Tag Archives: Marine

End of an Era ……….for the mighty British-Irish Ice sheet and our mammoth fieldwork campaign.

By Chris Clark (with photography by Alex Ingle)

Voyages around a former ice sheet.....

Voyages around a former ice sheet…..

After a decade of dreaming and years of planning our team of 40 data-hungry geoscientists were given the scent and released from their cages (~desks) with the audacious task of blitzing the whole ice sheet to find samples for dating its retreat. This started in November 2012 in a grey drizzle at Seisdon sand and gravel quarry near Stourport and finished 09:30am 1st August 2015 in bright sunshine when we extracted our last sample, a seafloor core, from the Cleaver Bank in the southern North Sea. It really has been an epic two and half years witnessing the Terrestrial Team with sun-cream in the Scilly Isles to shivers in Shetland, and with dressing gowns in Donegal to JCBs in Norfolk. We really did covered the ground from south to north and east to west and snuck in 28 – yes 28 – different islands of Britain and Ireland, including Scilly Rock and Foula. When samples were not easy to spot and grab, we used radar, seismics and some occasional guesses to work out where to dig with shovel or digger or to core the hidden sediments. It is not quite true that no stone was left unturned, but I have been amazed at how close we got to that, thanks to some amazing levels of energy and motivation; it is indeed lucky that our team displayed traits of obsessiveness and kleptomania when it came to sampling. Bloody well done to all.

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So our very last sample (core 179-VC) on BRITICE-CHRONO has now been collected, marking the end of Cruise Two on RRS James Cook. Even though we never got to shout ‘One hundred and …eighty’ it is more than we had planned. We have sailed, steamed, or dieseled 8971.65 kilometres, taking in Skye, Rona, Shetland, and more North Sea banks including (the infamous Dogger) that you could shake a stick at. We have sampled deep (525 m) and very shallow (19 m), and calm and troubled (force 7). Our ship-track might look erratic to some but, as they say in marketing non-speak, it comprises a subtle blend of caution and well-planned targets with a hint of adventure and wild abandon yielding a truly inspiring collection of mud and sand to sate the yearnings of the most inquisitive discerners of ice sheet curios.

The loot under the care of Team Marine (Lou and Margot)

The loot under the care of Team Marine (Lou and Margot)

The haul, now sat in our refrigerated lorry-container and packed in plastic tubes was obtained by lowering our vibro- and piston corers through 18,891.4 metres of seawater and extracting over half a kilometre of sediment (Rich says 542.4 m). As well-known, of course, it is not the length that counts, but the quality. It will be some time however before we know which cores, places and transects yield the best shells and forams for dating, but Margot and Lou have already bagged, sifted and labelled the celebrity shells which we think have the best stories to tell….’well there was this bloomin’ huge great wall of ice that kept crashing down, and would you believe what happened next….’.

Science crew of the RRS James Cook cruise JC123

Science crew of the RRS James Cook cruise JC123

Thanks to Colm and his science team, the Captain and crew and the geological survey coring teams, and the weather, some good planning, crazy hunches and some luck, this scientific cruise has been a great and enjoyable success. We have a mammoth payload that we hope will provide a legacy of new information for decades. It has been a pleasure having Alex, the ever-present black ninja-photographer on-board, – he stalks, clicks and then runs – in his quest to document our highs, lows and silly moments. Hopefully you have already seen much of his work.

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We set out to do 50 years work in five. Taking this cruise with last year’s, which circumnavigated Ireland, along with our >300 person-days of terrestrial fieldwork we have bagged around 15 tonnes of samples for dating and I hope you agree that we have been around a bit. Sorry if we missed your patch, why don’t you have a go? It is an end of an era for our sampling effort. As project leader, I now breathe a large sigh of relief that it is over and has gone so well, phew and phew again. There is a tinge of sadness though, that we all feel as the fun, bonhomie and making of new friends on hard-won field exploits has now ended. No more pie shops or sneaky pints. Team Terrestrial (Rich and his gang) and Colm’s Marine Crew, can now stand-down to great applause. Derek’s Geochron Team have their work cut out to carefully analyse all the samples and then our Transect Leaders (Tom, Dave, Rich, James, Colm, and Sara) will rise to the challenge of making sense of it all and telling us the story that the shell started to blurt out.

