Tag Archives: RV Hans Brattstrøm

How to use home-made surface drifters to teach oceanography

Very early knowledge about oceanography stems from beach finds that had to have been transported to that beach from far away because the finds themselves (pieces of trees, or coconuts, or whatever) were not native to their finding places so the ocean must have provided a connection between their place of origin and the beach they ended up on. And in early oceanographic research, messages in bottles or even wood pieces marked with identifying numbers were deployed at known times and regions and then recovered wherever they made landfall to get a better idea of ocean currents. And as oceanography got more and more sophisticated as a discipline, such lagrangian (i.e. current-following) data has become an important part of oceanographic research, especially over the last two decades with profiling ARGO floats.

Position of 3930 ARGO floats that were active in the 30 days before January 18th, 2019. Source: http://www.argo.ucsd.edu

ARGO data is available to anyone and, via its Google Earth interface, easily accessible in teaching. But of course this is only a passive resource, you cannot deploy drifters wherever you would like for teaching purposes. Now imagine if you had cheap drifters* available for use in teaching, how cool would that be?

Last year I was involved in discussing the design of home-made surface drifters and later got the chance to join the student cruise (as part of Lars Henrik and Harald‘s GEOF105 class at the University of Bergen, Norway) where the drifters were tested, both in their functions as drifters and as a teaching tool. They are an amazing addition to the student cruise and a great learning opportunity! But there are also a lot of challenges that arise when with working with drifters — or opportunities to think about interesting problems! What more could an instructor (or a student!) want? :-)

Building home-made surface drifters

While in our case the drifters were developed and built before the class started, discussing design criteria with students would be a really interesting task in an applied oceanography course. The design we ended up working with with is described here.

Building those relatively cheap drifters provided us with the opportunity to have students handle them to learn to use oceanographic instrumentation without them, or us, being too concerned about the welfare of the instrumentation. It also provided us with a fleet of four drifters that we could deploy and recover on four day-long student cruises and have them right in the vicinity of where we were taking Eulerian measurements at the same time, so we would end up with a complementing data set and could discuss the benefits of each of the two kinds of measurements and how, when they come together, they tell a much more interesting story than any of them could on their own.

Where to deploy the drifters

If you have a limited number of drifters available (four in our case), you have to think long and hard about where to deploy them. Of course you can just dump them into the water anywhere and see where they end up. But in order to figure out the best spot, it is really helpful to have a clear idea of what influences the currents in the regions you are interested in, and what path the drifters might take, depending on the location of their deployment.

On the three first days of the student cruise, we saw the drifters move against the predicted tidal current (“predicted” tidal currents, because we didn’t look at direct observations of the tidal current, so we don’t actually know if it is behaving the way the prediction predicted) and, at times, also against the main wind field. Nevertheless, we expect the wind to have a large influence on the flow in the surface layer, hence the day at sea starts with a briefing on the weather forecast.

Students presenting the weather forecast for the cruise day in the ship's messe

Students presenting the weather forecast for the cruise day in the ship’s messe

In addition to thinking about a deployment strategy for specific weather conditions, it is helpful to think about how trajectories from different days will be compared to each other. Therefore we chose to deploy on two sections over four days, thus repeating each section twice.

How to track your drifters

There are many ways to track drifters. In the early days, acoustic signals were used to know where drifters moved within an array of sound sources. These days, most tracking is done using GPS. In our case, we used readily available GPS tracking units that were then mounted on the drifters (see below).

GPS units being fixed to the drifters onboard RV Hans Brattstrøm

GPS units being fixed to the drifters onboard RV Hans Brattstrøm

Looking at the features of the GPS units we used, they were apparently mainly designed to tracking cars when you’ve lend them to your kids. In any case you can set alarms if velocities are too high, if they leave a pre-defined area, etc.. Interesting to see what kind of products are on the market!

Looking at how to track the drifter, i.e. the specifications of the GPS sender, might also be a very interesting exercises to do with students. How often should it “call home”, what battery lives are needed, how will the data be transferred, where and how can it be accessed, stored, processed?

How to deploy your drifters

Even when you know where to deploy the drifters, that doesn’t tell you how to deploy them. And even from a small research ship like the Hans Brattstrøm it is not immediately obvious how to do it.

Deploying a drifter

Very good reality check on how difficult it is to get instrumentation in place to measure oceanographic data!

