Students at Sea: Lamont Research Vessel Explores Earthquakes on Alaska Coast

by Meghan Berry
vol. 37, no. 2 

Not many undergraduates who hop a ship to Alaska can expect to become part of a research team examining the earthquake risks of the Pacific Ring of Fire. But over the summer, a group of Columbia research scientists and undergraduates did just that, spending time aboard a National Science Foundation ship operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and mapping the ocean floor off the Aleutian Islands.

Andrew Wessbecher (CC‘12) and Jiyao Li (CC‘00), a Columbia graduate student in earth and environment sciences, prepare to deploy seismic tools into the northern Pacific Ocean. (Image credit: Donna Shillington)
Andrew Wessbecher (CC'12) and Jiyao Li (GSAS'15), a Columbia graduate student in earth and environment sciences, prepare to deploy seismic tools into the northern Pacific Ocean.
Image credit: Donna Shillington

Traveling at an average of 4 knots, not even 5 mph, the 235-foot research vessel Marcus G. Langseth cruised 2,300 miles through the Aleutian Islands while conducting the equivalent of a sonogram to image features underneath the ocean floor.

Five undergraduates—majors in earth and environmental science, religion and political science—kept a blog named after Lamont’s late, much-loved marine scientist John Diebold, a pioneer in the use of sound waves to explore the ocean floor.

Donna Shillington and Maya Tolstoy, both marine geophysicists at Lamont-Doherty, invited them along to expose them to seafaring. “It’s an intense immersion in research, and it’s basically a big adventure,” said Tolstoy, an associate professor who was out on another research trip over the summer. About 50 people were aboard the Langseth, including Shillington, an assistant research professor, and others from Lamont and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

They set out to further their understanding of a subduction zone—where two tectonic plates collide—in the westernmost region of the United States. The area, which includes the site of a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in 1964, lies between 6 and 30 miles under the Alaskan sea floor. (The March 11 Japan earthquake, which unleashed a tsunami and crippled a nuclear plant, was a 9.0.)

The undergraduates joined Shillington in Sand Point, Alaska on July 11; she had been out on the Langseth since June 29.

The students monitored data collection around the clock. They worked one of four six-hour shifts in the computer lab they nicknamed the “bat cave.” Images generated by seismic tools continuously flashed across a wall of computer screens.

“We could immediately see the raw data,” said Andrew Wessbecher, a Columbia senior who left the Navy to study earth science. “It was a rare vision of the earth.”

Jack Zietman (CC’11) worked the midnight to 6:00 a.m. shift. While others slept, he sat in the computer lab recording the ship’s GPS position and the weather. “Every few seconds, the ship took new data, and I had to look for random errors in it,” he said.

The group endured a few storms and bouts with sea sickness, but regularly enjoyed calm waters, temperatures in the 50s and, in some places, 24-hour sunshine. “At times, there was a strong sense of confinement,” Zietman said. “Your world really slows and contracts, but at the same time, it was great to take a break from the mania.”

Working primarily east of Kodiak Island and west of Dutch Harbor, they witnessed landscapes where black mountains jut out of the ocean’s surface and bald eagles are almost as numerous as squirrels on the Columbia campus. Wessbecher said the sky was often the color of steel, and clouds moved very fast. “The sky was a different sky every five minutes,” he recalled.

The ship docked in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on August 5. Shillington, the other scientists and graduate students will be working with the data they collected for years to come; she will have some help from Wessbecher (CC’12), who plans to write his senior thesis on the orientation of Alaska’s tectonic plates.

Diebold began working at Lamont as a struggling film student in the 1960s, repairing seagoing instruments and cruising on the research vessel Conrad. His hands-on experience got him interested in research, and he later earned a Ph.D. in geophysics from Columbia.

Like Diebold before him, Wessbecher’s experience aboard a research vessel helped focus his goals. He’s now applying to a master’s program in exploration geophysics at the University of Edinburgh—exactly the outcome Tolstoy and Shillington had hoped for when they invited the students.

“This is the sort of career that you can’t just read about—you have to just go out there and live it for a bit,” Wessbecher said.

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