Deep-sea chemistry
Day 3: Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can
August 12, 2011

Location: Barkley Canyon, off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia
Latitude: 46° 08.56 N
Longitude: 124° 56.0816 W

Science is not a fast-paced endeavor. It often involves painstaking collection of data to find a pattern, a trend, or a change. For Laura Lapham, waiting is the name of the game once she has placed her equipment on the seafloor to study methane gas. She uses sampling devices that suck in the tiniest little drops of seawater for as long as a year; then spends another year extracting the water and analyzing its chemistry.

Lapham first learned about OsmoSamplers when she was a summer intern at MBARI 14 years ago. The passive water-sampling device was designed by MBARI chemist Hans Jannasch to extract water from within seafloor sediments without having to send a ship or submersible to gather samples. The sampler uses osmosis to draw seawater over a small membrane and collect the water in a very long copper tube. The device is usually retrieved after about 12 months, then the copper tube is cut up into small segments, with each piece corresponding to the water collected in a six-day period.

Image of OsmoSampler
Close-up of an OsmoSampler which, as its name implies, uses osmosis to move water from the bottom of the sampler to the top. This pumping action forces seawater to get sucked into copper tubing which has one end attached to the sampler and the other end inserted in the mud.

Today Lapham put a box full of these samplers on top of a ridge with a big piece of methane hydrate sticking out the side. Methane hydrate looks like chunks of ice and is created by the combination of methane gas and water at the high pressure and low temperatures found in the deep sea. Lapham placed the tip of the collection sampling device in the mud on top of the hydrate in such a way that she will pull the water from three different depths. The entire box will be retrieved sometime next year. The data from this cruise, combined with Lapham’s previous collections, will help explain whether methane hydrate at these sites is dissipating or growing.

Photo of box with probe in mud
Several OsmoSamplers are sealed in this box, which will remain on top of this ridge for about a year. The stick in the mud contains the ends of the tubes that will suck in water found within the sediment at a very slow pace.
Photo of box on cliff
Once the sampling device was placed and the remotely operated vehicle backed off a distance, it became obvious just how precariously it was perched on a steep cliff. But it also was obvious that Lapham had found just the site she was looking for with a big outcropping of the ice-like methane hydrate. Pure methane hydrate is white, but this hydrate is stained yellow because of the presence of oil. The white spots on the mud are bacterial mats.

Peter Brewer’s group had its patience tried today, too, as it tested a new tool this morning. Over the past year, the group designed and built a tripod to allow greater control of the insertion of its laser probe on the ocean bottom. Without the tripod to stabilize the instrument, the probe wobbled around in the soft mud and bacterial mats, making it difficult to control the depth of each sample. The first tests of the tripod today were trying, as it proved tricky for the pilots to maneuver the large structure and a few design flaws became apparent. The pilots and scientists worked with it for several hours and successfully conducted a full laser Raman profile, before finally bringing it up to the ship, ready for a few repairs and improvements. Taking the time to develop and test new tools for conducting science is an important part of MBARI’s mission. The team will now make a few enhancements to the tripod before sending it down again in a few days.

Photo of tripod
The new tripod for the controlled insertion of the laser probe, resting on the seafloor amid a bed of clams.
photo of probe tip
A close-up view of the laser probe tip that can be more carefully inserted into the sediment with a tripod to hold it steady.
photo of two hard workers
Intern Liz Coward and Postdoctoral Fellow Andreas Hofmann start setting up an apparatus to collect oil bubbles on tomorrow’s dive

— Nancy Barr

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Leg 1

R/V Western Flyer

The R/V Western Flyer is a small water-plane area twin hull (SWATH) oceanographic research vessel measuring 35.6 meters long and 16.2 meters wide. It was designed and constructed for MBARI to serve as the support vessel for ROV operations. Her missions include the Monterey Bay as well as extended cruises to Hawaii, Gulf of California and the Pacific Northwest.

ROV Doc Ricketts

ROV Doc Ricketts is MBARI's next generation ROV. The system breaks new ground in providing an integrated unmanned submersible research platform, with many powerful features providing efficient, reliable and precise sampling and data collection in a wide range of missions.

Laser Raman spectrometer DORISS2

By bouncing a specially tuned laser beam off of almost any object or substance—solid, liquid, or gas—a laser Raman spectrometer can provide information about that object's chemical composition and molecular structure.

Push cores

A push-core looks like a clear plastic tube with a rubber handle on one end. Just as its name implies, the push core is pushed down into loose sediment using the ROV's manipulator arm. As the sediment fills up the core, water exits out the top through one-way valves. When the core is pulled up again, these valves close, which (most of the time) keeps the sediment from sliding out of the core tube. When we bring these cores back to the surface, we typically look for living animals and organic material in the sediments.


Vibracoring is a common technique used to obtain samples from water-saturated sediment. These corers work by attaching a motor that induces high frequency vibrations in the core liner that in turn liquefies the sediment directly around the core cutter, enabling it to pass through the sediment with little resistance.

CO2 accumulator

Carbon dioxide is a liquid at the temperatures and pressures on the seafloor where hydrates are known to occur. Because of this, one cannot simply take down a tank of gas and expect to be able to release it at depth. Instead, the CO2 piston accumulator is used to deliver precise volumes of liquid CO,2 to experiments on the seafloor. The valves are operated hydraulically by remote control and hydraulic pressure is used to expel the liquid CO2 and deliver it to the experiments.

