The Wired Ship

One can only imagine what early oceanographers would think of a modern research vessel like the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Scientists aboard ships like HMS Challenger, which in 1872 mounted the first true oceanographic research cruise, had to struggle for every single measurement, in weather fair or foul. They determined depths by lowering a weight overboard and measuring how much line paid out until the weight struck the bottom. They gauged the ship's velocity by paying out a knotted line while enroute and counting the number of knots that slipped overboard per unit of time (thus "knots" as a measure of speed). They collected water samples using a primitive Niskin bottle that was triggered by a mechanical "messenger" sent along the down line, and measured water temperature using an inverting mercury thermometer.

Oceanographers still face some of the same challenges today, and actually use some instruments that have changed little since the days of the Challenger. But no one aboard the Challenger could have imagined the wealth of ocean, weather, and navigational data available to those aboard the Palmer.

Almost every room in the Palmer, including the bridge, wet and dry labs, common areas, staterooms, and bedrooms, features a TV that can be set to display an incredible array of data concerning the ship, the time, the ocean, and the weather.

The ship data show the vessel's speed, bearing, position (latitude and longitude) pitch and roll, and gyroscope readings. Video cameras provide continual real-time images of the bow, stern, port and starboard sides, CTD hangar, and winch. We find the CTD images particularly useful, as they allow us to pace our filtering in light of the CTD's location.

Temporal data includes displays of local (New Zealand) time, Greenwich Mean Time, time in various other cities, the calendar date, and the Julian date. Ocean data includes salinity, temperature, depth, partial pressure of carbon dioxide, and readings of ice coverage, fluorometry (a measure of primary production), gravity, and seafloor magnetism.

Meteorological data includes air temperature (currently 7.4° C), barometric pressure (981.9 mb), relative humidity (83.5%), wind chill (-25.3° C), wind speed (18 kts.) and wind direction (180). Onboard sensors also measure the amount of light available for photosynthesis, and the levels of infrared and ultraviolet radiation. Anyone who likes the Weather Channel (like me!) would love the Palmer.

Many of the controls are automated as well. Thus the CTD is controlled from a computer console in the warmth and safety of the electronics lab. The winches and crane can be operated remotely from the bridge.

Of course, all these data need to be managed and archived. The Palmer employs two computer technicians, who trade 12-hour shifts through the day.

Early oceanographers and sailors would also be amazed (as are we) by our ability to stay in touch with the outside world while at sea. The Palmer sends and receives e-mail at least twice daily, and also provides satellite phone service. The ship provides Internet access when in port.

Not that long ago, a sailor's message might take months or even years to reach its destination. Now we are dismayed because we won't be able to watch the Super Bowl live. We will however, be able to get real-time updates. Go, Patriots!

The Palmer's science programs are funded by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs (NSF/OPP). The vessel is owned and operated by Edison Chouest Offshore (ECO) and is chartered by Raytheon Polar Services under contract to the National Science Foundation.