Geophysics in Alaska 2016

Two SMU graduate student researchers, with SMU Professor of Geophysics Matthew Hornbach, traveled to the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska, to participate in a research project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) to chart heat flow and chirp data on the ocean floor. This research project team, which includes two geophysicists from Oregon State University: Dr. Robert Harris and SMU alumnus Dr. Ben Phrampus ’15, is working aboard the Norseman II research vessel.

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Halfway Point and Northern Lights

Madeline Jones is an SMU graduate student studying geophysics:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

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 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.

Here is a map of our study area in the Beaufort Sea. The yellow lines show the track of the 1977 USGS seismic survey. The red lines show the sites where we are collecting heat flow data on this trip.

Here is a map of our study area in the Beaufort Sea. The yellow lines show the track of the 1977 USGS seismic survey. The red lines show the sites where we are collecting heat flow data on this trip.

We started on the transect farthest to the east to BHF 1, 2, 3 (BHF stands for Beaufort Heat Flow) and worked our way west to BHF 4 and BHF 5 . 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 one chief scientist and one 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 five feet from the boat.

Here’s Dr. Harris and 2 of the ship’s crew getting ready to deploy the heat flow probe at 5:30 am! It looked like they’re deploying a heat flow probe into black abyss.

Here’s Dr. Harris and two of the ship’s crew getting ready to deploy the heat flow probe at 5:30 am! It looked like they were deploying a heat flow probe into black abyss.

 

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.

Crew securing the boom to the port side of the ship. The chirp is the tiny black box on the very end of the boom. When the boom is lowered the chirp is about 15 feet underwater. When the chirp is transmitting we can hear it from the science lab inside the boat, it sounds like a dolphin chirping and swimming right along with us.

Crew securing the boom to the port side of the ship. The chirp is the tiny black box on the very end of the boom. When the boom is lowered, the chirp is about 15 feet underwater. When the chirp transmits we can hear it from the science lab inside the boat. It sounds like a dolphin chirping and swimming right along with us.

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-foot 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-foot 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.

Rainbow seen from the deck of the Norseman II.

Rainbow seen from the deck of the Norseman II.

 

This was the sunset from tonight, taken from the deck looking towards the bridge on the port side (trying to throw in as much of this new boat lingo as I can). This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken so far.

This was the sunset from tonight, taken from the deck looking towards the bridge on the port side (trying to throw in as much of this new boat lingo as I can). This is one of my favorite pictures I’ve taken so far.

And…. tonight I got to cross an item off my bucket list. My eight-hour shift starts at 8 pm and ends at 4 am. So I’ve been up and working through the night, every night for the last week. Tonight around 3:30 am, 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.

Northern Lights from the deck of the Norseman II, Beaufort Sea.

Northern Lights from the deck of the Norseman II, Beaufort Sea.

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.

This post originally appeared on the SMU Geothermal Laboratory blog.

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