Going to Great Heights for Citizen Science

March 23, 2017   2 Comments »

Going to Great Heights for Citizen Science

March 23, 2017 2 Comments »

I step outside and the cold wind stings as it hits my face. I’m bundled up, but that first step out on deck is always an abrupt one. I hold the glass flask under my arm carefully, as if I’m carrying a baby, and have a tight grip on the railing with my other hand. The ship wobbles back and forth and I arrive at the stairs.

I take a deep breath and head up to the monkey deck, the highest deck on the ship above the bridge, and also the deck that undulates the most as we crash through the Southern Ocean swells. I guess that’s why it’s called the Monkey Deck – because it swings like a monkey. I climb those stairs slowly, placing both of my feet on the same step until I take another, I feel like I’m 90 years old. But the stairs are often slick and I can only hold on with one hand since I’m protecting the glass flask with my other hand.

I get to the top and with an iron grip on the railing; I shuffle along the perimeter of the deck until I get to the front. I get in a sturdy stance and lean up against the front railing to try to steady myself as the ship rolls back and forth. The cold wind blows furiously bringing tears to my eyes. I point the flask out towards the bow of the boat, hold my breath, and open the valve.


It fills fast, in only 5 seconds, and soon I close the valve again and start the journey back down to the safety of the bridge. Why would anyone go up on the highest deck of the boat while rocking back and forth in the Southern Ocean? I did it all in the name of science, citizen science.

What is Citizen Science?

“scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” – CitizenScience.org

Citizen Science Travel in the Southern Ocean

I was never that great in science when I was in school. But when Heritage Expeditions asked if I would be willing to collect scientific samples for a research study on the Ross Sea I jumped at the chance. It was my way of contributing to a field that I knew I would never ever work in.

The Ross Sea and Southern Ocean is vast and seldom traveled, which also means there’s little known about the area. In an effort to better understand it, there are a number of scientific studies being conducted in this part of the world, but the studies must rely on companies like Heritage Expeditions and citizens like me to assist. The Southern Ocean is the least populated part of the world, and it’s expensive and difficult to conduct research there. But if you have a company like Heritage who is willing to work with the scientists and help conduct their research, then you have a great match.

citizen science southern ocean

The empty Southern Ocean

Heritage Expeditions is not new to science and research. Considering our ship, the Spirit of Enderby, was a research vessel in a former life, and the owner of Heritage was a researcher early in his career – the company’s roots are in science.

“I come from a science background and I appreciate that for a lot of the projects the funding is $0. So where we can help out we do. Secondly, I feel that we have a responsibility to help out as well. We are traversing parts of the ocean which are rarely traversed, so if we can contribute, even in a small way, we are contributing to the overall knowledge, and that’s going to benefit everyone.” –Rodney Russ Owner Heritage Expeditions

Understanding Global Warming and Carbon Dioxide Sinks

I was asked to collect 9 air samples for a study Dr. Jocelyn Turnbull is conducting on carbon dioxide ‘sinks’. I told you that I wasn’t great in science, so I asked Dr. Turnbull to explain what a carbon dioxide sink is and what her research was about.

global warming research southern ocean

Dr. Turnbull

“We all know that it (global warming) comes from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), which produce carbon dioxide, which goes into the atmosphere, which makes the world warmer. What you may not know is that of the carbon dioxide we produce from fossil fuels, only about half stays in the atmosphere.

So where does the other half go? The answer is that Planet Earth is doing us a massive favor, or perhaps just trying to save herself, by taking up that carbon dioxide into both land and oceans. The million dollar question is what drives the uptake of carbon into these sinks, and how might that change in the future? Will these sinks “fill up”, causing a massive acceleration of global warming? Or by learning how they work, can we perhaps help these sinks to take up even more carbon and reduce global warming?

It turns out that the Southern Ocean is the most important of these “carbon sinks”, taking up by far the most carbon dioxide of any region of the world. Research based on measurements of carbon dioxide over the Southern Ocean says that the increase in the westerly winds has caused the Southern Ocean to do a poorer job of removing carbon from the atmosphere. Other studies based on model simulations of ocean processes give an opposite answer; that the Southern Ocean has been getting better at taking up carbon. The problem is that we just don’t have enough measurements in the Southern Ocean or the atmosphere above it”  Learn more about the Carbon sink research here

And that’s where I come in…I have happily taken on the role of ‘research assistant’ of the Southern Ocean. I don’t have a white lab coat, but I do have a big white raincoat, a warm hat, and a flask that I protect with my life as I shuffle along the top deck hoping I don’t plummet into the sea. I return to the bridge to record all of the relevant weather and location information so they can know exactly where I took the sample, weather conditions, wind, temperature, and more.

It Doesn’t Stop at Global Warming

citizen science travel

My delicate glass flask

And this isn’t the only research Heritage is supporting. They regularly support research projects. On this trip we were also deploying weather buoys in the higher latitudes. And they delivered helicopter fuel to the Subantarctic Islands to be used in search and rescue operations.

Heritage Expeditions doesn’t regularly offer citizen science travel projects as part of their itineraries, I was just asked to help out in this particular instance. However if you are interested in doing citizen science travel, there’s a whole sector of travel that specializes in this, much like ‘volunteering vacations’. Want to get ideas for more citizen science travel opportunities check out the US National Park Service offerings as well as these 4 ways to be a citizen scientists on vacation.

As I grip the handrail with one hand and my glass air flask in the other while waddling back down off the monkey deck, it’s more than simply going through the motions for me. I feel like I’m doing something more, something good and meaningful. Maybe one day I may be able to tell my nieces kids – “your great aunt helped stop global warming by simply traveling…”

How to get to the Ross Sea Antarctica

Heritage Expeditions is one of the few companies that offer expedition cruises into the Ross Sea. This small family owned company has been doing it the longest and know the area better than anyone. I cruised for 28 days on the Wake of Scott and Shackleton Itinerary.


I was a guest of Heritage Expeditions on this trip, however all opinions expressed here are my own.

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