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Impressions from the RV Thomas Thompson

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

Last summer I was fortunate to participate in a field campaign called PISTON: for three weeks in August several dozen scientists, including my advisor Adam Sobel and myself, lived on board a ship in the Western Pacific taking measurements of the atmosphere and the ocean. In particular, during my time I worked with chief scientist Prof. Jim Moum's group from Oregon State University, who specialize in ocean mixing. Below are some comments I wrote upon returning, originally featured on Columbia's departmental website.


Adam and I spent just over three weeks at sea during our leg of the PISTON research cruise. Aboard the RV Thomas Thompson, we stayed in close quarters and quite literally lived and breathed the weather we were studying. 

Dr. Janet Sprintall (left), grad student Socorro Rodrigo (center), and me (right, with the stylish rain hat) preparing to practice launching a test-probe (the grey tube Socorro is holding). The actual device we would later launch from this winch is called an underway CTD or uCTD, which measures temperature, conductivity (from which we infer salinity), and density as it falls down through the top few hundred meters of the ocean. The actual uCTDs were rather fragile, so we practiced several times with test probes to ensure we could safely launch and recover them.

Life on the ship provided a wholly unique and isolated environment: the Thompson had a stringent internet quota, little to no cell reception, and for the majority of the trip the only interruptions to the expansive horizon were passing freighters or, in one case, another science vessel. Such an intense and all-encompassing experience lends a sense of perspective and focus to one's work that was immeasurably beneficial to me as a scientist. My time on the ship deepened my intuition for the kinds of atmospheric and oceanic processes I think about in my research or learn about in the classroom. Through the experience of sitting outside and watching the weather, the water, and the sky, I found my curiosity and imagination excited and engaged in new ways. As the seemingly homogeneous ocean stretched out from all sides of the ship, why were there dotted storms in some places and not others; what set the height or base of the clouds; how did the rain coming out of storms interact with the ocean, or the wind whipping off the white caps feedback to the atmosphere? It gave a real sense of purpose and reality to work that can sometimes seems obtuse or abstract when viewed through the lens of a laptop screen.

Me at the main screen used to monitor and operate an instrument known as the “Chameleon”. This is an approximately 2 meter long pole with numerous sensors installed along it to measure various properties of the ocean as it falls from the surface down several hundred meters. The Chameleon sends data back in real-time, so that one person monitors the data stream (what I’m doing here) and a second person (on the other end of the radio headset I’m wearing) deploys and recovers the device using a winch.

Despite being an atmospheric science student who typically works on numerical models, my role was to assist an ocean group out of Oregon State University headed by Jim Moum to gather data in the upper ocean. I spent many, many hours either dropping various probes or sensors off the ship or operating winches to pull them back up. I gained a newfound respect and understanding for both the methodologies and the challenge of gathering data in the field. Both require a unique blend of intense and meticulous planning and preparation, an ability to adapt on the fly and handle setbacks with humor and grace, a willingness to let curiosity sometimes dictate decisions, and above all else, a tenacity, passion, and desire to understand the natural world. Going outside my comfort zone and the neat confines sometimes placed on the discipline (between oceanic or atmospheric research, or between modelers and observationalists) has helped give a me a more well-rounded sense of my discipline as a whole and myself as a scientist. While a daunting experience to leave behind loved ones, familiarity, and the literal stability of dry land, I would highly recommend to any student of atmospheric or oceanic science lucky enough to be afforded such an opportunity.

Me operating the winch which is connected to the Chameleon device discussed in the previous photo. The winch runs off the stern of the ship, and the nifty shed keeps the elements off so the Chameleon can be operated 24/7, at times for several days in a row.

The experience left as large an impact on me personally as it did professionally. There is a sense of scope, both in terms of the size of the planet and the smallness of oneself, that is magnified at sea, and the stark beauty of the natural environment — the texture and color and motion of the ocean and sky — that was unlike anything I had experienced. The somewhat bruising work schedule (from 3am to 3pm every day) gave the days a sense of rhythm and routine, where meals with friends and colleagues became integral and eagerly anticipated parts of the day, and the sunrise, sunset, and stars at night became as familiar as the rooms and sounds of the ship. The friendships I forged aboard the Thompson are ones that will stay with me for life, born out of the close quarters and the common goal we shared.

While I was very glad to return home, I think often and fondly of the time I spent aboard the Thompson and the people who were a part of the experience with me. 

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