After two exhilarating weeks of collecting heat flow and temperature data on the Beaufort Sea, we finally saw some land and successfully ported in Nome, Alaska on Monday September 26th, 2016. Our journey let us behold sights we had never seen before, such as a mother polar bear and her cubs, sea ice in all shapes and sizes, and the Northern Lights, though the first sight of land in two weeks had to rank near the top. The sighting was of Sledge Island, Alaska, a primitive piece of land covered in clouds located west of Nome, AK along the Bering Strait. After the surreal sighting of Sledge Island we safely pulled into the harbor of Nome, AK, a truly frontier town and our first piece of solid ground in 14 days. Making sure our onboard equipment was properly stowed and accounted before disembarking was a key and mission critical task and once completed we safely stepped foot on dry land, and step foot we did.
Fighting our sea legs, the researcher team explored Nome on Monday night and Tuesday morning before our homeward flights, enjoying the local fare and sights Nome had to offer. The history of Nome rivals that of any major city in the lower 48 states, with its gold rush and the classic shipment of diphtheria serum by dog sled in the beginning of the 20th century, which led to some very interesting and rightly deserved monuments throughout the town. After our exploration of Nome, we made sure all of our equipment and bags were in order and we headed off to the airport to head home. All in all the trip was fantastic, with numerous heat flow data points collected in the Arctic Ocean and everyone remaining safe and sound, we were happy to be headed back home.
For more information on SMU Geothermal Lab research, check our website.
Northern lights. Polar bears. Sea ice. Oh, and a little bit of data too!
By Dr. Ben Phrampus, SMU Alum
It is now day 11 aboard the Norseman II and oh boy a lot has happened since our last update! I will try to condense our epic adventure down so I can get back to data processing and interpretation.
We have been collecting heat flow and chirp data for the last 10 days along four transects across the Beaufort continental margin. We have collected 116 heat flow measurements spanning over 500 km of the margin and ranging from ~200 m below sea level down to almost 2000 m. Additionally, we collected over 200 km of chirp data imaging the shallow subsurface along our heat flow transects. All the while, we have been processing data, interpreting our results, and writing up our findings. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but let’s just say we see some very interesting processes occurring offshore Alaska!
During our time at sea we had multiple equipment deployments and recoveries. It takes a lot of teamwork (and some heavy machinery) to get the 4 m long heat flow probe over the side of the ship safely, especially when there are 5 ft swells and 20 mph winds. We have an excellent crew of course and have recovered and deployed the probe 8 times with no problems. As the science crew, we get to dress up in our mustang suits and assist in the deployment. This is a great opportunity to learn about the safety procedures used on scientific vessels like the Norseman II and to learn the patience and discipline needed to work at sea. Even the students on their first cruise help in the deployment and engage in the equipment maintenance.
To process our heat flow data we use the temperature time series to establish an equilibrium temperature and determine the thermal gradient. We also use a calibrated heat pulse to determine the thermal conductivities of the sediments. Taken together we can calculate the heat flow in the marine sediments. While this does not sound particularly exciting, the information provided by this simple technique is extremely useful in understanding tectonics, fluid flow, gas hydrate dynamic, and even ocean temperature variations.
While we have collected a lot of data, we have also had a lot of fun and seen some really interesting and rare sights! At night, during the uncommon occasion that the clouds break we get to witness one of the most bizarre yet beautiful sights on this planet. The northern lights are like nothing I have seen before. These strange lights twist and turn while changing colors from green to yellow and red. They cross the sky both fading and shining is mesmerizing patterns. Sadly, it is extremely difficult to capture this beautiful performance on camera when you are riding a moving ship, but even if we could, you would still miss the twisting dance of the Aurora Borealis. All I can say is you need to witness them for yourself to really appreciate their enchanting movement.
On one of our steaming trips between data collection sites, we ran into sea ice. I found this extremely interesting. I have been on multiple ships before this cruise, with one being in the Arctic Circle north of Norway, but I have still not seen sea ice till this cruise. While relaxing in the living area on the ship, we learned we were in an ice field when the ship started to divert course from the typical straight-line path. We look out the window and see a large island of ice off the starboard side of the ship! Needless to say we all ran outside (with our safety gear on of course) and began taking pictures. You can see many different colors in the ice. You see the white of the typical ice pack, the brown of Arctic sediments, the green of the algae covered ice, and the deep blue of the multiyear ice. The ice was really cool to see (pun intended), but what the ice actually brought really blew all of us away.
