any indication, we should still be ready to adapt to the unexpected. I still haven’t had to whittle at sea, but I’ve got two weeks left on the South Pacific, and you never know what might happen.

Follow @kylefrischkorn and the @DyhrmanLab on Twitter for more frequent updates from the OUTPACE cruise.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

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Annabelle Smyth
9 years ago

Sounds like your adventure has had a lot of surprises! Hope you’re having fun!