For most of us landlubbers in Flagstaff, living on a research ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean seems as foreign as living on a spaceship. But for NAU professor Jim Gaherty and his students (like grad student Joey Phillips, pictured below)—who study plate tectonics on the seafloor to better understand how earthquakes, volcanos and tsunamis are formed—working on an oceanographic research vessel has become second nature.
The expeditions, including the two planned by Gaherty as part of his newest project, utilize global class, major research vessels that are designed to do this type of work. Scientists like Gaherty work with the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), an organization of academic institutions and National Laboratories involved in supporting U.S. oceanographic research, to schedule and manage expeditions on UNOLS ships.
“The ships are typically staffed by more than 50 people, including about 15 members of the science party who are specifically on board to operate the specialized scientific equipment, and the rest are dedicated ship crew,” Gaherty said. “Operations go on 24 hours a day. The science party consists of faculty, research staff and graduate students, and they work on round-the-clock shifts to get the work done.”
The two expeditions will each last for about one month and be spaced about a year apart. The ship does not return to port in that time. The first expedition will deploy the team’s instruments on the seafloor, and the second expedition will recover the instruments.
To get a feel for what these expeditions are like, Gaherty encourages readers to explore the Pacific ORCA (Pacific OBS Research into Convecting Asthenosphere) research blogs from his most recent voyages in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Over the course of four expeditions that were part of this project, science party members posted blog entries in which they described many aspects of life at sea, such as their research duties, meals, wildlife they encountered—including fish with wings—and watching the sun rise and set each day. See Phillips’ blog on Sunsets and Earthquakes.
Kerry Bennett | Office of the Vice President for Research