Later that day, at the beginning of our last heat flow deployment we were in the middle of an ice field getting ready to deploy the heat flow probe when we saw something we all hoped for, but that none of us imaged we would see. Off the starboard side of the ship about 0.5 miles off swimming through the ice we noticed a polar bear! But not just one polar bear, but a momma polar bear with her two cubs! They must have been curious about us because they started swimming in a straight line directly towards the ship. The science crew was amazed, but the ship crew was even more surprised! They have all seen polar bears before, having worked in the Arctic for many years, but the bears typically avoid ships and they definitely do not swim towards the ship. This momma bear was really curious though and swam towards us to within 30 yards of the ship with her cubs in tow. She and her cubs then stopped and were watching us just as intently as we were watching them. It was a strange moment while they were tying to understand us, we were just flabbergasted staring at them. Unfortunately, our time together was short as we had more science to do. So we moved on to our next waypoint as not to disturb the happy family on their ice crossing adventure.
While the data collection is over, we still have a lot of science to do. From data interpretation to paper writing and publishing, it is still a long journey to the final scientific product. Speaking of long journeys, we are currently steaming towards Nome, AK to disembark. With the addition of more ice and potentially rough weather, it appears we have a three-day journey back to port. But along the way we get to travel through the Bering Strait (maybe we can see Russia), get another opportunity to spot more rare Arctic creatures (Walrus? Narwhal? Santa Clause?), and to potentially see the Aurora one more time (please just one more time!).
More updates to come as we finish our epic Beaufort adventure!
Well, we’re officially past our halfway point as it is day 7 aboard the Norseman II. Only three full science days left until we head back to Alaska to end our time at sea. We’ve been working around the clock to collect heat flow and chirp data along 3 transects, labeled in red on the map below. The yellow lines on the map are the track lines of airgun seismic data collected by the USGS in 1977. We’re using some of the USGS seismic lines to help make sense of what we see in the heat flow data.
We started on the transect farthest to the East (BHF 1, 2, 3), and worked our way West to BHF 4 and BHF 5 (BHF stands for Beaufort Heat Flow). The first line took the longest, but once the crew and scientists started to get into a routine, we worked very efficiently through the last two lines. So far we’ve collected 60 heat flow data points and 100 km of chirp seismic data!
We’ve been working literally around the clock. Dr. Hornbach and Dr. Harris are on 12-hour rotations. Casey, Ben and I are set to work 8-hour rotations. That way there is always at least 1 chief scientist and 1 graduate student or postdoc working every hour of the day. That also means heat flow probe deployments and recoveries can happen in the middle of the night when it’s pitch black outside and you can’t see past 5 feet from the boat.
Dr. Hornbach, Dr. Harris and Dr. Phrampus are starting to make some really interesting interpretations of the patterns they’re seeing in the heat flow data. I’m pretty new to the world of gas methane hydrates and heat flow but I’ve learned so much listening to them brainstorm and talk about what could be happening in the subsurface to explain what is seen in the data. This is the first heat flow study of the Beaufort Sea, so the data we’re collecting has not existed before now.
Today a storm rolled in, creating 14-foot swells and nearly 40 mph winds. Our 115-foot ship is currently heaved-to in a bay until the storm passes over. To give you some perspective, it becomes very difficult to walk around the ship, much less deploy the heat flow probe, with 5’ swells. I can’t even process what it would be like trying to stand up or walk around the boat or deploy a heat flow probe in 14’ swells.
We’re scheduled to get back out tonight after the storm passes for at least one more transect before our time at sea runs out. In the meantime, the scientists have started analyzing data, making maps, creating figures and getting a head start on writing Arctic heat flow papers.
Even with everything in full swing aboard the Norseman II, I’ve managed to find some time to take some pictures of the scenery out here.
And…. tonight I got to cross an item off my bucket list. My 8-hour shift starts at 8pm and ends at 4am. So I’ve been up and working through the night, every night for the last week. Tonight around 3:30am, the science lab got a call from the ship’s first mate, Wayne, to let us know the northern lights were out and pretty strong. We hustled up to the bridge to watch the show. Words really can’t describe but for about 30 minutes we watched the green and red and white lights streak across the sky. I tried to take a picture with my phone, but as you could imagine the picture doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. While we were up in the bridge with Wayne he told us that the lights only come out like this once every couple of months.