Taking things one day at a time

Taking things one day at a time

Chris Clark, signing off on behalf of BRITICE-CHRONO, currently steaming 11 knots, homeward bound, over the Tea Kettle Bank of the southern North Sea. All cores logged and packed and the pinging geophysics finally turned off.

Cruising Doggerland

By Dave Roberts (with selected photography by Alex Ingle)

Doggerland

Doggerland

The last week has seen the start of the epic trek north to south from Shetland to the Dogger Bank in the southern North Sea.

We spent the first 2 days looking at some enigmatic grounding wedge features on the sea-floor just west of the Norwegian channel where the British and Norwegian Ice sheets battled it out for supremacy during the last cycle. We also stepped boldly into the unexplored world of outburst floods and drowned coastlines with a some incredible seafloor geomorphology adding to the ice sheet story in relation to the uncoupling of the two ice sheets. Unbelievable geomorph!

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From the Norwegian Channel we headed SW towards the Moray Forth running a 100mile survey and coring transect NW to SE over a spectacular series of moraines before heading into the central North Sea and the urban heartland of the North Sea oil fields around Shearwater and Erskine. Our goal was the Great Fisher Bank (that renowned last bastion of the British Ice Sheet) where we enjoyed a cracking day out sampling Holocene sand and the arrival of a racing pigeon called Terry from Thurso. Needless to say, Terry proved more interesting than the seafloor that day!

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The great odyssey to the Far East was followed by 3 epic days surveying and coring east of the Firth of Forth and then down the east coast from Berwick to Sunderland chasing the imprint of the North Sea lobe. Moraines, deltas, eskers, outwash fans and tunnel valleys littered the bed of the Forth system; all soaked in metres glorious glacial sediment. Better was to follow as we moved south along the Northumbrian coast with the resplendent Whin Sill fracturing the seafloor and grounding zone wedges plastered on to the bedrock. There were also superb, quiet seafloor basins revealing the multi-coloured, muddy barcodes of the deglacial story of the Forth, Tweed and Tyne Ice Streams.

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The final push now. One week to go and on to Dogger Bank for the next two days. Can we prise out the some glacial secrets from beneath that sandy veneer? Huge sand banks seem to guard its peripheral moat warning against trespass, but we are committed now and on to its shallow, upper surface. Our early cores are showing promise; we will see. Hopefully, our target sites in the Humber and Wash area will bring a pot of glacial gold at the end of a cracking month at sea. Then home.

North, beyond Shetland: A Daysleeper’s diary

by Tom Bradwell (Day 15: Friday, 04:44) (with some photography by Alex Ingle)

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The last time we ventured into Shetland territory it was in pursuit of far-travelled rocks laid down by the last ice sheet, strewn across hard-to-reach islands – Foula, Papa Stour, Out Skerries, to name just three. Our successful 10 island-tour of Shetland took place in 11 carefully planned days in May last year, when the 6-strong team worked from dawn til dusk to ensure that they didn’t return home empty handed. Those precious rock specimens have since been analysed at Glasgow University; their exposure age is helping to unravel the ice sheet history of Shetland and the surrounding area. This time the Britice-Chrono team are on the high seas, aboard the RRS James Cook, looking for glacial seabed mud and ice sheet imprints along the extreme edge of NW Europe, from the Outer Hebrides to the Norwegian Channel.

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In this part of the UK, in July (at 61.5 degrees N and still within the offshore Exclusive Economic Zone) dusk stretches beyond midnight and the sun reappears before 3 am, after only the briefest of nights. That being said, working on the night shift is still a challenge. The geophysical data collection and seabed coring programme on the James Cook works 24/7. The ship’s crew operate on 4-hr ‘watches’, and the science team are divided into day and night shifts (8am to 8pm) to allow around-the-clock working. Punctual, brief, morning and evening meetings allow seamless handover between shifts, an update on the day’s progress, and an all-important weather forecast for the next 48 hrs. Day and night shifts for the science team are similar in content but different in the details. Apart from the darkness, the cold, the nocturnal fatigue and the daysleeping, we have dinner for breakfast and sometimes breakfast for dinner; which mixes up the body’s normal everyday cycle and turns the daily routine on its head. But after 2 weeks on the night shift, having a roast beef lunch at midnight seems almost normal. Although going to bed when the sun is at its warmest will never feel quite right to me. And the AM vs PM confusion is always there, nagging away.

