Life at Sea – Finale!

12 Dec
1630 UTC

After logging over 840 hours at sea and traveling over 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 statute miles) across open ocean, we safely returned to the port of Phuket, Thailand on the morning of 11 December… 35 days after we first left the lush green land of this tropical Southeast Asian country.

A few days prior to our arrival, we had to turn off the TOGA C-Band Doppler radar and end all scientific data collection because we had left international waters and entered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as 200 nautical miles from shore, where a state has territorial rights to ocean resources. We also had a rendezvous with a fuel barge that met us at sea on 10 December to deliver more diesel for the upcoming cruise 4 of the R/V Roger Revelle for the DYNAMO field experiment. That night, many of the scientists gathered on the bow to watch the total lunar eclipse that occurred right over our heads! Since it was our last night at sea, we soaked in the nostalgic moment of feeling the wind on our faces and hearing the splash of the waves below. Our Research Technician (ResTech) brought out his guitar and strummed a few tunes as we gazed lazily at the gorgeous eclipse of the moon.

Our port arrival on the following day was not without its challenges. We did not have the usual convenience of docking the ship and stepping off onto a pier. Instead, our reservation was deferred to a cruise ship that needed the dock, so we were left with no other options but to anchor offshore and to take a Thai “water taxi” boat to shore. This “water taxi” was nothing more than a rusted metal container with a propeller. If there were a Thai boat equivalent to an old, beat-up Ford pickup truck from Oklahoma, this would have been it.

After the Thai customs and immigration officials climbed aboard our ship and cleared our passports, we each put on a life vest, handed our baggage to the 3rd Mate, and slowly climbed down a rope ladder into the metal hold of the Thai boat that was being madly tossed around by the waves. When it was my turn, the 3rd Mate dropped my Marine Corps sea bag into the boat, and I strapped on my life vest. After shaking hands with the Captain and the 3rd Mate, I descended the rope ladder and jumped into the boat right as it temporarily swung away from the hull of our ship. As you could imagine, transferring all of our baggage from the ship to the boat that was struggling to remain steady against the swells and waves many feet below was a chore. But with some effort and special attention to safety, we were able to fit most of the scientists in the rusted bed of the “water taxi.” As we pulled away from the R/V Roger Revelle, we could see the entirety of the ship for the first time since we left port over a month ago. The immediate change in perspective was surreal. As we pulled away from the starboard side of the ship, the crew stood on deck and waved. We bid them a final farewell and headed to shore.

My 35 days at sea have been nothing short of an adventure. Between the diverse people, the exotic setting, the extreme isolation, and the random humor of life at sea, I have tasted the essence and the thrill of life as a sailor. In fact, I and fellow scientists were properly inducted into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep,” by Neptunus Rex, Imperium Neptuni Regis (King Neptune, Ruler of the Raging Main). This was part of an ancient Naval tradition that originated in the Middle Ages and is still observed today by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and other navies around the world, whereby new sailors (polliwogs) must pass through several initiation rites organized by the experienced sailors (shellbacks) upon crossing the equator. These activities were originally meant to test new sailors for their ability to handle the rigors of life at sea, but now, they have become mostly traditional and much less severe than the activities that took place aboard ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, they preserve some standard elements that contribute to camaraderie among all who have participated. The international nature of this tradition is captured in this recent news article from aboard the USS New Orleans. I was presented with an official identification card and a certificate, signed by the Captain and Chief Scientist (who played the role of King Neptune). These will prove my identity as a “shellback” the next time I am aboard a U.S. Navy ship.

Now, back on land, I can fully relate to the yearning for adventure on the high seas that is characterized by sailors and maritime lore. So goes the slogan of the R/V Roger Revelle and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography:

Ocean exploration is our business. The world is our office.

Conventional thought and habitual ideas are challenged while living aboard a vessel thousands of miles away from civilization. Life at sea is at once an educational and a humbling experience, knowing that few human beings have experienced life in that setting for such a lengthy period of time. Whether it was waking to the calm morning sunrise peering through the horizon or braving the gale-force winds and rough seas during a developing tropical cyclone, there was always something to learn and some question to ponder. In the words of Saint Augustine:

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.