I’m looking forward to getting back out to sea tonight to continue collecting heat flow data. I’ve already learned so much from the other scientists and I’ll be taking many things away from this experience. I’m feeling very lucky tonight to get to be a part of this cruise. More updates to come!
You can see where the Norseman II is by clicking here.
It’s our 4th day aboard the Norseman II and data collection has been going smoothly. The ship’s crew is knowledgeable, friendly and helpful – if we need something done they seem to know exactly how to do it. The scientists have adjusted to our work shifts and sleeping schedules, and we are starting to get into a routine with data logging and monitoring the equipment. And I should also mention, the food on this ship is fantastic (shoutout to the cooks: Marlin and Daron).
So here we are! Out in the Arctic collecting heat flow and chirp data. Are you wondering what we’re doing this for and how it all works? I’ll try to explain.
The Norseman II is currently steaming along a North-South transect across the North Slope of Alaska as we plunge the heat flow probe 3 meters down into the ocean-bottom sediments at a ~1 kilometer spacing. One deployment takes about one hour, because once the heat flow probe has landed in the sediments, you wait about 15 minutes for the probe to take measurements, plus the extra time spent ensuring the probe is oriented the right way before you drop it down. This operation is mainly done via cable on the ship’s winch, and it also takes a fair amount of time to reel out and reel in cable to raise and lower the probe. Our first transect has 34 heat flow probe deployment sites, and we are almost done with this first line with only 4 deployments left to go. Then, we will move on to another transect further to the West and do it all over again. The depth of the seafloor along our transects is about 1500 m starting on the deep side of the slope, and comes up to about 200 m just across the edge of the continental shelf. By the time we finish up here in the Arctic we will have completed several hundred heat flow deployments along 5-7 transects between Prudhoe Bay and Wainwright, Alaska.
The heat flow probe data tells us about temperature, conductivity, how heat flows through the ocean bottom sediments, and can provide us with sediment samples. This data allows us to better understand how the Arctic Ocean formed, because oceanic crust cools as it moves away from the crust-forming margin. It also gives us information about gas methane hydrates, which can destabilize at depths of 200-300 m due to ocean temperature warming and this can cause slope failure events and tsunamis.
In between each heat flow deployment site, we collect chirp seismic data to profile the top 10-20 m of ocean bottom sediments. This has been my favorite part! I think it’s the coolest thing ever when you can see stratigraphy way down below the surface of the Earth. In the chirp data we are looking for any signs of deformation, slope failure, fluid flow, faults, and other features of interest that might produce anomalies in the heat flow data.
We also use the chirp in “Pinger Mode”, or listening mode. As the heat flow probe travels through the water column it lets out different pings that tell us about the orientation of the probe and state of the thermistors, and in listening mode we are able to keep track of the heat flow probe as it stays deep underwater for hours at a time.
So far everything has been running smoothly, of course with the occasional kink but nothing crucial. For example, we lost the signal from the pinger on the heat flow probe last night so we had to bring it back aboard the ship to switch out the batteries. It turned out to be a minor inconvenience but you can probably imagine that we were trying not to freak out as we started to wonder: “Did we just lose the probe in the Arctic Ocean??”
The data are looking really good and I think everyone on board would agree that it’s a privilege to be out here studying a part of the world where very few people ever get to go. We’re collecting data that will be used for a long time by many scientists in the future, so everyone has been extremely involved, working together and coming up with quick solutions to the unavoidable setbacks that are a normal part of a project like this. Our 10 science days (+2 steam days) on the boat will be up before we know it (HOW has it already been 4 days!?!?) so we are working every hour to make sure we are collecting as much quality data as physically possible. I’m enjoying life at sea more than I thought I would…considering dropping out of grad school to become a pirate.
Today is our 6th day in Alaska and I can happily say that we have FINALLY made it safely onto the Norseman II. After the weather in Wainwright failed to clear up enough for a flight out of Anchorage….three days in a row…we decided to change up the plans a bit and board out of Prudhoe Bay instead. Friday and Saturday morning started off with disappointing weather updates from Wainwright: low visibility caused by fog and seas too rough for a crew change.