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As we collect geophysical data, recover seabed samples and describe cores well into the night, the daysleepers perform the same rituals as the nightsleepers but just in a different time zone. We say ‘good morning’ to people instead of ‘goodnight’; we cheerfully get down to work on Wednesday night and carry on into Thursday morning; we relax on deck after some ‘early evening’ exercise; and drink a beer instead of pouring that first cup of coffee. But perhaps my favourite bit is not really ever knowing what day of the week it is. Waking up after a full ‘night’s’ sleep to find it’s still the same day as when you went to bed. Confusing, but curiously liberating!

Anyway, back to the science. Yesterday’s leg of the cruise took us 60 nautical miles (or roughly 111.11 kilometres) north of Muckle Flugga lighthouse, Shetland’s northern tip – a point on the Greenwich meridian still in UK waters but on the same latitude as Narsarsuaq Glaciers in east Greenland and Suduroy in the Faroe Islands. We took 9 seabed cores during a 12 hour transit back towards Shetland, each one penetrating different sediment, and each one hopefully holding its own clues as to when the last ice sheet retreated and when sea levels rose. The spectacular sequence of moraine ridges on the seabed NE of Shetland is unique within the British Isles, both in its unusual shape and the number of landforms preserved. Although we’ve known about the moraine pattern for a while, and what it means for the last ice sheet to cover Shetland and the northern North Sea, the age of these features remains elusive. What we find when we analyse these cores will hopefully help clear things up.

For me, the crucial part of the Britice-Chrono project comes when linking geological evidence onshore and offshore — something that has often proved difficult in the past. As an Earth scientist, interested in glacial processes, the distinction between terrestrial and marine is a blurred and relatively unimportant one. A bit like the difference between morning and evening when working the night shift at this latitude…

A Perfect Core……..

By Margot Saher, Dave Roberts and Rich Chiverrell (Photography by Alex Ingle)

Darkness. A great mass of ice overhead. The eerie rumbling of a large, uncompromising mass, slowly but steadily on the move. Below a thick layer of stiff red sediment, ground off the red bedrock, crushed and churned into a lumpy, sticky blanket of glacial till.

Dark coasts

Dark coasts

What would later be called Cape Wrath was only miles to the south, but there was no cape yet. Just the grinding of slow and unforgiving ice moving north into the North Atlantic. But the times were changing. The sun gained in strength, atmosphere and ocean started to warm and the gigantic ice mass, later to be known as the British-Irish Ice Sheet, was in decline. As its surface melted, more water reached its bed, and it began to slide helplessly over its own sediments. Slowly it thinned, and retreated in the direction of the Scottish mountains with the ocean lapping relentlessly at its edges.

There seemed to be no hope, but the ice sheet made one last bold dash towards the edge of the continental shelf before it faltered. The recently deglaciated seabed and freshly deposited grey ocean sediments were bulldozed and overrun again by ice on the move, and buried once more in a blanket of red till. Linear ridges (moraines) marked the limit of this temporary re-advance. But it was only a death throw; the re-advance didn’t get far. The ice sheet’s days were numbered. The advance stopped, and turned into irreversible retreat.

A geophysical search for the perfect core.......

A geophysical search for the perfect core…….

Against a backdrop of rumbling, calving icebergs, station JC123-048VC slowly became ice free, as the snout of the ice sheet moved back over the site. A cold, shallow sea took its place; first, still close to the snout of the ice sheet, where streams of meltwater rushing into the waiting sea water lay down a blanket of coarse sand. As the ice retreated further, taking the meltwater streams with it, the sea fell silent. Only fine sediments spat out into suspension by the dying ice sheet made it to our site, slowly covering it in a thick, grey blanket.

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The ice sheet sent a final message as the ice margins retreated south towards the land; a message from an iceberg. As it passed, melting, overhead of station JC123-048VC, pebbles slipped from its icy grip. They plummeted into the depths, impacting into the soft fine clay sea bed. As soon as this excitement started it was over, and the pebbles were slowly covered by more of the same grey clay.

