The Pillars of Hercules

By Nathan Laxague

It wasn’t a large blowout.  Or a particularly messy one.  Or one that required multiple plugging attempts in deep water.  No- the blowout of the well worked by Hercules 265 was thankfully benign in comparison to numerous disasters in recent memory.  While attempts to quantify the environmental damage are underway, initial observations show a relative lack of the damaging oil responsible for mucking up the fragile Gulf coast. hercules rig photo by BSEE

Photo by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

CARTHE, the Consortium for Advanced Research on Transport of Hydrocarbon in the Environment, works to predict where oil might go in the event of an oil/gas spill, like this one.  Our involvement in the studying of the immediate aftermath of this incident began as a string of brief, terse e-mails and texts on Wednesday, July 24th.  Experiments were moved.  Meetings were bumped.  The Consortium would be involved in an observational project.  The exact details of that involvement (formulated over meetings and conference calls) were told to us as follows: two to three PhD students would prepare ~20 surface drifters (each equipped with the now-standard SPOT GPS device and extended battery pack), drive to Cocodrie, Louisiana, and board the R/V Acadiana for a fast-response deployment.  The Acadiana is owned and operated by LUMCON (Louisiana Universities Marine CONsortium).

nathan and conor loading drifters in vanThe journey went as any such road trip should- 1000 miles of flat, open road and more country stations than any reasonable person could handle (excluding, perhaps, my partner-in-science, fellow student Conor Smith).  Our 12:00 AM (Friday night/Saturday morning) arrival was followed by a 12:30 AM loading of the boat and a 1:30 AM bedtime.  We squeezed in a bit of a nap, were on the dock at 4:45 AM, and were creeping through the bayou before we saw the sun.  The Acadiana was advertised by Max, the vessel’s Captain, as a ship that rode the waves like a cork.  It’s difficult for me to describe my body’s reaction to those cork-like motions, but suffice it to say that never have two-foot waves seemed so fierce (as far as the tasks of reading or keeping a meal down are concerned).

Shall I get on with it, then?

The 12-hour transit was filled by a four-hour drifter deployment operation, during which our 21 floating detectives were distributed about the Hercules 265 rig.  Much like during our 2012 GLAD experiment, the drifters were organized into an arrangement of triplets (in this case, triads of 200m-spaced drifters encircling Hercules at a range of 8 km).  This method marries the traditional dispersion experiment with the practical, incident-response targeted drifter release.  The upside of this is a data set from which to glean sets of information satisfying multiple ends.  We look to extract both dispersion statistics (a measure of how water- or oil- spreads out) and information about the behavior of the Gulf in the immediate spatial and temporal vicinity of a rig incident (the latter being something that GLAD, two years removed from Deepwater Horizon, lacked).

It is a bit too early to comment on the data itself.  But as the SPOTs tick closer and closer to their demises, it is our hope that they will paint for us a picture of upper-ocean transport that is both scientifically rich and immediately practical.

carthe hercules v4 from CARTHE on Vimeo.

CARTHE scientists aboard the R/V Acadiana (grey line) released 21 floating GPS drifters (small black dots) around the Hercules rig (green diamond) in order to track where oil or gas might go if there was anything released from the well.  The circular cross indicates the center of mass of the drifters, while the orange area in the animation is all the potentially impacted areas.  Scientists will track many of these drifters for the next month.   (Movie-image credit: Edward Ryan (University of Miami and CARTHE))

Mentoring Matters!


On May 10th seventeen RSMAS faculty members, including most of our Division Chairs and Deans, met for a four-hour workshop on “Why Mentoring Matters.”

In the workshop, faculty learned that Institutions with active mentoring are more likely to have productive employees with strong institutional commitment and that good mentoring of junior colleagues, postdocs, and students will lead to a more satisfying, collegial, and productive environment at RSMAS for all. A good mentor will make themselves available, give positive affirmation, actively listen, define expectations, and act as a role model for their mentees, as well as challenging and sponsoring them. In their turn, a good mentee has the responsibility to be pro-active, keep commitments, strive for excellence, and be open to both criticism and praise. An excellent quality for both mentors and mentees is to maintain a sense of humor, which is an antidote for anxiety and frustration!

