Of Moorings, Elephants, Norwegians, and Codswallop

The oceans are cruel, unforgiving, and destructive. Microbes, algae, plankton, fish, and whales all evolved slowly to make the seas their home. We men and women of science and technology race to catch-up with our steel, our sensors, our computers, our hope, and our wishful thinking. We place ourselves on powerful ships to lower fancy rigs into the water that poke the deep and icy Sea to reveal her secrets. We often wait a year or two or three to pick up our litter of machinery hoping that the sealed battery, electronics, and computer containers are still there with added data. There are thousands of small things that all must go just right to be successful, but one only needs one failure, one oversight, one faulty wire, one scratch or one hair on a rubbery seal, or one wrong letter in a deployment command code and the entire enterprise is doomed to fail. Sisyphus of the Greek tragedies come to mind as does Captain Ahab and his insane quest to control nature. We need time to evolve.

Less than 100 years ago Harald Sverdrup was the first to deploy a machine in the Arctic Ocean off Siberia to measure ocean currents. He used these data to write about tides, forces, and balances to make predictions on how wind and ice drive ocean currents and vice versa. This was many years before he transformed ocean-research to ocean-going research as director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California during the Second World War. As a “Resident Alien” from Norway he helped the Americans win the war by organizing scientists into skilled ocean-going groups to better predict waves, weather, and acoustics. Revolutionary measurements and advances were made with minimal bureaucratic overhead and results were used immediately to land troops on African and European beaches, to send planes with bombs to raid on Germany and Japan, to equip destroyers with sonar to hunt and sink submarines. After the war Sverdrup returned to his home country to direct the Norwegian Polar Institute with a deep sense of duty to help rebuild a Norway devastated by war and occupation. The basic design of his current-measuring device still exists today, made by Aanderaa. This Norwegian company has a stellar reputation for simple yet robust design that transitioned into the computer age.

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It is very easy to deploy ocean moorings by slipping them gently into the water. In contrast, it is not so easy to get the sensor package back years later, because they have to respond to commands sent via remote control, a metal rod has to turn a motor to release a set of buoy and floats from iron anchors, the buoy has to raise everything to the surface, the sensors and the water-sealed computers driving them must be hauled onto the ship with ice, fog, or waves all complicating matters, and finally, there must be working connection to the data storage unit that must have operated correctly. Each step appears simple enough, but the long drawn-out sequence of many such steps, each critical, makes this such a risky and tricky business. Corrosion of metals in seawater, too, attacks any unprotected surface, hence many sacrificial pieces of metals are placed on any mooring with metal components. The pin to a shackle rusting away can endanger an entire mooring line. It boggles my mind that anything ever comes back, as often it does because of people like this one:

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Olaf S., Benjamin R., and Agnieszka B. successfully recovered two moorings yesterday that were placed in 2012 in water more than a mile deep. It speaks to their skill and that of the crew they are with both now and 2 years ago. It was a good day’s work without much time to sit down for meals, Olaf told me on deck where he was in the weather all day. Ben made the fateful decision the day before not to release the moorings for much fog and ice would have endangered the mooring once at the surface, but he was there the following day at 4:30 am to decide on the release that was successful. Those are hard calls to make. There are 9 more such moorings that need to come back and one that will require lots of additional attention: The day prior we had sailed through fog and ice all day only to find one mooring collapsed into a messy pile of rope, imploded buoys, metal, and sensors about 8000 feet (2600 meters) below the surface. The cause for this failure is not known, but speculation is, that a 30’’ steel float got crushed when an iceberg or some other failure depressed the float below its breaking point. It was a frustrating day, but a little less fog, a little less ice the following day, and Ben, Olaf, and Agnieszka led several successful recoveries yesterday. It was also the last day of our expedition.

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We still have a long way to go in our attempts to describe or understand the oceans to better predict how it impacts present and future climate. I compare this task to three blind men poking an elephant: One near the back notices a bushy tail that appears to correlate with a smelly source of gas, the second gets under a foot, describes a very hard woody surface that subsequently crushes him, while the third in front notices a rubbery pipe that wiggles like a snake. Their individual descriptions are costly, accurate, incomplete, and misleading. I often wonder, if our physical descriptions of the ocean do not have similar qualities, never mind more complex areas that involve living things such as elephants. Codswallop!

Posted by Pat Ryan for Andreas Muenchow

One response to “Of Moorings, Elephants, Norwegians, and Codswallop

  1. Pingback: Coastal Oceanography off North-East Greenland | Icy Seas

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