Daily Updates: May 2004
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|Daily Updates: June 2004
Latitude: 46° 57'N
Longitude: 129° 06'W
Wind Direction: W
Wind Speed: 12 Knots
Sea State: 3
Swell(s) Height: 6 Foot
Sea Temperature: 54°F (12.2°C)
Barometric Pressure: 1012.5 MB
Visibility: 15 NM
Spam and sausage
Fresh cut fruit
Navy bean soup
Crispy fish and rice
Tortellini with roasted red pepper pesto
Rice and vegetables
Hot Italian sausage
White clam sauce
Roast garlic with wine sauce
Herbed foccacia bread
Building the Big Banana
May 27, 2004
By Amy Nevala
Oceanographers are, in many ways, inventors. They can’t go to Wal-Mart
and buy the complex instruments they need for their research, so they
often wear a second hat as an engineer, designing and building their own
For two years, Alison LaBonte has been designing an instrument that will
help her learn how fluids move through the seafloor to better understand
the nature of earthquakes. Today her instrument made its second trip to
the bottom of the Pacific.
Alison smiled nervously as it sunk beneath the waves, hitching a ride on Alvin for Pilot Bruce Strickrott to find a spot for it on the seafloor. She recalled
its nightmarish first dive last fall in Monterey Bay, when it fell off the
remotely operated vehicle before it submerged (she recovered the instrument
using a tracking system).
Alison calls her instrument an Optical Flow Meter, which uses a fluorescent
dye to detect then mark seafloor fluids passing through a flow tube. When stress
builds up within the Earth’s crust, fluids flow more rapidly from the
seafloor, like water squeezed from a sponge. Using her instrument to detect
these higher rates of flow will help researchers sort out and determine patterns
of earthquakes, which is how the Earth releases stress.
The flow meter’s data logger is contained in a long, bright yellow pressure
case, so Alison nicknamed it the Big Banana. A lot is riding on its success.
The instrument is part of her doctoral thesis at the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography in California. She has big aspirations for the Big Banana, and
would like to see it incorporated into ocean observatory systems that in the
future will help scientists monitor activities in seas worldwide.
A Background at the Sea
Alison’s father, Gary, is an engineer, but growing up she didn’t
tinker much with tools and electronics, preferring instead to swim or explore
tide pools in coastal areas north of her home in Alamo, California. In 2000,
she spent a year considering various ocean science careers on a scholarship
with the Our World Underwater Society. During that time she decided that
she liked the idea of going to sea to use the instruments she designed.
Alison’s background in math, computers, and biology are useful preparation
for oceanography, but not necessarily for designing instruments.
Geologist Kevin Brown, Alison's advisor, came up with the original sketch for
the flow meter. When Alison took on the project, she built upon the prototype
developed by her fellow graduate student Jill Weinberger.
“To build this, I bugged people a lot,” she said of the instrument. “I
spent most of the beginning period of this project asking questions and absorbing
After spending a month designing a simple circuit system, she heard about a
way to make it in a day or two. She experimented with an overall frame design,
figured out the pressure casing, and learned how to manipulate the instrument
to avoid interference with the electronics system.
“There’s still a lot to be fixed on it, and a lot of moments where
say, ‘ah, I thought I fixed this ages ago!’” she said.
Tonight she is relieved to learn that the Alvin divers situated
the Big Banana on a shimmering field of diffuse hydrothermal fluid
flowing from the seafloor. When she sees it again Friday, the event promises
to be especially memorable.
“I’ll be helping to get it back during my first Alvin dive,” she