Faculty discussed ideas for improving mentoring at RSMAS, including establishing a team mentoring plan for postdocs, and facilitating new faculty and postdocs in finding the right mentor for their needs.

The mentoring workshop was given by Dr. W. Brad Johnson, who is professor of psychology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the US Naval Academy and author of eleven books in the areas of mentoring, professional ethics, and counseling. The workshop was funded jointly by Dean Avissar and UM SEEDS (Scientists and Engineers Expanding Diversity and Success).

Text provided by Dr.Lisa Beal, photos by Barbra Gonzalez.

RSMAS Student’s Tropical Cyclone Poster Recognized By AMS

Tropical cyclones are one of nature’s most destructive manifestations. Known as hurricanes in the Atlantic and typhoons in the Pacific, they operate as a heat engine, gaining energy from the warm ocean and converting it to extreme wind speeds.  Tropical cyclones can grow to have radius upwards of 500 km and travel thousands of km gaining strength. When these storms make landfall their devastation is counted in both the loss of

life and the devastation to property and infrastructure. Hurricane Sandy’s landfall alone killed over 70 people, while the financial burden is estimated will be as much as $50 billion, $20 billion coming from damages and $10 billion to $30 billion due to loss of business.

Understanding the dynamics of tropical cyclones is one of scientists’ most pressing challenges. Assembling intricate information about the mechanisms which drive them is a critical component of accurately predict their movement and intensity. By improving our forecasts we can be primed to deal with future landfalling storms.

Understanding the processes that govern the transfer of energy between the ocean and atmosphere during tropical storms is the essence of my research at RSMAS. My working group is a component of the ITOP (Impact of Typhoons on the Ocean in the Pacific) campaign, which is devoted to understanding the ocean’s response to typhoons in the Western Pacific. The research is a multinational collaboration employing both field observations and models from many research institutions.

My contribution to the campaign started during the 2010 Pacific typhoon season when a team of A.M.P. students and research staff, working with Drs. Hans Graber and Will Drennan, helped deploy two mooring pairs in the Philippine Sea. The moorings were anchored ~740 miles east of Southern Taiwan. Each pair consisted of an Air-Sea Interaction Spar (ASIS) tethered to a moored Extreme Air-Sea Interaction (EASI) buoy. The platforms were equipped to make multiple atmospheric and oceanographic measurements.

Environmental conditions were monitored and recorded for over three months, a period which included the passage of three typhoons and one tropical storm. Sustained wind speeds over 26m/s and significant wave heights exceeding 10m were experienced.

Looking at the data we can see how dynamic the environment becomes with the passage of these storms. Along with increased wind speeds and wave height, we witnessed ocean and air temperatures changing, transformation of the ocean mixed layer structure, increased sea spray, pressure dropping, relative humidity increasing, and changes in the wind and wave direction, amongst other phenomena. With further investigation we’ll also learn how these storms affect aerosol composition, momentum and heat fluxes, and the evolution of the wave field.

Making in situ measurements at sea in such harsh conditions is extremely challenging, very few groups are equipped to do so, making this a very unique and valuable dataset.  The potential to use this data to learn about how typhoon conditions affect the marine environment is effectively limitless. I am just one of a group of students and research staff who continue to investigate this data to uncover information about high wind speed boundary layer dynamics.

I was pleased to be recognized for my poster at the AMS conference on air-sea interaction, but I am one of many people who participated in the research. I was just lucky enough to be there to present some of our findings.

Henry Potter is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Marine Physics at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science.

