Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aboard the OSV Bold

By MEREDITH HAAS/ecoRI.org News contributor
Doug Moore, Bold’s chief mate and safety officer, navigates
to sampling site and coordinates sample collection from the bridge.
(EPA photos)
ABOARD BOLD — With humidity at 97 percent and a clinging fog that left visibility at only a few yards, an encroaching storm was palpable regardless of weather reports. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s 224-foot ocean survey vessel (OSV) rolled along easily even as the ocean’s surface gradually roiled with white caps and as lightening began to mark the horizon, seemingly where Rhode Island Sound stopped and the Atlantic Ocean began.

“She’ll be here in 45 minutes,” said Doug Moore, Bold’s chief mate and safety officer, as he scanned the radar and slowed the ship’s speed so the crew could battle breaking waves to safely pull and secure the mounted sonar system before thousands of dollars of equipment became another artifact on the ocean floor.



Sure enough, within the hour, all 2,300 tons of ship was driving through 7-foot swells that would have left a crew on a smaller vessel with green faces. It was the first time in six days that the “fish” — as the sonar system was often referred — was pulled and data collection had to be stopped, until the storm passed.
A Dramamine, for several of us, and 12 quiet but turbulent hours later, the crew was back in business to salvage the last day at sea.
The ocean survey vessel (OSV) Bold is the Environmental
Protection Agency’s only ocean and coastal monitoring vessel
Research cruise

Most of the days recently spent at sea weren’t this eventful. The seven-day research venture was led by University of Rhode Island marine research assistant and former graduate student Monique LaFrance, as part of an ongoing research project with URI researcher John King, Ph.D., to study geophysical and habitat characteristics of the ocean floor in both Block Island and Rhode Island sounds.
LaFrance and King have conducted six of these studies throughout the area in a statewide effort propelled by interest in offshore renewable energy development. In the rush to build infrastructure, it became clear that little was known about the environment and how heavily the region is used for activities such as fishing, sailing and marine transportation.
“We didn’t even know where the shipping lanes were. … We knew virtually nothing,” Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), said regarding research efforts the state began in 2008 to develop the Ocean Special Management Area Plan (SAMP).
The Ocean SAMP is a management document for both state and federal waters that encompasses various aspects of Rhode Island’s offshore region, from climate and ecology to culture and economics.
“The information we’re collecting will be added into the Ocean SAMP and aid in future siting of offshore wind turbines, as well as help determine best practices for finding and studying submerged paleolandscapes,” said LaFrance, noting that while some geological aspects were known the area had never been mapped before.
LaFrance, who at one point was interested in a future studying sea turtles, turned to seafloor mapping when she was a URI coastal fellow in King’s lab, continuing on to URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography and defending her master’s degree last summer.
“I didn’t even know what mapping was, but it sounded interesting and I wanted to stay for the summer,” she said. “And I’ve never left.”
Cruise director

On Aug. 1, she led a team of 20 into Rhode Island Sound to conduct additional surveys in areas surrounding Cox’s Ledge that have been marked as potential leasing blocks for wind turbines. Four sites, with a potential fifth, covering nearly 100 square miles were charted for the cruise. 
On the day of departure, aboard a former military spy vessel used during the Cold War now turned floating laboratory, it was with high hopes for good weather and good ground.
“Many of these ships went on as research vessels after the war for government agencies and academic institutions,” said Capt. Jerry Chamberlain, who worked on the Bold when it was in military use.
He said that more than a dozen tactical auxiliary general ocean survey (T-AGOS) ships were built for ocean surveillance by the military for the sole purpose of collecting underwater acoustic data. In other words, they were meant to listen in on enemy submarines.
“They’re extremely stable and are meant to go slow and quiet,” Chamberlain said.
That stability couldn’t be argued as the vessel cut through those 7-foot swells during the storm that hit on the sixth day. The only time the sway of the boat was actually felt was in the shower, on the treadmill, or at the stern or bow of the ship.
Bold is an impressive vessel only for its stability and durability, but it’s also equipped with 20 scientific berths, a “mess” where fresh cookies and hot meals are always in abundance, a small fitness room for anyone who enjoyed the punishment of running — rather stumbling — on a less-than-stationary treadmill, satellite TV for updates on the news or the Olympics, and a nice sunning deck referred to as the “steel deck.”
Boring is good

Once new crew members settled into their berths and received the initial safety training, everyone was separated into three teams on four-hour rotating shifts every eight hours to keep a 24/7 operation going. At an average speed of 4.5 knots, the vessel covered more than 75 square miles and used a fixed interferometric sonar — “the fish” — to produce high-resolution digital images of the underwater terrain and surface geology detailing seafloor habitats and sediment thickness and type that can be used to indicate whether an area can support placement of wind turbines that are anchored by pilings extending 164 to 196 feet into the seabed.
When in operation, the fish emits a sound pulse into the water column, sending out a rapid chirp both above and below the water. This constant chirping and the drone of the engine are inescapable anywhere on the vessel, and can either be your worst nightmare or just additional background noise.
The science crew set up shop in a lab littered with computer monitors continuously processing information being compiled from the fixed side-scan sonar of the seafloor, logging time, latitude, speed and water depth every 15 minutes. The boat crew kept the slow-going vessel on course — traversing sections like mowing a lawn with nothing but an endless horizon in view.
Sometimes the mounted sonar system’s lines and rigging needed to be checked. Sometimes there was a blazing sunset with the promise of a green flash or a full moon blocking all the stars that needed appreciation. Sometimes, if there was nothing on satellite radio, there were birds hovering near the ship that needed to be identified in hopes that it was a brown booby, or games like Pictionary that needed to be played to stave off the boredom.
But when the view was nothing special, when there was nothing new on the radio or the birds had flown away and the games all played, it could be just downright hair-pulling boring. But boring is good out here, when you are 20-plus miles from shore. Boring is what you hope for when you leave the dock. It means nothing is amiss and you’re getting the best data, which is crucial when your time and funding is limited.
Expensive data

Researchers such as LaFrance are fortunate to contract time in the Bold’s busy schedule, and running this kind of operation can cost anywhere from $18,000 to $20,000 a day, she said. Costs can vary depending on the ship and length of cruise, but ocean research is no cheap endeavor.

“It’s expensive,” LaFrance said, explaining that there are factors beyond your control, such as weather, that can interfere with the ability to collect crucial data within a very limited window. “We’ve been lucky to go out as many times as we have through the support of the Ocean SAMP and agencies like the EPA.”
Findings from previous cruises published in the Ocean SAMP describe the area surrounding Cox’s Ledge as largely glacial moraine, rock and soil deposits left from the glacier that once extended out to Block Island. Variable sediment change, from sand to mud and mud to sand, was observed in addition to potential boulder fields and a gradual undulating surface. There also are valuable habitat sites that have been removed from potential leasing, such as Cox’s Ledge. It will take several weeks to process all of the information from this recent cruise.
“It typically takes twice as long as the actual cruise to process all of the data,” said LaFrance, explaining that adjustments have to be made to the raw data to compensate for the angle in which sound reached the seafloor, as well as the pitch and sway of the ship among other factors.
Once the data has been processed and verified, using video and sediment samples, it will be added to the Ocean SAMP’s official document.