Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saving the Planet, One Buoy at a Time, part 2 of 4 or 5

(This is the second in my four or five part series explaining how a common person, with little scientific training but a lot of science enthusiasm, can confidently assess the scientific literature on climate change;  Part 1: My climate change; Part 3: JG calls representative, part 4, part 5)

Approximately 18 years ago, and I’m guessing at the time, I was fortunate enough to help with the calibration of NASA’s TOPEX satellite used to measure sea level. This is possibly my only contribution to science. I was invited to help launch a buoy 10 miles off of the San Diego coast. My qualifications? I knew a member of the team and they needed an extra hand as menial labor. Something about helping them hoist a 400-lb buoy into and then later out of the water, and that they’d have me back by morning.

This was a two night project in which the team had to get a buoy into the scanning footprint of TOPEX as it passed over. Jim, the GPS specialist (and my contact), was to ensure the buoy was in the right place. Chris was the lead scientist. I recall at least one other person because he made himself memorable as the driver, and it’s likely there was another, because I think it took more than four people to get the buoy launched. All of us were young, 20s or 30s. It was a time when an offer to be on a boat all night was worth a little disruption to my schedule.

The buoy was 40 feet of 8-inch PVC pipe filled with foam for floatation. The bottom end was ringed with a three- or four-hundred pound stack of weights and on top sat a three-foot wide half-dome of transparent plastic covering some type of radio signaling device. With the buoy mounted on the ship’s starboard rail, the ship looked like it was carrying a battering ram. When launched, the buoy would float with its top 6 feet out of the water. With the other 32 feet below holding the ballast, the buoy would float motionless against the waves. Onboard GPS would tell us where we were. Radio triangulation from two places ashore would identify sea-level as reported by the buoy. As TOPOX passed over, it would measure sea level around the buoy and then the scientists could calibrate the satellite by comparing the ground-based measurements to those of the satellite.

I recall that we went to a restaurant before setting sail. During dinner, Jim spoke of the purpose of the mission, “to study climate change” with some emphasis on “change”. He was checking if I used the same terms as he: “climate change” instead of “global warming”, for at this time careful scientists used climate change to acknowledge that increased warming from greenhouse gases could change climate in ways that may not be a global warming. I say this because I’ve heard propagandists and their faithful accuse scientist who say “climate change” of back peddling on global warming. “Climate change” has always been in use. I used it for a very long time till one of my friends assured me I can say “global warming” around him. After the confirmation that our sense of the science was mutual, much of our conversation turned more outward, to the tables around. This was our time to announce to any women within earshot that we were “saving the planet.”

After dinner, the driver became memorable. We were running behind and therefore in a hurry to get to the boat when the driver of the van backed out and hit a parked car. I assured him none of us would think less of him for taking the time to leave his contact information (which he did; thus risking being late). I say this because we often think of the person who smashes our taillight as that careless jerk, but sometimes it’s the young scientist, who drives a computer not a truck, rushing to launch a buoy, that will help calibrate the satellite, that will measure global sea-rise, and thus help us save the planet.

The captain hired to take us out was a perhaps your typical sea-salt mariner. He had been running his boat for many years and told us everything we needed to know about pirates, weather, and even how to be sea sick. He made it very clear that we were to hang over the front or side of the boat and get sick there. It will be worse if we went below (for whom I wondered). We left near sunset on a very calm evening, and it was dark by the time we reached the launch point.

Lowering the buoy was work but when smoothly with the numbers on hand. Once the buoy was floating motionlessly, I was invited to help record dry and wet bulb air temperatures and sea surface temperature. The buoy drifted away, becoming fainter, but in truth it was the boat moving, and sporadically, the captain would fire up the engine and edge closer so that we were never more than 50 yards away.

I don’t recall being the first to make this observation, but Jim later insisted I was the first. As I watched the faint buoy in the dark I thought it was getting lower. Finally, I got the nerve to ask if it could be sinking. I remember incredulous protests that it can’t be sinking. But these were scientists, and soon all of them were standing by me watching as I was, trying to tease out any indication that the buoy was getting lower in the water. Finally, Chris declared “It’s sinking!” The captain fired up the motor and by the time we reached it, the rate of sinking had increased. We pulled up beside it while the electronics were still a couple feet above the water, removed the radio dome, and secured the rest of the bulk to be hoisted back on board.

TOPEX hadn’t passed over yet, so the group improvised a work-a-round. We put the dome onto an inner tube the captain had on board and floated it tethered behind the boat. It was assumed that the experiment that night was a failure but it was still worth trying. In other words, they weren’t going to assume that the data would be worthless and therefore collected what they could. Later, after the satellite passed over, I sketched the apparatus, showing the dimensions and distance between the transponder and water line on the inner tube should this be helpful in interpreting the data.

The following night went better for the experiment, though not for me.

The buoy was sealed in every possible leak point when I arrived the following afternoon. They were ready, and good thing too, as this night was different. There was a good wind and the waves were easily two feet high between peak and trough. (At the time I thought the waves were three feet high, but in hindsight I have trouble believing that.)

When launched, the buoy was motionless against the waves lapping by it. It was almost like watching a pendulum: the waves swung high and low, but the buoy continued its stance like a dock pole. I, however, soon succumbed to the relentless up and down motion of the boat. Though this was the night of success, and I helped launch and retrieve, and I believe recorded temperatures at intervals, I remember only the sickness during the endless return to shore. Simply put, following the captain’s orders, I hung on the side rail. I tried port and starboard. I hung over the front letting the waves splash me. Eventually, I knew I had nothing left to share with the ocean, and I went below and collapsed. I woke maybe an hour later to the gentle hum of a motor on calm water, and physically I was restored. If not for the clothes I had been wearing, one would never know that anything had been wrong.

Jim reports that a paper was published on this experiment and offered to dig it up. So, I have a feeler out for more information and will correct anything I’ve recalled incorrectly.



Alastair said...

Yes, well that is being a real scientist. Not that I have done anything so significant, although I did climb the Gray Mare's Tail to photograph some hummocky moraines :-)

jg said...

Thanks for reading Alastair.

Philip H. said...

I am jealous. THose buoys are, as you note, an integral part of how we study ocean systems. Glad to know you were on one.

And looking forward to the whole series.