Larval Behavior Film Reaches the Final Round of NSF’s “Creating the Future” Video Contest

When the National Science Foundation announced their “Creating the Future” contest, I was excited to have the opportunity to present my PhD research in the form of a short video. It turned out to be quite challenging to explain my work on underwater soundscapes and larval navigation in just 90 seconds. The film combines unique footage of pelagic fish larvae, recorded by my advisor Claire Paris, as well as audio recordings made on reefs right here in Florida. The final product, called “Sonic Reef,” made it to the final judging round. This means that the film is eligible to win the people’s choice award if it gets enough votes. The $1000 prize money that I could win would be used for field research next summer.

Please vote for “Sonic Reef” by visiting this National Science Foundation website: Click here to vote!

You have to enter your email address – and only once you receive the confirmation email can you cast your official vote.

Thanks for your support!

Erica Staaterman
PhD Student, Applied Marine Physics & Marine Biology and Fisheries
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Understanding Navigational Cues in the Marine Environment

I spent a hot afternoon in late July with the two Principal Investigators (PIs) on a new National Science Foundation (NSF) Ocean Technology and Interdisciplinary Coordination grant entitled “T-LEOST: realTime Larval Environmental and Ocean Signal Tracking: an integrated system for the study of navigational cues in the marine environment.” Instead of meeting in an office, we met by the pool at University of Miami’s main campus.

The goal was to test several new instruments that are part of this project. A drifting behavioral chamber developed by Dr. Claire Paris, one of the PIs, observes the behavior of fish larvae at sea using a camera and a compass system. The orientation the larvae take while tested inside the chamber reveals whether or not they are guided by certain navigational cues, such as a sun compass, odor, or sound.

With the new grant, we are making modifications to the existing chamber, allowing us to observe the behavior of fish in deeper waters, and in response to acoustic cues measured from reefs here in Florida.

To put the chamber into deeper waters and to de-couple it from the water surface, a motorized buoyancy device called the Medusa is being developed by Dr. David Mann of Loggerhead Instruments, the other PI on the grant. An essential step in the development process is to determine the natural rising and sinking

We also tested the capabilities of a pair of underwater speakers that will be mounted to the chamber to play back sounds of coral reefs to the fish. Recordings made in Florida with a hydrophone (developed by Loggerhead Instruments) will be played to fish in order to see whether they demonstrate orientation behavior towards these sounds. Reef soundscapes have been proposed as a cue that fish larvae may use during their journey from the pelagic environment to the reefs.

This is truly an interdisciplinary project, involving physics, biology, and engineering. Spending an afternoon with the experts was a great learning experience for me and we learned about the performance of our instruments in a controlled environment. Next step: the ocean!

Erica Staaterman
PhD Student, Applied Marine Physics & Marine Biology and Fisheries
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Snap, Crackle, Pop: Listening to Florida’s Reefs

Erica Staaterman deploys underwater recording equipment produced by the Paris Lab. Photo by Evan D’Alessandro

My dissertation research addresses the question: do larval fish use reef soundscapes for navigation? But what is a “reef soundscape”? Well, if you have ever been diving or snorkeling, you have probably noticed an incessant crackling sound. This sound is primarily produced by snapping shrimp, one of the noisiest residents on a coral reef. But the soundscape consists of a wide variety of sounds, such as the growls, grunts, and pops produced by animals such as fish, lobsters, and crabs, as well as abiotic sounds such as the breaking of waves.

The first goal of my dissertation research is to describe the temporal and spatial changes in reef soundscapes. Through the use of long-term passive acoustic recorders, I am currently collecting a one-year time series of acoustic data from two coral reefs in the Florida Keys. This will allow me to determine the patterns that occur on daily, monthly, and seasonal scales. These data will later be used for behavioral experiments on fish larvae.

Listen to one of Erica’s recordings here. The snapping sound is being produced by snapping shrimp, and the low-frequency growl is most likely fish.

Erica Staaterman
PhD Student, Applied Marine Physics & Marine Biology and Fisheries
Follow the Rosenstiel School on Twitter: @UMiamiRSMAS
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