With the great weight of the ice gone, the Earth’s crust rose like an ancient giant from its slumbers, pushing the Scottish continental shelf closer to the sea surface. Over time, the waters shallowed, and the seabed currents became stronger. The last vestiges of the glacial seafloor were scoured by contour currents, which deposited the spoils of an energetic coast on the eroded sediment below. Millennia later coarse sand and shell debris formed a layer of several inches thick. And then on Sunday the 12th July 2015 all changed.

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There was an unfamiliar thud, and then the uncanny sensation of a vibrating tube burrowing into the sediment from above. It cut through the sand in a jiffy, passed the pebbles, and into the soft clays. The tube slid through it like a hot knife through butter. No struggle with the coarse sands lain down by meltwater streams either, only slowing on reaching the stiff, red till. It battled its way into it for a meter and a half. Then the friction became too much. The vibrocorer stopped, and then the whole tube, now full of sediment, was pulled back up to the sea surface, and hoisted back up onto the deck of the RRS James Cook, the ship it had come from. Peace returned once again on to the sea floor, at core site VC123-048VC, a few miles north of Cape Wrath, on the northwestern edge of Scotland; a land mass now devoid of ice sheets and glaciers.

The core came on board and was cut into sections, labelled, scanned, and split. Finally, we, the scientists who had planned the project, planned the cruise, sailed all the way from Southampton to Cape Wrath, and waited for the British Geological Survey (BGS) to deliver the core, first laid eyes on the sediment. The story was there: a stiff basal till deposited beneath the ice sheet; fines marking the first incursion of the sea; further glacial till documenting the ice re-advance, meltwater stream sediments deposited in front of the retreating ice margin; the fine clays deposited when the ice began to recede southwards containing drop-stones from the icebergs, and the marine sand of the modern seafloor. That was what we had come for. And this was the 48th core; none of the previous 47 had told the story of the vanishing British ice quite this clearly.

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Hopefully we’ll be getting more cores like this in the coming three weeks of the cruise. We need this story told in every sector of the British-Irish continental shelf. Only then will we have what we set out for: the complete saga of the Last British-Irish Ice Sheet.

Gripped in the jaws of the Minch

By Richard Chiverrell and Tom Bradwell (photography by Alex Ingle)

1292 km, 51 cores, 177m of sediment, not a bad haul

1292 km, 51 cores, 177m of sediment, not a bad haul


We, the science crew of RRS James Cook Cruise JC123, sailed from Southampton Friday 3rd July bound for the last three transects of the NERC funded Consortium Britice-Chrono, our aim is to work out the timing of the last deglaciation of Britain and Ireland. After a quick stop outside the Solent to test the BGS vibrocore we made hast (10 knots) northwards through the North Sea running geophysical surveys for the North Sea sector (Transect 2) as we went, and in the early hours of Monday 6th July we rounded the northern tip of Scotland on schedule for our speedy (19 knots) tide-assisted passage through Pentland Firth between Orkney and the Scottish Mainland onwards to Transect 8 and the delights of the Minch palaeo-Ice Stream extending north from Skye between the Scottish Mainland and the outer Hebrides towards the edge of the continental shelf and the North Atlantic.

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The Minch seaway ~28-25,000 years ago received ice flow from the major fjords in NW Scotland feeding palaeo-ice stream, which extended north and northwest across the continental shelf. This ice stream dominated the northwestern sector of the British Ice Sheet (BIS). The land- and sea-scape probably developed over multiple glacial episodes, but the sea floor landforms and uppermost geology reflect the most recent deglaciation after 25,000 years ago. The aim of Britice-Chrono is to work out the timescale for this deglaciation, and this has involved fieldwork on land, dating outwash deposits on the Isles of Lewis, Skye and on mainland, and glacially eroded bedrock and boulders across the region. The offshore phase of this research has occupied us, so far, for the last seven days and nights, and involved surveying the sea floor for the morphology and the sediments using acoustic sounding techniques, but critically sampling the sea floor sediments. We have two coring systems on board, a percussive vibrating corer that can sample down to 6 m below the sea bed penetrating the tough materials laid down beneath and in front of former glaciers, and a gravity powered piston corer capable of sampling up to 18m in softer sediments. Our aim is to find shells in these glacial sediments to radiocarbon date and work out the timing of deglaciation.

