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Jan. 21, 2015

John Greene: Spartans at sea

Jan. 21, 2015

John Greene is a senior from Grand Rapids studying environmental geosciences. He was one of four students who recently joined Masako Tominaga, MSU assistant professor of geological sciences, in a research trip on board a National Science Foundation research vessel in the western Pacific Ocean.

On Dec. 16, four other Spartans and I set sail from Honolulu, Hawaii for a month-long voyage. We, along with five other scientists from around the country, five engineers and more than 20 crewmembers are taking part in a geophysical research cruise aboard the R/V Sikuliaq, a state-of-the-art, 261-foot vessel.

Our destination: a remote area in the western Pacific Ocean (around 20°N, 165°E). Below us, beneath 5,000 meters of water, is the oldest oceanic crust in the world and the target for our study involving the ancient history of Earth’s geomagnetic field.

When I told people I was going on a cruise for winter break, most pictured relaxation, sunbathing and exotic ports of call, not a research expedition involving daily work. But for me, an environmental geoscience undergraduate concentrating in geophysics, this cruise was the perfect opportunity, one that very few are able to participate in.

As a student scientist on board, I serve in the position of “watch stander.” Every morning and night, I am “on watch,” monitoring a bank of 15 computer screens that display real-time data from the various geophysical instruments in use. It is my job to ensure all of the devices continue to function correctly, while also processing some of the data and creating a log of important events.

Data collection at sea is a 24-7 operation, so the other students and I form a continuous rotation of shifts. For me, I am “on watch” from 8-12 every morning and night, with eight hours off in between.

The highlight of any shift is when an instrument deployment occurs. Deploying our surface tow magnetometer, the smallest of the three instruments, involves the strenuous work of pulling hundreds of meters of cable off a reel and into the water (a job well-suited for student labor).

The deployment of the larger devices, our deep tow magnetometer and autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry, is reserved for the more experienced deckhands, but the other students and I are always encouraged to don hardhats and life vests to venture out on deck and observe this meticulously choreographed process first hand.

At the time of writing this, we are underway to our final survey site, speeding across the relatively calm seas at 11 knots. My exposure to life at sea has been incredible, even with constant rocking and occasional swells that send everyone and everything crashing to the floor. The views out here are absolutely breathtaking. In any direction you look from the ship, you see nothing but pristine water and the unobstructed horizon, making for a prime viewing of both the sunset and sunrise (plus the stars in between).

Nearly every day, the weather is 80 degrees and sunny, a pleasant contrast to the freezing temperatures in Michigan. Although we had to miss the Michigan State bowl game (no television), periodic score updates on the (very) limited Internet allowed us to cheer from the ship. I even received the captain’s permission to raise an MSU flag on the main mast, which is currently waving majestically in the Pacific breeze 6,500 miles from East Lansing.

Read more about the project>> 

Photo: MSU students John Greene (right) and Tim Stadler hoist the Spartan flag aboard the R/V Sikuliaq in celebration of the Cotton Bowl victory. Photo courtesy of MSU Department of Geological Sciences