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Lost at sea?

by Erik Olsen  |  March 18, 2018

A potentially serious setback is facing the Brothers volcano team with the disappearance of the elevator, a device that is used to transport equipment to the seafloor.

The elevator is a device with two large boxes that hold tools, equipment, and other objects that the ROV uses during its dives. It is designed to make work on the seafloor more efficient by lessening the burden on the ROV, which has a limited payload. It allows us to send more equipment to the seafloor than Jason can carry on its own and eliminates the need to recover Jason every time we want to bring samples back to the surface.

It is usually lowered on a wire or dropped to a designated spot that is specifically marked by GPS, and the ship constantly tracks the elevator’s location. At the end of a dive, an acoustic signal from the surfaces releases a pin on the elevator, causing it to drop weights that then allow it to float to the surface. It has a radio transmitter and a blinking strobe so we can find it once it surfaces.

Yesterday, it was coming to the surface after a successful 30 hours on the seafloor. On board the elevator were all nine of the science team’s thermal blankets as well as two fluid samplers, but the potential loss of the elevator and the equipment it carried may not be the worst of it.

“It contains not only the instruments, but also the data that we just collected on the last dive,” said Maurice Tivey, one of the lead scientists of the expedition. “So, that’s pretty valuable in terms of time and effort”.

“It’s a huge blow,” said Anna-Louise Reysenbach, Chief scientist on board.

The incident happened early in the evening on Saturday as the weather was deteriorating and the waves were heaving in the 4-6 foot range. Jason had been raised and brought on board, and the normally routine effort of bringing the elevator up was underway when the Jason crew realized that the radio on the elevator was not transmitting and the strobe was not blinking.

The elevator was seen at the surface momentarily off the bow, and the ship maneuvered to recover it. But at some point, in the midst of bad weather, the ship lost visual contact. The ship’s spotlights began frantically searching the waves for any glimpse of the device.

Immediately all hands were brought on deck to search for the elevator, but with dark skies and heaving seas, not to mention lashing winds, it soon became apparent that finding the elevator visually was going to be difficult.

“We went into a slow drift in a 1-2 knot current, and we never saw it again,” said Eric Haroldson captain of R/V Thomas G Thompson, describing the effort to ride with the current in the hope of seeing the drifting elevator.

Through the night the ship’s spotlight weaved across the sky and over the ocean, and crew and science members were stationed along the ship’s edge with flashlights to search for a glimpse of the yellow buoy that helps hold the elevator afloat.

“It’s a very small object in the ocean,” said Dr. Tivey. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

This morning, despite large swells, high winds and dark skies, nearly every available crew member was out watching for the lost piece of equipment. Scientists and crew members have plotted the last known location along with the estimated speed and direction of the current, and are performing a triangular search, hoping to cross paths with the lost elevator.

Despite initial hopes that we may still find it, there is a creeping feeling of resignation among the science team that valuable equipment and data have been lost.

“I’m kicking myself,” said Dr. Tivey, lamenting that all nine of the thermal blankets had been put on the elevator. “Why did I put all my eggs in one basket?”

The fact is, it’s not uncommon to lose objects at sea. It is one of the realities of this kind of research. There is an old oceanographer’s adage that goes: “Don’t put anything into the ocean that you can’t afford to lose.”

Dr. Reysenbach and other scientists aboard say that while the potential loss of the elevator is a setback, a tremendous amount of excellent data and samples have been collected already and there is still nearly a week left in the expedition.

“We’ll keep doing good science,” said Dr. Reysenbach.

And we’ll keep our eyes on the ocean.