Life at Sea – Day 20

25 Nov 2011
2000 UTC

Wow. This has been a Thanksgiving for the books! After weeks of relative peace out here, the weather has ramped up dramatically. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. I suppose I should say…

***Mother Nature has UNLEASHED ITS FURY in the Indian Ocean.***

As I type this during a brief break in operations, we’ve been fighting sustained gale-force winds with gusts clocked to over 40 kts! Winds accelerated dramatically starting around 0800 UTC yesterday, and since then, the ship has been desperately fighting raging seas, with visual estimates of 10-12 ft swells, likely reaching 15 ft at times. With GPS and dynamic positioning glitches yesterday, the crew had to manually steer the ship with a steady forward motion into the wind to keep weight on the bow. This was to prevent us from “troughing” between wave crests… which would not have been good.

We are observing a rapid intensification of the MJO, with brisk westerly winds along the equator combining with a developing tropical cyclone (TC) just south of India. Waterspouts were sighted near the ship in recent days, indicative of increasingly convective weather. The circulation of the developing TC has grown to encompass nearly the entire North Indian Ocean, and its effects are being felt for thousands of nautical miles. The storm is heading to the northwest into the Arabian Sea at about 13 kts.

I woke up yesterday while nearly falling out of my upper bunk as the ship pitched and rolled heavily in the relentless swells. Since then, every few seconds, we experience weightlessness, followed by a loud thud of the bow crashing into the water and a period of downward pressure. Lateral rolls send us launching into walls while attempting to walk, and the ship occasionally hits a resonance frequency where the entire vessel vibrates for several seconds at a time. Staving off dizziness has become a routine chore.

I’ve always wondered what stormy seas look like, but this is absurd! The dark, roiling, turbulent ocean gives me goosebumps – not from fear, but from that tingling sense of awe at the untamed power of nature. It is that same feeling I get when observing a rotating supercell thunderstorm or witnessing a tornado. Standing on deck and watching swells as large as a house rise and fall with the horizon is surreal, and I once again realize how small I am in comparison to the undulating ocean surface rising multiple feet above my head and horizon. Storms are one of the few things that humans have yet to conquer. We can only stand back and watch in wonder.

The amount of energy that is stored in those swells battering our ship is tremendous, and yet, we are “only” in 30 to 40 kt winds. I cannot even begin to imagine what seas are like during a full-blown hurricane. No wonder tropical cyclones have held the distinguished honor of “Monster of the Sea” since the beginning of nautical lore – from the destruction of Geghis Khan’s fleet during his attempted invasions of Japan, to the obliteration of Christopher Columbus’ contingent in the West Indies, to the 700+ deaths that resulted from Admiral Halsey’s fateful encounter with Typhoon Cobra during World War II when the U.S. Navy suffered its greatest loss in history.

The Joint Typhoon Warning Center (JTWC) in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was created in part due to Halsey’s disaster, and I have been in touch with them continuously throughout this ordeal by providing them much-needed data from our weather balloons and other scientific instruments aboard the ship. In this day and age, while we have not been able to tame the greatest of storms of Mother Nature, we can at least monitor them closely and save lives through scientific collaboration.

My responsibilities thus far have been quite daunting at times, especially when being entrusted with the title of “radar scientist” aboard the ship, but I have done my best to rise to the challenge. Without the C-band Doppler radar that I am operating, the ship would be “flying blind” with respect to storms upwind beyond the range of the shipboard radar, so I have had to respond to calls from the 2nd Mate on the bridge to produce an immediate wind gust forecast for the sake of controlling the ship against lateral drifting. When the Captain walks into my office to ask for a status update, I have to immediately produce a forecast – which is a lot of responsibility, complete with all the consequences of making a mistake. In between radar scans and monitoring the weather for the deck crew, I am also making decisions on data collection, setting radar scan angles, writing in the science log, corresponding with the PI about radar theory, and donning a rain slicker and life jacket to help launch weather balloons while braving the elements on deck. There have been many moments when I’ve been so busy that I haven’t even had time to be stressed!

As the ship continues to get battered by winds and waves, an interesting mix of birds have sought shelter here. The egrets are beginning to look weary and worn out, and some of them have actually passed out and fallen off of the ship. Much to their dismay, we are not a fishing boat, so we don’t have free food laying around. Yesterday, while going on deck, I was assaulted by a panic-stricken hawk. He was frantically trying to make sense out of his surroundings but was apparently getting as dizzy as the scientists. I never thought a bird could make a puppy face before, but this hawk put on the saddest face as I approached him, quivering by the lab entrance. There have also been owl sightings on deck. Yes, owls. We have owls. Meanwhile, we are routinely finding flying fish stranded on deck, having accidentally landed on our ship in the high winds. Other sea life that are not supposed to fly have become airborne nonetheless, and the oceanography team recently reported a squid flying horizontally out of a wave through thin air…

…and on that note, hope everyone had a good holiday! I can’t say I ever imagined I would spend Thanksgiving in the middle of an ocean with front-row seats to a developing tropical cyclone. To all my family and friends, please enjoy the dry (and stable) land for me!

Here’s to the continuing voyage…

(IR satellite image courtesy of NCAR/EOL. Waterspout photo courtesy of Liam Neeley-Brown.)

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