Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Corinth Active Rift Development: Life offshore

IODP Expedition 381 

View 6: Life offshore as a sea-going scientist 


I’ve been at sea on IODP Expedition 381: Corinth Active Rift Development for just over 5 weeks, and I thought it's about time I provided an update on life here. Regular visitors to this blog may have seen my previous “Corinth Active Rift Development: the Expedition begins” blog where I outlined what I have been doing with my time, so I won’t go into it now. But what is it like to keep an MSCL running 24 hours a day? Well to make things simpler to communicate I thought I’d break things down into my 5 repeated stages for an MSCL operator at sea: 

1. Waking up. 

Seems like an obvious place to start. When I’m at home getting out of bed and on my way to work is a simple half-an-hour task. Quick shower, quick bit of brekkie and that’s that. It’s a bit harder after you work 12 hours a day for 5 weeks. And have I mentioned the beds on the Fugro Synergy? It might just be the hours talking (although I don’t think so) but the beds here are super comfortable. The other factor is coffee-management. It’s easy to drink coffee because it helps so much with the long shifts. You've got to be careful you don’t disturb that sleep cycle though. When I first joined the vessel I was drinking one a day but this ramped up to 5 cups of coffee a day by week 4 on board. Since then I have kicked the habit and am now caffeine free. It’s the little things. 


My shared cabin onboard. Mine for 12 hours a day its pretty
well equipped, though the TV doesn't work as a TV
2. Eating. 

Meals are served for an hour and a half every 6 hours on the Synergy. And they are good. At least 4 options of hot mains provided every time and plenty of sides to accompany them. I have managed to limit myself to only 2 three course meals per day thus far but it has been a challenge. The food has changed throughout the cruise. Bananas and most of the other fresh fruit disappeared along with the most popular cereals and condiments. Somehow Nutella has lasted this long despite it being a very popular choice. Through what I can only assume is some sort of black magic fresh salad appeared a couple of weeks into the expedition at the same time as all of the apples were painted in wax; giving them a plastic and cartoonish appearance. However, after a quick wash they’re still fresh and crunchy on the inside. Fresh veg was replenished on board at the port call after the first site but we just repeated the cycle again with its disappearance. Very surreal. After this it’s time to don PPE and start my morning commute. 

3. Exercise. 

The MSCL is built into a 20 foot container, so there’s no chance I’m doing star jumps between cores. It’s okay though the Synergy has a gym. It’s a simple gym with basic equipment (running machine, exercise bike, rowing machine, dumbbell set and a couple of those reclining chair/bench things). It’s more than enough for an end-of-the-day stretch. I have also started a 100-a-day press-up challenge with a few friends from home, and that is something that I can do between loading cores onto the MSCL! I’ve kept it up for three weeks so far and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. 


The Gym onboard 
4. Sitting at the MSCL.

This is where I spend the majority of my day. It’s a fine enough place to do it. Abah (my opposite shift partner) and I are the only scientists who have a whole container to ourselves (hence the press-ups), which has its positives and negatives. It’s alright though; we have a coffee machine so that is bringing in a lot of visitors nowadays. 

Operating the MSCL as efficiently as possible to keep up with the recovery rate is best achieved by channelling your inner robot. Be an extension of the machine (Neo?). There are many steps that need to be taken in order to make sure that all data is recorded in a meaningful way and at that nothing is missed. This includes (but is not limited to) recording data at the correct time after the core has arrived on deck; QC-ing the curation process with the assistance of the MSCL’s built-in precision ball-screw core pusher and associated laser; and measuring temperature at all stages. The recovery rate thus far on Expedition 381 has been steady and we in the MSCL lab have mostly been able to keep up. That said, there’s a white-board pinned to one of the walls of the MSCL container and it has had become an extension of my brain. Most heavily used during the second half of the shift it’s especially helpful for staving off the post-lunch “I ate too much again” food-coma. 
A waxed apple with the MSCL in the background 

The most interesting thing I have learnt about operating the MSCL all day is how quickly my body adapts. The MSCL motor makes a whirring sound every time it moves and it moves all the time, never pausing for more than 30 seconds. In the first week I developed a 6th sense whereby I subconsciously count in 30 second periods. I don’t know, maybe it came from watching the MSCL for so long, but now if I go for more than 30 seconds without hearing that sound I subconsciously know something requires my attention. It’s really rather cool. 

5. Scratching my head. 

The 5th and final task where time is allocated in any day is time allocated to scratching my head. There are a lot of questions raised when you are on the front-lines of scientific discovery, so I spend a more significant portion of my day than usual in quiet contemplation as I troubleshoot unexpected values and strange data points. Despite the MSCL producing a tremendous amount of high-resolution data very quickly we still have a task on our hands processing it to output a high quality (and usable!) dataset. That’s not to say that we have discovered everything there is to see so far already, far from it. After all, we are only one cog in the engine and this is only the first half of the expedition. We will need to wait to see the rest of the puzzle pieces when we split the cores at the Onshore Science Party in a couple of months. 

And that’s pretty much what I do daily while I am here. Rinse and repeat. 

Laurence 

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