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We're setting sail onboard the R/V Falkor for 21 days of deepsea science. Lead scientist Amanda Demopoulos shares what she's excited about as we head out into the Pacific.

This blog post was originally posted on the R/V Falkor's Cruise Log. Check it out and follow along here!

Image shows a woman leaning on the railing of a ship
USGS Scientist Amanda Demopoulos watches as the R/V Falkor sets sail to begin a survey of methane seeps off the coast of Oregon and Washington.

The unusually bright Oregon sun beams down on me as I watch the soaring Astoria bridge recede into the background. The R/V Falkor has just pushed back from the dock and we’re steaming into the great Columbia River. Looking ahead, I can see twin points of land, framing the mouth of the Columbia like a giant crab claw.

That’s the infamous Columbia Bar, which I just learned is nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Pacific” for the many shipwrecks it has caused. While I have no worries about the Falkor, I am quite interested in the seafloor just beyond the Bar. In fact, we’ll be intentionally sinking a fair amount of equipment just to get a better look.

Image shows R/V FAlkor Underway
R/V Falkor underway.

But instead of shipwrecks, we’ll be hunting bubbles. Methane bubbles, to be precise. And when it comes to hunting bubbles, you can’t get much more experienced than our crew. Between Schmidt Ocean Institute, my own agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, and our other partners on this mission, we’ve performed dozens of dives for methane seeps all over the world.

Here, though, the twist is that the hotspots where we’ll be looking for methane bubbles are actually gas hydrates, frozen crystals of ice and methane, that have been well-documented off the Oregon Coast.

Image shows white bubbles being captured by an instrument with the seafloor in the background
Capturing methane bubbles at depth with special tools on ROV SuBastian.

This is particularly exciting for me, because I’m an ecologist, focusing on benthic communities living in the seafloor. I enjoy studying all of the puzzle pieces that fit together to allow these ecosystems to flourish, even in extreme conditions like these.

The concept of a food web is well-known, with strands connecting each part, but what anchors these food webs is often difficult to determine. That anchor is the baseline source of energy, or food, in this case.

Image shows methane bubbling up from the seafloor
Methane bubbles up from a seep on the seafloor off the coast of Oregon.

In these deep places, where no light from the surface reaches and organic material drifting down from the surface, also known as marine snow, is unpredictable, some organisms have developed the ability to rely on the methane gas that bubbles up from seeps in the seafloor.

I’ve studied these kinds of organisms in many locations, but now, on the Falkor, I’ve got a unique opportunity to study the methane itself. And with my colleagues from USGS, Geomar, BGS, and UNC, we have the ability to bring together a wide variety of talents to really build our understanding of that anchor for the undersea food web.

Image shows the ROV SuBastian through a doorway
ROV SuBastian, which will conduct many of the surveys and sample collections during the research cruise.

Some of the most interesting things we’ll be getting to grapple with is our equipment and tech. In addition to the powerful multibeam scanners and other sensors that Falkor has on board the ROV SuBastian, we’ve got some landers and even a bubble box that we’ll be dropping to the seafloor. These will allow us to capture the methane bubbles, as well as rock samples from the ocean floor and organisms living in the seafloor sediments.

But our focus isn’t just on the seafloor. Once the methane bubbles out of the seeps, we want to know where it goes, how much of it is eaten by organisms in the water column, and eventually how much of it reaches the surface. It’s exciting, because with we have the opportunity to tie together the physical and chemical environment with the biology and ecology of these recently-discovered upper slope seeps.

Image shows equipment on a science vessel
Equipment being loaded in advance of the R/V Falkor's departure to survey methane seeps off the coast of Oregon and Washington.

As we navigate the Columbia Bar, our final spit of land that we’ll pass is called Cape Disappointment, so named because an explorer who had been searching for the mouth of the Columbia River gave up and turned back before he reached his destination.

With all that we have available to us on Falkor, both technology and expertise, we will not run that risk.

Image shows the scientists and crew of the R/V Falkor standing at the bow of the ship
The science party and crew of the R/V Falkor as we prepare to set sail. 

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