21 April, 1999

Today was an interesting day…after doing a number of CTD samples (no helium today), we needed a map of the floor of the area that would be our “hunting grounds.” Our ship was to make several up and down paths in the northeast end of the Bransfield Strait, gathering sonar data (can you say “Ping?”). It was amazing as the winds picked up to 50 knots, without even really affecting the ship - and these are gale-like winds. The Nathaniel B. Palmer (NBP) is an incredible ship with a top-notch crew! From the Galley gang who serve up wonderful meals 4-5 times a day (they serve some mean fried chicken right at midnight, sure helps the graveyard shift go easier!) to the science support group who keep us in the numbers in the labs, to the bridge group who can keep the ship turning a circle on a dime over an interesting rock formation a mile down in roaring winds and tossing seas, to the crew members who keep the rooms, halls, and windows squeeky clean…what a tight ship!

Well, since we were mapping, you can be sure that there was a lot of ping editing to do. While in the computer lab editing ping sheets, I noticed Dr. Cara Wilson was generating the contour maps of the Bransfield Strait from the 1995 research cruise, using a program called “GMT” (Generic Mapping Tools). I began to pester her with questions until she finally decided that I needed a homework assignment, so she had me write a script that would generate the coastline of Florida, place the rivers on it, and label my hometown (currently, Miami). I wound up working on this until the wee hours of the night, again getting little sleep before my watch…In the process, I had to do a crash course in UNIX, an operating system that many engineers and researchers like because of its ease of use and robustness (or ability to resist “hanging up,” an occurrence that most of you probably know about if you are reading this online - it’s when your computer freezes up and will not take any more commands from the mouse or keyboard and you have to turn it off…).

About this time, a group of egret-type birds had landed on the Nathaniel B. Palmer. I believe they had been blown south from either South America or Africa. Wherever their home, it was obviously not on the NBP in the middle of Antarctic waters - they were freezing. It was sad to see, but this is the way of nature, events like this happen everyday, sometimes witnessed, sometimes not. As I watched them slowly expire, I thought about the emotions that it was evoking in me…I realized that sometimes we humans try to force our own restrictions, constraints, and manners on other organisms, other beings…for instance, on a daily basis I stare into the icy water and wonder how anything could survive, how their biochemistry could occur in sub-zero conditions, but there they were. I look up and see petrels and albatrosses frolicking in the subzero winds, far from avoiding the icy waters, they playfully plunged their beaks and wingtips into what would be a deadly mistake for you and I. In the same way, I wanted to interpret the plight of these egrets as one of tragedy, but I’m not sure I have the right to do this . . .do we ponder the plight of bacteria when we cleanse them from a wound? The plight of an “ugly” insect when it is eaten by a spider? The senseless destruction of an organism is one matter, but when nature’s patterns exceed the genetically endowed resources for survival, does not the inevitable outcome honor the laws that order our universe? Well, anyhow, I wrote a poem that captured the surrounding circumstances of the birds. I’ll share it here for you to ponder, but perhaps you will want to grab a history book to read a little background on Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Scott:

All Dire, the Antarctic Straits

These lonely beasts tropical

Storm blown and delocalized

Autonomous motion, their flapping wings

As internal voice instinctive yields

A position not parameterized

In form or function.

So fly, fly, impulse screams

Muscles tuned and torqued

But for this

Surpassing cycles long defined

In codes of genetic writ

Yet corporeal decline overrides -

Pushing fibers ‘til they sear.

Is the decision labored upon,

When one’s wings cease in flight

Or is the failure in vacuity

As one body frigid falls,

Swallowed by Antarctic’s brine?

Would such feeble mind contain

Tragic symbols we project

To that final worthless urgent surge?

And, too, would we,

In these our own, unfamiliar straits?

Or like Shackleton hunker down,

To weather infamy and thus avoid

Great Scott’s end, his dire plunge?

Well, that’s all for today, except for a Q&A and weather data:


Q: How do scientists end up researching vents and why are they looking for vents?

A: Why are they looking for vents? I will generalize my answer to this question to why scientists may choose to study any parcticular question - probably because the scientist is a curious sort, someone who, often it seems, went to school aware of a general field of science (geology, chemistry, physics) and fell into an exciting independent research project (by invitation or whatever) or experienced a dynamic and interesting lecture series or read a parcticularly engaging publication and curiosity and momentum carried them forward until the day that they were fully equipped and experienced at measuring all kinds of chemical and physical properties. Perhaps it was a conversation with a colleague, an arcticle that was read somewhere, a brainstorm late one night, but the outcome is the same… you want to solve something, find something…in this case, vents. Perhaps the desire to set yourself apart makes you look where no one else has, to use techniques no one else has, or analyze old data in ways no one else has. Then you publish your findings. Publishing can open doors and provide stability - to speak at conferences, to teach/research here or there, or even to partner up on another cruise/grant proposal, etc. Stability comes in the form of tenureship - the granting/bestowal of a "permanent" professorship. This tenureship provides you with academic liberty/liberality to push the envelope, to think in non-traditional, non-conservative ways (people afraid of being fired for thinking differently tend to not pose contrary hypotheses). Together, these allow you to continue to build a research program that delves further into the nature of our universe…

Vents are sources of energy into the earth's oceans, in fact 20% of the global oceanic heat flux comes from hydrothermal circulation. Vents are also “oasis’s of energy” (a term I heard someone else use) for organisms uniquely adapted to live in these extreme environments. In themselves they may hold clues to the nature and origin of life (speaking purely from an empirical viewpoint, the realm of science by definition - explaining the natural world in terms of natural laws). These adaptations often involve chemicals that have never been seen before and may be useful for solving problems that have remained unsolved by traditional resources. Additionally, the vents are spewing loads of minerals that immediately precipitate out of the rapidly cooling seawater (from 100-300 Celsius to ambient, about - 1 Celsius here in Antarctica). Vents are responsible for the majority of iron and manganese that are in the ocean, even more so than all the river waters that run into the ocean. These key micronutrients are necessary for all living things, and we’ve only just begun to understand the physical processes that deliver them into the biosphere. What would happen to the interconnected food chains if the rate of the micronutrients’ input changed? Would some animals go extinct? Would it ripple all the way up to us? No one can answer these questions yet until sufficient studies have been done. In addition to discharging micronutrients, vents also discharge many dissolved minerals that precipitate in the immediate region. For this reason, there is an "economic geologist" aboard. He wants to know more about locating ore deposits on land, much of which had submarine histories, including hypothesized vent produced ore deposits. Incidentally, hydrothermal does imply hot water, but there are also cold vents...these are known as cold seeps.

Weather report for today (4/21/99):

Depth Lat. (S) Long (W)Date Time Temp Baro Wind /direction salinity (m) deg min deg min gmt (C) mbar m/s - degrees ppt

571 62 13.1 58 9.4 4/21/99 1111 0.9 968.9 22 020 33.9

Dr. Franz Smith (left), Dr. Cara Wilson (right), and myself (background) remove and sample water from CTD/Rosette device.

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