University at sea

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McGill Reporter
November 7, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 05
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University at sea

The day was cool and grey when the Reporter visited Coriolis II, the latest boat available for McGill's oceanographers. Walking on the deck inspecting ropes the size of a brawny sailor's forearm, steel cables and winches, with a gentle drizzle hitting my face, one could almost pretend to be chugging along the St. Lawrence up towards Newfoundland's Cabot Strait.

Photo Associate Vice-Principal (Academic) Ian Butler and Professor Alfonso Mucci
PHOTO: Owen Egan

The Coriolis II is owned by Université du Québec à Rimouski, Universite du Québec à Montréal, Laval and McGill, thanks to $12 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Quebec government. The 50-metre boat was built in 1990 for Canada Coast Guard, but wasn't being used often enough in British Columbia, so the Quebec universities suggested it could be put to work for marine geochemists, physicists, biologists and other fishy pursuits.

McGill adjunct professor Bjorn Sundby, also professor for the Institut des Sciences de la Mer (ISMER), Université du Québec à Rimouski, was proud to tell me of the inaugural 10-day research voyage he was on three weeks ago, for the ISMER graduate student field course in experimental oceanography.

The boat sleeps 22 - two to a neat cabin with bunkbeds, a sink and a desk; a bathroom for each two cabins. The kitchen where the chef whips up sole, chicken thighs and fries is a workable size. Storage rooms with V8 and cookies were below, with the walk-in freezer and cooler, between the laundry room and rudimentary exercise room.

There's a small lounge room where Sundby held his lectures, with photo albums and books gracing the shelves. Researchers can either use the small computer room, fully networked to land, or work in the most spacious part of the ship, the wet lab and dry lab. The table close to the door to the deck is covered in plywood so equipment - microscopes, spectroscopes - can be screwed in for stability.

Sundby was born in Norway and is comfortable at sea but didn't initially go into marine matters. He was a soap chemist for Colgate Palmolive when he became more interested in the impact of soap on the environment and jumped the corporate ship for oceanography.

He explained to me the round covers in the lab floor shielded moon pools, holes used to lower equipment into the brackish depths. More often, researchers use the rosette sampler - a bulky cluster of cylinders lowered off the side of the ship to collect water. Two winches grace the back of the ship - a mammoth 9-tonne capacity one, the other a modest two-tonner. The first step he teaches students is "how to put stuff in the water, and how to bring stuff back." The retrieved samples measure temperature, salinity - "you see the [water] structure."

He's delighted with the ecological soundness of the vessel. "It was built for the government to the strictest specifications -it's very, very well built," Sundby said. Soon "we'll have fresh-water-making facilities. We have a unique sewage vacuum system so we hardly use any water at all." Sea mates are warned not to put anything untoward in the toilets - "if the toilet blocks, it takes an engineer three hours to take it apart and put it together again." Best for them to be tending to the four engines.

The cheerful vessel staff is another plus to the Coriolis II. Sundby says that "unlike federal vessels where the captain won't talk to anyone but the head scientist," the Coriolis II crew is "very warm, like family."

McGill professor of geochemistry and oceanography Alfonso Mucci, currently department chair of earth and planetary sciences, has the dubious honour of being the last to conduct research on McGill's previous boat, an old fishing trawler. He says the Coriolis II will help research in "looking at sources and fate of the contaminants of the St. Lawrence Estuary and Saguenay fjord." Of particular interest are the carbon cycles - since the beginning of the industrial age, the equilibrium of carbon dioxide in the ocean and the atmosphere has been shifting out of balance. Now the "oceanic reservoir has 50 times more carbon than the atmospheric reservoir," Mucci says. "Ultimately it's the ocean that controls the carbon dioxide levels." If we stopped burning fossil fuels, it would even out in roughly, oh, 1,000-1,500 years, he says. That we're bumping up carbon dioxide levels faster than the ocean can absorb them will have an impact on the climate, Mucci adds, which would be fine if we cared to grow coconuts in Montreal. Researchers are looking at various ways to equilibrate the two spheres, from fertilizing the ocean with photosynthesized organic matter (drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ocean, aka a "biological pump") or even liquefying carbon dioxide and putting it into the ocean directly.

Mucci's research doesn't show all bad news. The St. Lawrence has much lower mercury levels now than in the '50s. Over three decades, a plant had put 120 tons of the toxic stuff into the water. Fortunately, it closed in the mid-'70s. They also found the only positive result of the 1996 flood in the Saguenay: the sediment cap it created has trapped mercury, manganese and other pollutants at the bottom of the St. Lawrence.

One worry that Mucci and Sundby share is over the alarmingly low oxygen levels of the estuary. They're hoping to get funding to study the hypoxia in the St. Lawrence. The water is not yet anoxic, in which the water would be so bereft of oxygen as to be effectively dead. Nonetheless, biodiversity is affected - fish species, such as cod, are not reproducing, Mucci says. They're working on numerical analyses with grad student Philipe Benoit, who is comparing the bottom water circulation model to a geophysical model to look at the oxygen demand of the sediment.

The boat will be shared among the universities for research. And when McGill researchers are aboard the Coriolis II, checking sediment cores, fresh water discharge and marine life along the Laurentian trough from Tadoussac to Newfoundland, the University flag will fly in the salt breeze.

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