Heat-flow probe

MBARI's heat-flow probe is mounted on the side of the ROV Doc Ricketts inside the vertical stainless steel box. This both protects the delicate probe and provide the track so that the probe can be inserted into the sediment along a totally straight path.  The probe contains five high precision platinum sensors which are used to measure the vertical temperature gradient in the sediments. This gradient along with some knowledge of the heat capacity of the sediment allows scientists to calculate the rate of heat loss from the sediments into the ocean.


R/V Western Flyer

Ian Young


George Gunther
First Mate


Matt Noyes
Chief Engineer


Andrew McKee
Second Mate


Lance Wardle
First Engineer


Olin Jordan


Paul Tucker
Second Engineer


Vincent Nunes


Dan Chamberlain
Electronics Officer


Patrick Mitts


ROV Doc Ricketts

Knute Brekke
Chief ROV Pilot


Mark Talkovic
Senior ROV Pilot


Randy Prickett
Senior ROV Pilot


Bryan Schaefer
ROV Pilot/Technician


Eric Martin
ROV Pilot/Technician


 Research Team

Peter Brewer
Chief Scientist

Peter has taken part in more than 30 deep-sea cruises, and has served as chief scientist on major expeditions and on more than 90 ROV dives with MBARI ships and vehicles. His research interests include the ocean geochemistry of the greenhouse gases. He has devised novel techniques both for measurement and for extracting the oceanic signatures of global change. At MBARI his current interests include the geochemistry of gas hydrates, and the evolution of the oceanic fossil fuel CO2 signal. He has developed novel techniques for deep ocean laser Raman spectroscopy, and for testing the principles and impacts of deep ocean CO2 injection.

Ed Peltzer
Senior Research Specialist

Ed is an ocean chemist who has been with MBARI since 1997. He has been involved in developing in situ laser Raman spectrometry instruments and lab based analytical techniques to study the composition of gases in gas hydrates and deep-sea vents. He has collaborated on the development of new instrumentation for the measurement of temperature and pH from ROVs and deep-sea observatories. As the group's project manager, Ed is also responsible for expedition planning and logistics.

Peter Walz
Senior Research Technician

Peter has worked as a research technician for a variety of scientists at MBARI. Most recently he has supported the research efforts of Dr. Peter Brewer and his interests in the ocean chemistry of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. Peter assists with the design, testing and deployment of the ocean going science hardware and works closely with the marine operations group to integrate new equipment to work with MBARI's ROV's.

Andreas Hofmann
Postdoctoral Fellow

Andreas is a MBARI Postdoctoral Fellow in the Brewer lab. He obtained a PhD in marine biogeochemistry in the Netherlands after his biology undergraduate and bioinformatics graduate studies in Germany. Andreas' specialty is pelagic and benthic biogeochemical modeling with a focus on pH and proton cycling. At MBARI, Andreas is working amongst others on the characterization of marine hypoxic and suboxic zones, focusing on the explicit description of physical limitations to aerobic respiration. On this cruise, Andreas will be involved in obtaining and processing Raman spectra, as well as in various other tasks supporting the objectives of the group.

Nancy Barr
Web/Print Project Manager

Nancy manages the editing, design, and production of the MBARI annual report and participates in a variety of editorial and communication projects. She also oversees the institute website. Nancy has been to sea with several MBARI research groups, helping them to carefully remove worms from whale bones, annotate video, sift seafloor sediment, and collect and process water samples. For this expedition she will be in charge of the daily reports that will be posted to this website and will assist with other science crew tasks.

Elizabeth Coward
Summer Intern

Elizabeth is an MBARI summer intern in the Brewer lab. She is a senior at Haverford College, PA, where she is obtaining her undergraduate joint degree in biology and chemistry. Elizabeth's prior research has been principally concerned with the bioavailability and geochemical dynamics of oil in marine sediments. Her interest in oceanic fossil fuels and greenhouse gases has brought her to the Brewer lab, where she will be using laser Raman spectroscopy to investigate methane and carbon dioxide signatures, the dynamics of gas hydrates and ocean acidification.

Michael Riedel
Research Scientist
Natural Resources Canada - Geological Survey of Canada

Michael Riedel was part of an international team of scientists supported by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) which completed a unique research expedition in 2005 aimed at recovering samples of gas hydrate, an ice-like substance hidden beneath the seafloor off Canada's western coast. As IODP Expedition 311's co-chief scientist, Michael explored his interest in gas hydrate; he believes such deposits have played an important role in ancient global climate change.

Laura Lapham
Postdoctoral Researcher
National Energy Technology Lab, U.S. Department of Energy

Laura's research is concentrated on studying methane cycling at cold seeps, biogeochemcial cycling of methane and sulfer in deep sea sediments, development of deep sea instrumentation to collect novel samples, stable isotope geochemistry, modeling of biogeochemical processes and temporal variability of dissolved methane concentrations. The focus of her research has been mainly on gas hydrate environments, but she is also interested in other systems that relate to the carbon cycle. Her research seeks to understand how methane is distributed between different pools, e.g. dissolved or hydrate phases, and also to understand how local biogeochemical processes affect this methane, mostly through anaerobic methane oxidation.

Jon Furlong
University of Victoria

Jon is a graduate student at the University of Victoria studying with Michael Riedel. His bachelor's degree was completed in Earth Sciences from Memorial University in Newfoundland before he moved from one coast to the other. Jon's research focuses on neo-tectonic faulting offshore Vancouver Island and its links to gas hydrate formation and fluid migration.