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The success of the efforts for both our cruises relies on the excellent 24 hour work ethic, diligence and company of the cruise team, science crew, BGS and NOC Piston coring teams and the RRS James Cook captain and crew, all of whom do everything they can to help us. The middle 2-3 days of T8 were particularly nerve-wracking as the BGS crew toiled night and day to fix a particularly truculent problem with the vibrocorer, part of the solution to which lay in finding and removing an electrical break in the 1500 metres of cable that winches the BGS vibrocore to and from the sea bed. Thankfully time was spent obtaining important piston cores in the inner Minch and collecting valuable geophysical data, as the BGS team worked around the clock. As ever in Britice chrono’s experience, the BGS team, had everything needed on board to solve the problem, and cheers greeted the announcement of ready to go, and there followed ‘an in at the deep end’ test of the repair in 500-600 metres of water off the continental shelf fronting the Minch ice stream. Success, with 4.14 metres of glacimarine muds recovered, and on leaving the waters of T8 a further 11 vibrocores were recovered containing the key shell-rich glacimarine and subglacial muds our project requires.
Calm seas, epic sunsets

Calm seas, epic sunsets


Looking back on the Minch experience, it is certainly one of the prettiest (former) ice streams we have worked on during the Britice-Chrono cruises, with land in view and visiting the Inner Hebrides passing the Isles of Skye, Lewis/Harris and Raasay amongst others. The leg has been a considerable success, we have collected 1292.6 km of geophysical data (multi-beam and sub bottom profiler), 51 sediment cores (39 vibrocores, 12 piston cores) and 177.2m in vertical sediment profile; who said the Minch was a small ice stream? Our travels have taken us from Raasay Sound in the south over the edge of the continental shelf at 59° 15’ N, and into near shore waters fronting Cape Wrath and the Summer Isles. The answers to the Britice-Chrono geochronological questions must wait on many months of laboratory analysis, but we leave the Minch with all teething troubles behind us, and a growing bounty of cores in the locker. We are ready for the delights of Shetland…!
A 12m piston core (Tom Bradwell for scale ~ 1.74m)

A 12m piston core (Tom Bradwell for scale ~ 1.74m)

1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock rock (well…compressed mud), you can rock around the clock….

By Margot Saher and Lou Callard

Take some of the ‘finest’ brains in the country. Put them on a state-of-the-art research vessel which is filled to the brim with geophysical equipment, and has its own core scanning lab. Imagine what one could do with that! And what do we do with it? What is the scientific treasure we hunt? Mud. Six weeks at sea for mud (occasionally sand…)? We’ll be scrutinising it for years to come! Without mud the whole endeavour would be a failure; the mud must be treasured, cared for. It is the sedimentary archive that could answer the question of when and how the British-Irish Ice Sheet vanished. It is the wet lab coring teams that handle, care for and love the mud. There are two shifts: the Night-watch from midnight to noon, and the Day-team from noon to midnight. Whilst in the lab and, more importantly, out on deck, these have to wear armour: PPE (Personnel Protective Equipment) – a hard hat, hobnailed boots and some rather unflattering (generally oversized) overalls. The overalls are optional, but a sensible option at that; the job is a messy one, so unless you have an endless supply of clothes…. As the British Geological Survey (BGS) core team recover the mud to deck we have to wait – impatiently. How much have we recovered, and is it the right stuff? Even before the barrel is laid down we swarm expectantly around its end to get the first glimpse (and touch) of the treasure. The strength of the mud gives us so much information; we prod it, taste it…. Does it feel like silt, sand, clay; is it stiffened, reflecting the weight of former ice sheet bearing down on it? We recover everything from the core shoe, the core catcher; whatever sticks or falls out of the liner gets bagged, labelled, photographed and stored cool. But what is inside the liner is what we really want, it contains the story of the ice coming and going from the waters around these islands.

