Field Report from Prof. Adam Sobel & Zane Martin

Aug 27 2018

Adam Sobel, Professor of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and of Earth and Environmental Sciences, went on a month-long research cruise in in the western Pacific with APAM Ph.D. candidate, Zane Martin.

Adam Sobel: "APAM graduate student, Zane Martin, and I are aboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson in the western Pacific (current location 12.7N, 136.4E) for the PISTON field campaign ( funded by the Office of Naval Research. Zane is assisting with a range of observations being taken from the ship, especially working with the Ocean Mixing team from Oregon State University led by cruise chief scientist Prof. Jim Moum, and also with radiosondes (weather balloons) and other atmospheric and ocean observing instruments. I am one of several atmospheric scientists on board. Dr. Shuguang Wang (APAM) and I are funded as part of the modeling team for PISTON, but I'm along also now to look at all the data coming in and interpret it, help with forecasting, and eventually our in-situ help inform our modeling work. We sailed out of Kaohsiung, Taiwan on August 18 (1 week later than planned due to an engine problem on the ship that had to be repaired) and we will dock at Koror, Palau on September 10. Zane and I will return to NYC then. There will be another one-month cruise leg that will then leave from Palau and terminate in Kaohsiung; Zane and I won't be on it, but Earth Institute postdoc, Ding Ma will be."

Zane Martin: "Adam and I spent just over three weeks at sea during our leg of the PISTON research cruise. Aboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson, we stayed in close quarters and quite literally lived and breathed the weather we were studying.

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 which has been 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.

Despite being an atmospheric science student who typically works on numerical models, my role was to assist an oceanographic group out of Oregon State University headed by chief scientist Jim Moum 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, and gained a new respect and understanding for the methodologies and challenge of gathering data in the field. Such work requires 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, a passion, and a desire to understand the natural world. Going outside my comfort zone and the neat confines sometimes placed on the discipline (between, say, oceanic or atmospheric research, or modelers and observationalists, or engineers and scientists) has helped give me a more well-rounded sense of my discipline as a whole and myself as a scientist. While it’s a daunting experience to leave behind loved ones, familiarity, and the literal stability of dry land, I would highly recommend any student of atmospheric or oceanic science lucky enough to be afforded such an opportunity to take advantage of it.

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 and sharpened at sea, and the stark beauty of the natural environment — the texture and color and motion of the ocean and sky — was unlike anything I had experienced. The somewhat bruising work schedule (my shift was from 3am to 3pm every day) nevertheless 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 goals 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."

Dr. Janet Sprintall (left), grad student Socorro Rodrigo (center), and me - Zane Martin

Photos by Adam Sobel, captions by Zane Martin

Above: Dr. Janet Sprintall (left), grad student Socorro Rodrigo (center), and me - Zane Martin (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.

Zane Martin working at computers aboard the ship

Above: Me at the main screen used to monitored 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.

Zane Martin operating a winch

Above: 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.

Zane Martin at the stern of the ship

Above: The view off of the starboard stern of the Thompson, with a small rainstorm in the background. A great example of the environment we experienced at sea (and a shout out to Lawrence University where my younger sister did her undergraduate studies).

Stay up-to-date with the Columbia Engineering newsletter

* indicates required