How to interpret your data

Speaking of oceanographic data — how do you actually interpret it? Below you see a snapshot of our four drifters in action. This is actually on of the more interesting times when it comes to velocities: We do have two drifters moving with 4km/h and then one with less than 3km/h (which shows up as not moving because of some algorithm in the website). But what does this actually tell us?

Position and approximate velocities of our four drifters at the end of day 4

Interpreting drifter data becomes very difficult very quickly when you are in a flow field that changes over time. We did have the tidal forecast and the wind forecast, but both only in a coarse resolution in space and time and so it gets really difficult to imagine how they might have influenced the currents and thus the trajectories of the drifters!

How to protect your drifters from damage

Even in a fjord that is sheltered from the wind and big waves of the open ocean, the sea is still a harsh environment and large forces will act on the drifters. If we want to be able to recover the drifters in one piece, we have to make sure that they are actually sturdy enough to stay in one piece.

One of our drifters capsized for unknown reasons. Luckily Algot was still able to recover it!

Another point to consider is how much buoyancy a drifter will need to stay afloat, yet to be submerged enough into the water to actually follow the surface current rather than being pushed through the water by winds, or pushed over by the winds as the one above.

How to find your drifters again

As we think about how to protect the drifter from damage, we also need to think about how we can make sure the drifter stays upright so the GPS antenna stays above the water level. Even with fairly good visibility and low waves, and despite the brightly colored flags and radar reflectors on the drifters, they were pretty difficult to spot!

Even though we can see the drifter’s position through an app on my phone, it is really difficult to spot it out on the water!

How to recover your drifters

Even on a small vessel like the one we used for the student cruise, the water is actually pretty far away from where you can stand on the deck, so recovering a bulky and heavy item out of the sea is not as straight forward as one might think!

Technician Algot and a student recovering one of the surface drifters

Making sense of your drifters’ trajectories

This is not something I can cover in this post, of course — it’s what Inga will do for her Master’s thesis. Below, you see her plotting trajectories from the four days together with the predicted wind fields of the respective days.

, and think about how we can make sure the drifter stays upright so the GPS antenna stays above the water level.

Inga looking at analyses of the drifters’ trajectories which she will explain in her Master’s thesis

But there are several aspects I find especially interesting for discussions with students:

  • At which depth range did we place the anchor of the drifter, i.e. what “surface current” are we actually tracking, the real surface, or an average over the top 0.5 meters, or the top 1 meter? And what would “average” even mean? Or something else?
  • When we have Eulerian data from, say, tidal gauges, weather stations, etc, how do we bring those together with the Lagrangian data provided by the drifters?
  • Knowing what we know now, what could we learn for future deployment strategies?

There are so many super interesting questions to be discussed using this fairly inexpensive instrumentation that it is a great opportunity that should not be missed!

*of course, ARGO uses profiling floats that actively measure data and send them home, whereas we use surface drifters that only send their position and nothing else. But maybe we can mount data loggers on them next time? :-)

At the end of the rainbow you’ll find … home-made surface drifters

For Lars Henrik and Harald‘s GEOF105 class we are deploying home-made surface drifters on the student cruise. Today I had the opportunity to join the cruise again, and since the weather today made for beautiful pictures, I just have to share them here.

First, at the end of every rainbow, as we all know, you’ll find … home-made surface drifters!

Inga and Algot getting the drifters ready for deployment

Inga and Algot getting the drifters ready for deployment

The research ship we are on is the Hans Brattstrøm — cosy ship with a super nice and helpful crew!

We are sailing on RV Hans Brattstrøm

We are sailing on RV Hans Brattstrøm

The drifters themselves are equipped with a sea anchor made from a plastic bucket and four paint roller trays underneath a buoy, and then on top all kinds of equipment to make sure nobody runs over it: A safety flag, a lamp, a radar reflector. And, of course, the GPS sender!

Isn't it cool how those wave rings radiate from our drifter?

Isn’t it cool how those wave rings radiate from our drifter?

What we are using those surface drifters for? To determine the circulation in the fjord right outside Bergen. There are several things that might have an influence: Tides, wind, freshwater runoff from the land… And a tilted sea surface (although it is probably not as tilted as in the picture below…)

Drifter in front of RV Hans Brattstrøm in front of mountains covered in clouds

Drifter in front of RV Hans Brattstrøm in front of mountains covered in clouds

Another amazing day “at sea”, thanks for having me along, Lars Henrik!

