Student scientists explain how the technology on board the Falkor helps us map parts of the ocean seafloor never mapped before
Dr. William Sager said his recent 36-day journey to map the world’s single largest volcano, the same one he named TAMU Massif, was a scientific expedition of epic proportions. At the same time, he noted that it was punctuated by creature comforts such as gourmet food, a small gym, and even a berth featuring a plush queen-sized bed.
“There were issues with that bed, though. Don’t get me wrong, it was comfortable; but when you’re on a ship at sea, you want to huddle up in a corner to stabilize yourself,” Sager explained. “Normally, I’d be in a small bunk sticking life jackets and whatnot into the bed frame to make a barrier.”
The purpose of the voyage was to further explore and map TAMU Massif, an underwater volcano Sager has been studying for the past 20 years. The geological phenomenon lies nearly 1,000 miles east of Japan, in the middle of what is known as the Shatsky Rise, an oceanic mountain range.
Sager acted as chief scientist on board the research vessel Falkor, a specialized ship lent to him and a team of scientists and students via the Schmidt Ocean Institute to learn more about the mysteries behind TAMU Massif. Aquarium Manager of Distance Learning and Outreach Suraida Nanez-James was also part of the crew, documenting the team’s findings via blog posts and other correspondence, while connecting with children in classrooms all over the world and giving them an inside glimpse at the historic expedition and what “science at sea” looks like.
Nanez-James broadcast to students in real time – meaning 2:00 p.m. for them and 1:00 a.m. for her – via Internet connection and took them on a tour of the vessel, all the while introducing them to various scientists, explaining about data mapping, expedition equipment, and more.
She explained to students, while stepping over sleeping crew members in the dead of night, that TAMU Massif is somewhat of a geological anomaly.
“It has this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality going on,” said Sager. He means that the magnetic striping of the volcano, produced by previous lava flows, run on some sides of the TAMU Massif, but not all sides. In addition, Sager says TAMU Massif looks like a single volcano built by lava flows going long distances, but that this behavior should not produce magnetic stripes like the team is finding.
“It’s definitely perplexing,” he said, “Seismic profiling is showing us that this may be a whole different kind of volcano.”
Other data collected from the expedition will help Sager and other scientists study more accurate magnetic soundings, topography and bathymetry maps of TAMU Massif and the Shatsky Rise.
“I was so excited to examine those soundings – all nearly 74 million of them – that I plugged the information into my computer when I got back, and it promptly crashed,” Sager said with a laugh.
Thankfully, there were no similar crashes while aboard the Falkor during the journey. Nanez-James said she had remarkably good Internet connections when she helped to show nearly 4,000 students what the middle of the Pacific Ocean looked like.
Nanez-James made 90 ship-to-shore connections to students from Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend, as well as to those as far away as the Bahamas and Portugal.
“What was really cool and what I emphasized was that the information we shared with them and the data that they were seeing; they were the first in the world, in history, to see it,” Nanez-James said.
Being bilingual in Spanish and English gave Nanez-James a unique opportunity to reach more students.
“I was able to speak to a class at a field trip at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and they hardly spoke any English, so it was a very cool connection to make. They’d never been exposed to information or science like that before,” she said.
Another tidbit (or bite) Nanez-James shared with students featured “Maggie,” the ship’s magnetometer that the team used to collect magnetic field data, and how the area’s resident sharks tried to collect data about it.
Maggie the Magnetometer with shark bite marks
“They really chomped on one (of the magnetometers),” said Nanez-James, “We actually had to stop using one of them because they bit the heck out of it.”
But for Nanez-James and Sager, the time spent away from family and friends, as well as visits from sharks and stormy weather and rocky sleeping situations, was all worth it.
“We have a fantastic new data set for future research and publications,” Sager said. “We’re talking years. It’ll take a while to work through all the data we have, but we’re very excited to see how it’ll help answer some of the questions we have about TAMU Massif and learn about how it was actually formed.”