The liners are not easily released from the barrel; muscles are needed to get it out, and a tug-of-war ensues of scientists, BGS engineers, crew, random passers-by, anyone versus the barrel. But once the liner is out, it’s ours. The muds we desire are only useful if we know exactly where they are from, so labelling is everything. Every single core section has its own unique label, which will end up on its liner, caps, wrapping material, and the box it’s stored in. There are yellow caps for the tops and black for the base of each segment; which way is up matters! And that is only the beginning; there is no such thing as over-labelling, and that holds for cores sections, record sheets, scanned records, spreadsheets, photographs……

Lou: “The day shift consists of Steve, Zoe, Catriona, Kevin and me. Whilst Colm and Katrien spend the day planning where we will core next, we collect and process the cores. Generally our day starts at 11:20 with breakfast, which also happens to be lunch for the other crew members. Breakfast can be anything from a curry to fish and chips. Today’s option was Thai fish cakes, with noodles and sweet chilli sauce. Although having such a large meal first thing was rather odd to begin with, six weeks in it seems quite normal and a bowl of cereal would now disappoint. Shift begins with the midday handover meeting and our goodnights to the night team.

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Then work begins! We spend most of our shift either out on deck collecting and cutting the cores, or in the wet lab splitting, logging and packing the cores away with a constant dual stream of material either from the deep or from the MSCL cave. Frequently we split over 20 sections during our shift, and often it’s more than 25. Each section is 1 m long with each 1 m weighing between 10-12 kg, so after 12 hours of carrying, splitting, logging and packing it is a good workout. So the coring job may seem rather unglamorous and exceptionally mucky, and involves hard manual labour; it is also an exciting and rewarding part of the cruise. The sub-bottom profiles and bathymetry data provides a tantalising look at what might lie beneath, but it is only when the core is taken and the material viewed that you know whether or not we have captured the right material needed for the project, and whether there is something we can use for dating. Sometimes we are disappointed normally if we fail to guess correctly in the ‘guess-the-core-length’ sweepstake (Steve is slightly in the lead at the moment), but when a good core is opened, it changes the mood of everyone involved.

Our work still isn’t quite complete, cleaning and maintaining the lab ready for the night team, labelling, cropping and archiving all photographs, and Zoe dutifully scans all of the deck sheets. At midnight the night team relieves us and then we head either straight to bed or take a detour past the kitchen to get a post shift snack. A day shift favourite is Nutella (somewhere in the multi-verse other nutty spreads might exist) on toast. It is hungry work, coring!”

Margot: “the Nightwatch consists of Kasper, Riccardo, Jenny, myself and occasionally Richard (if he can drag himself away from the Geophysics, picking core sites and mostly chatting on deck). As we start our shift, we tend to find ourselves in the middle of a coring transect that has been planned before, so we of the night often start our shift on station, vibrocoring. We’ve discovered that Riccardo has a special talent for working hard but still staying clean, while Richard has the useful talent for removing almost any sediment from an unwilling core catcher. Kasper’s Danish (or Viking) muscles come in handy for removing the liner from the barrel, and Jenny has useful BGS contacts (which saves us, for instance, from running out of sample bags). I myself have developed the modest knack of writing upside down, for liner labelling purposes.

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Splitting and description has to wait until we receive cores from Elke and the core scanner cave, and she works 6AM to 6PM. The early part of the shift can be quite calm, if the core stations we have picked are far apart. Quite often nature festoons such a quiet early part of the shift with an amazing sunrise. The pace picks up dramatically as the cores start to emerge from the MSCL cave. It can get a bit hectic if we’re busily splitting and describing, interrupted by receiving new cores from the seabed. Core sections everywhere! But the splitting is exciting, as we get to see the whole sedimentary sequence for the first time. Do we have the ideal core, which consists of a subglacial till at the bottom, conformably overlain by marine sediments deposited after the ice retreated? Are there perhaps some nice shells in it for radiocarbon dating? When we see something we could use for 14C dating, we take it out. As we are coring, we have a competition running: guess the core length. It is very tight at the moment; Riccardo is in the lead, closely followed by Jenny, and Richard is trailing miles behind, but it all can still change, even with only two days to go. Eventually noon arrives, when we hand over to the day team, and then plonk down tiredly for lunch, which, for us, is more like late supper. After lunch and a cup of tea it’s bedtime! And then at around 11PM (ish) we get up again, and the sequence repeats.”

Treasure.....

Treasure…..