Drifter in front of RV Hans Brattstrøm

Drifter in front of RV Hans Brattstrøm

Taking water samples

A big part of any oceanographic research cruise: Taking water samples.

Here is a group of students practicing how to arm Niskin bottles that will go into the ocean open on both ends, and that will then, when the whole rosette is on its way up again, be closed one after another at depths that promise to be interesting in terms of water properties.

Arming those Niskin bottles is actually not as easy as it looks, there is a strong spring going through the bottle, connecting the lids. And it is actually pretty painful if you accidentally close the bottles while some part of your body is between the bottle and the lid. Ask me how I know…

When the bottles are all open, the rosette can be lifted off the deck and into the sea.

Usually, rosettes are equipped with instrumentation in addition to the Niskin bottles, usually a CTD, measuring conductivity (to calculate the salinity from), temperature, and depth (actually measuring pressure, which converts easily into depth). I contributed to a very nice movie about how CTDs work a couple of years ago, check it out!

And now the rosette is finally in the water.

Water samples in physical oceanography are mainly used to calibrate the sensors on the CTD, which give (pretty much) continuous measurements throughout the whole depth of the water column. And that’s also what we want to use our water samples for — we have a hand-held conductivity probe that is right now producing values that cannot be correct. How we are going to deal with that? We (and you!) will find out tomorrow! :-)

Home-made surface drifters

A bicycle safety flag, a plastic bucket, four paint roller trays — what are those people doing there?! Until now this might almost count as kitchen oceanography!

Home-made surface drifters

But it’s only almost kitchen oceanography; at least my kitchen isn’t usually stocked with GPS trackers, which is what is mounted on this contraption. Let alone the research ship we used to deploy it. So this must surely count as real oceanography then!

Lars Henrik and students deploying a surface drifter to measure the surface current in a fjord

Lars Henrik and students deploying a surface drifter to measure the surface current in a fjord

Above, you see  Lars Henrik and his students deploying a surface drifter. The red buoy keeps it floating at the surface, the chain hanging below is heavy enough to make sure it stays upright. The bucket and four paint roller trays act as sea anchor so the whole thing moves with the water rather than being blown about by the wind. A safety flag, radar reflector and light make sure nobody accidentally sails over it, and the GPS sender lets the position be tracked.

For example like this:

Screen shot of the map and the drifter positions from my mobile phone

Screen shot of the map and the drifter positions from my mobile phone

Above, you see what it looked like when we had already deployed three of our four surface drifters (the red ones that are moving so slowly that the software tells us they aren’t moving at all), while the fourth one is still onboard the ship, moving to the position where it will be deployed (the green one moving at 3km/h).

Follow their positions on your mobile device!

Following surface drifters’ paths in real time is pretty awesome in itself, but what makes it even better is that the GPS positions can be accessed online from any device. Below, for example, you see the positions on my phone with the drifters behind it in the water (if you look really closely, that is. But they were there!).

My mobile phone with the drifters' positions and the drifters in the background

My mobile phone with the drifters’ positions and the drifters in the background

What you also see is that three of the drifters have huddled together after a couple of hours out in the fjord. Nobody really knows why yet, but that’s what we are here to find out!

Just from observing the wind and the movement of the drifters throughout the day, it seemed that the surface circulation in this fjord is dominated by the wind over the tides. But there will be a Master’s thesis written on the data we collected today (plus a lot more data and a regional ocean model!) so we’ll soon know how good my assumptions are and what really drives the surface currents here.

Three of the drifters huddling together due to currents that have yet to be understood

Three of the drifters huddling together due to currents that have yet to be understood

Come time to recover the drifters, the weather wasn’t quite as nice as earlier throughout the day. Just to give you an impression of the conditions under which the drifters were recovered:

Algot and Inga recovering a drifter

Algot and Inga recovering a drifter

Yep, if you look at the sea state, there is nothing to complain about, really, just a little water coming from the sky! But it was cold water… ;-)

And everything got recovered safely and made it back to port — ready to be deployed again tomorrow to gather more data and understand the fjord a little better. Exciting times! Thanks for letting me be part of this GEOF105 adventure, Lars Henrik!

The drifters coming home to the port of Bergen

The drifters coming home to the port of Bergen