Researching on the go

Sailing laboratories

How is climate change affecting the oceans? In a few years, specialists in geological oceanography, ocean chemistry, marine biology and atmospheric physics at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz will be able to give a detailed answer. Since the summer of 2019, a rotating crew aboard the research vessel Eugen Seibold has been sailing to the different ocean regions and collecting samples. Since May of 2019, the innovative yacht has been sailing the high seas—and on the vessel’s maiden voyage, the researchers onboard tested the waters of the Atlantic north of the Canary Islands.

The next step will be to collect samples throughout the North Atlantic Ocean: from tropical regions to the polar cap, from the equator to the Svalbard archipelago. By gradually gathering data on the various marine provinces, the climate geochemists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz will be able to chart a detailed description of the world’s oceans, characterising their current properties and even reconstructing how they change over time. For a brief time, the sailing yacht Eugen Seibold was the property of the Werner Siemens Foundation. Then, on 20 August 2018, in international waters off the coast of Norway, the Foundation transferred ownership of the research vessel to the Eugen Seibold Foundation, which was established expressly to operate the ship.

The architect of the world’s greenest research vessel, Professor Gerald Haug, is brimming with enthusiasm about the first, a rather stormy voyage, which led from the German city of Greifswald, up to Kristiansand in Norway and then back to Germany and the harbour in Bremerhaven. “The test run with winds of up to nine Beaufort was fantastic.

The vessel proved truly seaworthy.” After the test run, the Eugen Seibold remained docked in Bremerhaven until mid-October. While in harbour, all technical systems necessary for marine research were installed: the multisensor to register the physical, chemical and biological properties of the ocean’s waters (pH, temperature, salinity, chlorophyll etc.); the mass spectrometer to analyse oxygen and carbon isotopes or to measure oxygen/argon; the flow cytometer to quantify the cells of microorganisms such as picoplankton, algae and bacteria; the “air vacuum cleaner” to analyse the air’s chemical make-up and particles; computers to conduct an initial analysis of the data collected; and modern satellite communications technology. The Seibold has three laboratories to facilitate wet sampling and seawater analyses (starboard-side).

How does it work?

Seawater is constantly pumped from three meters water depth to the wet lab through a one-inch Teflon tube. A sampling chamber with a debubbler delivers the sampling water to various probes including temperature, salinity, chlorophyll, and other photosynthetic pigments, particle sizes, pH, CO2, ocean color properties as well as analyses of microalgae and bacteria. This allows for the assessment of primary production in the surface ocean as well as biogeochemical cycling of nutrients and potential contaminants. Various filtration racks are used for the processing of discrete samples. Fume hood, clean bench, and freezers complement the wet lab. In the next-door half-dry lab, online CO2 isotope analyses and quantification of Ar/O2 as another measure of primary production are carried out.

The air lab of the Seibold is equipped with instrumentation for the analysis of atmospheric aerosols, including particle number concentrations and size distributions, as well as soot abundance and its microphysical properties. Moreover, aerosol samples are collected on filters for subsequent laboratory analysis with a spectrum of different techniques. Air is sampled from about ten meters above the main deck.

The water column is sampled with a rosette water sampler equipped with an 8-channel CTD (recording conductivity, temperature, and pressure/depth), a large volume pump for in-situ filtration, bongo nets and a multi net, and a sediment trap. Photosynthetic active radiation (PAR) is also measured on the mast top and on top of the CTD together with temperature, salinity, pH, O2, and fluorescence. About half of the interior space of the 22-meter long and six meters wide (draught 3.5 meters) Explorer-72 type Seibold is used as a laboratory. In total, eight berths can host four to six scientists and two to four crew members. A desalination plant, 1000 liters of freshwater, and 4000 liters of diesel allow up to three weeks of autonomy at sea. Lithium iron phosphate batteries, with a capacity of about 65 kWh, facilitate emission-free operation including navigation and scientific work of at least nine hours. Batteries are charged while sailing and in port. Propulsion at sea and in port is supported by a 210 hp diesel engine.

And off they go

 In November, it was all hands on deck and hoist the sails! The Eugen Seibold embarked on its maiden research voyage, and the six-person crew set course for the first destination: the Canary Islands. To be sure, the home port was chosen less for its beautiful beaches than for its good infrastructure. The harbour at Lanzarote has a 100-ton crane that can raise ships out of the water for repairs, and there are hotels and restaurants as well as a hospital should one of the crew become seasick. In addition to the experienced skipper and first mate, there are researchers, doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers on board, all of whom will hopefully keep their sea legs even when the waters are uneasy. Over the next several years, the Eugen Seibold will be conducting research on various zones of the world’s oceans. By summer 2019, the goal is to have tested the tropical ocean waters south of the Cape Verde archipelago up to the sea ice edge north of Iceland. While underway, the team on the world’s greenest research vessel will collect a comprehensive range of samples from the different marine regions of all climate zones. They also plan to study the next large El Niño in the Tropical Eastern Pacific.

With the help of the data collected, the current condition of the oceans—in the age of global warming—can be scientifically documented, and a pattern of how the ocean has changed over time can be charted. The Werner Siemens Foundation financed the construction of the research vessel Eugen Seibold. Operating the ship and interpreting data is the responsibility of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, where Gerald Haug is director of the Department of Climate Geochemistry in addition to his professorship at the Department of Earth Sciences at ETH Zurich. Anticipation is high as to what results the marine researchers will glean over the next few years. How healthy is the largest and most important ecosystem on our blue planet? The answer is naturally of vital importance to us land dwellers. 

Conditional Sailing Order

More onboard testing, this time of people not of the ocean, is the result of the pandemic of the COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has dropped its controversial “No Sail” order in favour of a so-called Conditional Sailing Order. In short, the “No Sail” order has been lifted and the industry will work with the CDC on a realistic, phased-in return to service.

“The initial phases will consist of testing and additional safeguards for crew members,” the CDC said in a statement posted to its website.

“CDC will ensure cruise ship operators have adequate health and safety protections for the crew while these cruise ship operators build the laboratory capacity needed to test future passengers. Subsequent phases will include simulated voyages to test cruise ship operators’ ability to mitigate COVID-19 risk, certification for ships that meet specific requirements, and a phased return to cruise ship passenger voyages in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risk among passengers, crew members, and U.S. communities.

”These phases are subject to change based on public health considerations and cruise ship operators’ demonstrated ability to mitigate COVID19 risk. CDC will issue additional orders as needed that will be published in the Federal Register and technical instructions that will be subsequently posted on CDC’s website.”

The framework allows for individual cruise lines to progress through phases at variable paces, according to the agency, and enables cruise lines successfully implementing public health measures to return to passenger operations more quickly while others by necessity may move more slowly.

The framework not only encourages cruise lines that are more successful at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 but provides a realistic timeline that anticipates COVID-19 continuing to be present and affecting cruise ship travel, the CDC said.

The phased-in approach will include (1) establishment of laboratory testing of the crew onboard cruise ships in U.S. waters; (2) 15 simulated voyages designed to test a cruise ship operators’ ability to mitigate COVID-19 on cruise ships; (3) a certification process; and (4) a return to passenger voyages in a manner that mitigates the risk of COVID-19 introduction, transmission, or spread among passengers and crew onboard ships and ashore to communities.


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