As we both write this, the 212th core has been recovered from the large moraine in outer Galway Bay. There is some 6 tonnes of mostly mud in our refrigerated container, and we have picked more than 100 shells for dating. But we know exactly where every kilo came from, what it looks like, and which ones we want to target for further research. When we get back on land, we can hit the ground running…..

Photography mostly by Alex Ingle, except where it isn’t….

An Engineers Apprentice

By Claire Mellett and Jenny Gales (British Geological Survey)

A typical day for us usually involves sitting behind a desk staring at a computer in the basement of the BGS Edinburgh office. As marine geologists we are tasked with mapping the seabed and sub-seabed for government and commercial interests. Fundamental to this is an understanding of how geological processes such as ice, rivers, wind, waves and tides have shaped the seabed over long periods of time. Our field area is inaccessible to us as it is drowned beneath sometimes thousands of metres of water and we rely on remote sensing data such as bathymetry and seismic to image the seafloor and make our interpretations. Once we have “guestimated” geological conditions we need to prove them with physical samples and this is where the BGS Marine Operations team comes in.

When carrying out our own research we focus on finding the most suitable site that will provide an answer to whatever question we are asking and we don’t spend too much time thinking about how the sample is recovered. Luckily we have a BGS Marine Operations team comprising electrical, mechanical and design engineers that can build and adapt equipment to meet our expectations. However, ignorance isn’t always bliss and by understanding how different rigs work and the logistics involved in transporting, fitting and fixing equipment on different vessels all around the world, we will have knowledge of how our data was collected and the limitations of its use. Claire: “I thought I would be fairly useless as a member of the operations team given that I am a typical “pen pusher” but I went in with an open mind willing to try anything. As the weeks have gone by I find it easier to lift the barrels meaning I must be getting stronger. I also seem to have started a scrap metal collection as I keep finding bolts and washers in all my pockets. This apparently proves your worth an engineer (according to Garry, one of the BGS engineers)”.

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After a while we decided to formalise our training so made ourselves engineer’s apprentices. As part of the apprenticeship we came up with list of skills that needed to be developed. These include tasks like winch operation (which is the most stressful part of the apprenticeship), vibrocore assembly, vessel awareness (Claire: “I can now distinguish the bulkhead from the deckhead”), health and safety and vibrocore driving. This last skill is obviously very important as when carrying out this task you get the comfiest seat in the container right next to the heater (which also reclines for when you’re on night shift). Additional skills every seafaring apprentice must have include coffee and tea making (including biscuit acquisition) to keep the team going on twelve hour shifts, rope skills (Jenny: “we can now both tie a rolling hitch with two half hitches to get the core liner out of the barrel”) and radio etiquette which varies greatly depending on accents. The final part of the training is tool recognition. We are getting good at this although there appears to be a nomenclature issue depending what tradesman you get e.g. a “toffee hammer” is apparently the same as a “quarter pound ball pein hammer”.

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We do have it easy in comparison to the rest of the BGS engineering team as when things break down, which is likely to happen when you’re at sea for a long time, they surprise us by just fixing things. As engineers, this is their job, but it still gets us each time they make something work. For example, we are running low on core catchers as the geology keeps destroying them so we decided to just make some. A bit of improvisation and some welding and we have a new supply of core catchers, voilà!

The work day for an engineer’s apprentice is so refreshing yet tiring. We are outside all day which is delightful when the sun (or moon) is reflecting off a reasonable calm sea with big white fluffy clouds on the horizon. Even when the rain is horizontal and the waves are crashing over the deck, we still look forward to getting out to work. When compared to the often solitary life of a scientist where you exist in your ideas, it is a welcome change to be working outside as part of a team of engineers and ship’s crew physically collecting the scientific data you spend most our time working on. Claire: “I must add here that the ship’s crew on board are all extremely patient with helping us in our training (especially when it comes to winch operation!)”.

We keep being asked if we prefer being a scientist or part of the operations team on a research cruise and it’s a difficult question to answer. Claire: “It is a bit of a holiday for me being an engineer’s apprentice as it is not my profession, therefore all the pressure is on our trainers (Iain and Mike’s) shoulders. I do appear to spend a large part of the day laughing (usually at myself) which is a sign I am enjoying the work. However, if I had a 90 m research vessel at my disposal, as a scientist, I can only imagine the fun I would have!”.

(Selected photography by Alex Ingle)