The waves of Narragansett Bay break gently on the rocky beach at the University of Rhode Island’s School of Oceanography, as vacationing families jockey for prime sunbathing real estate. It’s not your typical research cruise environment—I feel a bit guilty about the brief respite out of solidarity for my sleep-deprived colleagues on Atlantis—but such is the life of the shore-side team.
During this 10 day long expedition, half of our crew of early career scientists has been on the Atlantis at any given time while the other half operates a mission control of sorts at URI’s Inner Space Center (ISC). We’re testing the utility of telepresence technology for sea-going research expeditions, trying to see how decision-making and analysis might be outsourced to get more done and leverage a broader set of expertise.
Climbing the hill back to the ISC, I rejoin the team just in time to watch the Alvin recovery. For the last several hours, the sub has been exploring New England Seep #2, an extensive field of knobby carbonate rocks, mussels, and clams coated in a luxuriant fur of white microbial mats 1100 meters (3600 feet) beneath the sea surface. Because Alvin isn’t connected to the Atlantis by a tether, we haven’t been able to see what the divers have been up to. Contact with the sub is limited to periodic verbal check-ins and, for the first time on this voyage, the occasional text message. As mid afternoon stretches into the early evening, the suspense builds: has Alvin collected a scientific bounty that will keep the ship-based team sleeplessly giddy into the early morning, processing samples, or are the sampling boxes conspicuously empty?
Live video from the ship’s aft deck is projected onto two-story tall screens in mission control, and we’re about to get our answer. Alvin is lifted on deck, rolled backward slowly into the hangar, and the glove-clad science team pounces. Tubes filled with seafloor sediment are whisked to a walk-in refrigerator, to keep the cold-adapted microbes happy; deep-sea corals are placed in buckets of seawater; and water samples destined for geochemical analyses are transferred to sterile containers. While the ship-based team runs triage, our crew at the ISC updates sample logs and modifies future sampling priorities based on needs that have yet to be filled. This out-sourced grunt work is just the tip of the telepresence iceberg, as optimized workflows of data analysis and dive planning, and even real-time identification and adaptive sampling guidance seem like promising future capabilities.
Wally Fulweiler, a Professor of Biology at Boston University, was one of the day’s Alvin divers. “We didn’t land on an active methane seep site,” she explains, “but I was amazed by the amount of activity on the seafloor!” Fulweiler’s lab studies the nitrogen cycle in marine sediments, and her experiments based on AT-36 samples will hopefully show how quickly nitrogen shifts between distinct chemical reservoirs. Nitrogen is one of life’s essential elements, available to certain organisms only in particular forms, and seep-associated fluxes and flows may dictate biological activity.
“Being on the seafloor in person, in real life—I barely have words to describe it,” says Fulweiler. “I feel like I know the ocean better, like I have a better sense of what’s happening. It was like going home.”