We got to know Anchorage pretty well by our 5th day, eating out at restaurants for pretty much every meal and exploring downtown with the truck that our travel coordinators let us borrow. Side note, if anyone ever visits Anchorage let me know and I’ll give ya some great food recommendations. On Saturday, Matt, Ben and I decided to go on another hike. We chose an 8.7 mile hike down and back to Wolverine Peak at an elevation of about 4200 ft. It took us 5 hours, but the views from the top were incredible and definitely worth the struggle it took to get up there.
This morning we woke up bright and early to fly to Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay. Once we landed we were driven to the port to get water-taxied out to the Norseman II, which was about 3 miles offshore. The drive through Deadhorse was eerie – this is such a remote, strange part of the world. I’ll explain Deadhorse by quoting our driver, Roger, who said: “The best way to describe Deadhorse is by what it isn’t. No one gets their mail here, there are no kids, no pets, no streetlights. It’s not a city, it’s just a place.” We drove by camps built for oil and gas workers who live here on and off for 2 weeks at a time. Pipelines and huge abandoned rigs cover ground for as far as the eye can see.
The boat ride out to our ship and the boat transfer/crew change went down without a hitch and now we’re here working on the Norseman II for the next 10 days! We spent the rest of the day setting up the heat flow probe and chirp equipment, meeting the crew and getting adjusted to life at sea. Now that most of the equipment appears to be ready to go, we have a 12-hour steam to our first data collection site. Here are some pictures of us getting equipment set up, which took all day and a lot of patience on everyone’s part. But it’s also really fun and exciting because we’re finally doing the cool part! This is, after all, the whole reason we’re here.
So that’s it! We’re off to a great start aboard the Norseman II and we’re all looking forward to our first heat flow probe deployment in 12 hours. You can follow our voyage on the Norseman II by clicking here. More updates to come, but for now we’re all going to rest up for a big day of data collection and new challenges.
We are on day 3 of our Arctic research journey to collect heat flow and chirp seismic data in the Beaufort Sea. Here are the scientists (minus me): Dr. Matt Hornbach (SMU), Dr. Rob Harris (OSU), Casey Brokaw (Master’s student, SMU) and Dr. Ben Phrampus (Postdoc, OSU and SMU Alum).
We’re currently hanging out in Anchorage, AK until the weather and seas calm down a bit at our dock site in Wainwright, AK. The flight to Wainwright was supposed to take place this morning but fog, wind and rough seas expected to last through tomorrow have postponed the last leg of our trip an extra day.
So… what do you do when you can’t board your ship? Hike! We hiked up Flattop Mountain taking in the sights of Cook Inlet and enjoying the cool weather, which has been a nice break from the long and very hot Texas summer.
We are excited and anxious to board the Norseman II tomorrow for 10 full days at sea. Hoping for calmer, clearer weather and for a smooth transition onto the boat. You can track the Norseman II here:
Maria Richards and Christine Ferguson of the SMU Geothermal Laboratory discuss the Lab’s founding, projects including the Geothermal Map of North America and National Geothermal Data System, and the Labs international energy conferences.
Miguel Benitez Torreblanca was part of a group of students from Grupo iiDEA at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) that attended the 2015 SMU Power Plays conference. Miguel discusses the group’s experiences in this video.
Chad Augustine, Geothermal Energy Engineer/Analyst with National Renewable Energy Laboratory, (NREL) has broken the code that explains the core differences between O&G and geothermal drilling. The graphic below identifies the major misconceptions that cloud and confuse both sides from collaborating more than they currently do.
Although the goals of the petroleum and geothermal industry are the same – to extract energy from the subsurface – there are major differences that can make it difficult for them to communicate and collaborate. Often it seems like the industries are speaking two different languages. This is most true when the industries attempt to talk about temperatures and flow rates. What is “hot” in the petroleum industry is low temperature for geothermal, and a “high flow rate” from a petroleum well could be an order of magnitude less than what is needed for commercial geothermal energy production. A key to collaboration and to developing geothermal projects in petroleum settings is getting both sides to “speak the same language” when evaluating prospects and discussing the requirements for commercial electricity generation. After this, many of the same technologies and expertise used by the petroleum industry to produce oil and gas could be used to produce water for geothermal electricity generation.