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partlycloudy weather
Partly Cloudy
58°F (14.8°C)
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

what's to eat

Scrambled eggs
French toast
Spam and sausage
English muffins
Home fries
Fresh cut fruit

Navy bean soup
Turkey fricassee
Crispy fish and rice
Tortellini with roasted red pepper pesto
Rice and vegetables
Salad bar
Oatmeal cookies

Spaghetti pasta
Marinara sauce
Hot Italian sausage
White clam sauce
Snow peas
Roast garlic with wine sauce
Herbed foccacia bread
Ice cream

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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 equipment.

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 information.”

Learning Engineering
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 I’ll 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 said.