This underlies my personal fascination with nature and the pursuit of scientific adventure. Whether I am climbing the largest volcano in the world, snorkeling with sea turtles, hiking through alpine meadows, or living on a ship in the middle of the ocean, there is always something to learn – not just about the world – but also about myself.

Perhaps the best moments on the ship were spent standing on deck and watching the wide expanse of the ocean reach far into the distant horizon. When the weather was quiet, the seas were tranquil, with waves no larger than tiny ripples along the water surface. The gentle swells of the ocean passed underneath the ripples, completely unaffected. These subtle undulations of the sea surface can never be seen from land, as the laws of physics dictate that swells must break into waves near shore. The ocean as seen from a beach and the ocean as seen from its heart are entirely different experiences. The gentle swells formed the perfect canvas for spectacular sunrises and sunsets, with beauty that far surpassed anything that the human tongue could express. I composed this poem in an attempt to capture the spirit of the sea:


The Sea, mother of humanity
Giver of life across the lands
Your voice reaches no ear in vain
Full of wisdom, hidden ‘neath your ceaseless waves
Your calm can sooth the roughest soul
Yet your force can crush the sturdiest of ships
Your glistening waters inspire peace
Yet your storm-swept waves inject fear
You humble the most conceited among us
Yet you empower those who seek your source
You command the respect of all the elements
Yet you are part of each living thing
You are in all
And all are in one.

In conclusion, I am very happy to say that that this field experiment at sea was a huge success. Although the DYNAMO project continues for the next few months, we have already collected vast amounts of oceanic and atmospheric data that will be analyzed for many years in universities and government laboratories throughout the world. The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) remains an enigma in the realm of tropical meteorology, and yet, its effects reach across the globe and affect weather and climate on every continent. The large equatorial Indian Ocean thunderstorms associated with the MJO generate atmospheric waves, like ripples on the water surface that form in response to a pebble being dropped. These waves can affect global weather patterns, from floods in Pakistan to droughts in Africa and even to snowstorms in the northeast United States. Yet, we do not know exactly why the MJO develops and what determines its amplitude. Links to other large-scale climate factors such as the El Niño – Southern Oscillation are still hot topics of research today. Furthermore, how all of these seasonal and intraseasonal events relate to the increasingly pressing concerns of global climate change remain a question.

There is little doubt in the scientific community that climate change is occurring, and there is overwhelming evidence that humanity will soon be faced with economic challenges that are directly related to rapid changes in regional climate. Exactly how global climate change will affect local events such as tornadoes in Oklahoma and hurricanes in Florida are still a topic of intense debate, and science is only beginning to shine a light on these topics. At this time, Cornell University, my alma mater, is performing a faculty search to identify a new professor who would be willing to develop a new research program to address this very question: How will climate change affect extreme weather events? There has been evidence that if the average temperature of the globe warms, local regions may experience more extreme fluctuations between seasons. So a warmer earth may not necessarily result in warmer temperatures at a particular location. Correlations are not simplistic. Much more research must be done to bridge the gap between global causes and local effects.

In this time of uncertainty, we would be wise to pursue renewable energy sources to cut down on our artificial effects on the earth’s climate system. Both solar and wind energy are growing markets, but solar may have a greater potential as an untapped energy reserve. The sun is always there. While wind magnitude and direction both change with time, the energy of the sun is primarily affected by the presence of clouds. Cloud distributions are modulated by geography and follow patterns on the seasonal timescale that are usually more predictable than wind, which allows a greater ease for the energy markets to estimate the amount of energy that can be extracted from the sun on any given day for a particular location. However, engineers are faced with the task of developing ways to store the energy that is collected from the sun and the wind. Until we are able to do that efficiently, we will still be at the mercy of the changing weather patterns.

With such deep economic roots in weather and climate, we cannot escape the fact that we must understand the MJO in order to build a complete picture of global weather patterns and climate change. The MJO has been a missing link in our understanding of the physics of the global climate system. Someday, somewhere, the valuable data that we collected at sea will come together as pieces of the puzzle to shed light on the mystery of the MJO.

At the end of the day, science – as it always has been – remains “to be continued…”

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