Saturday, September 6, 2014

Agony, ecstasy, and irony

by Kim Cobb

You cannot make this stuff up.

Pam and I arrived the day before yesterday to find Julia Baum’s team facing more than the usual challenges on Christmas Island. They had been struggling for the past week to get tanks filled for their SCUBA-intensive research. The Baum team arrived on Christmas to learn that the main compressor on the island had failed and they were using a backup unit. Julia and I have been diving at Christmas using tanks from Dive Kiribas – ostensibly the only dive operation on the island - for over a dozen expeditions combined. Shifting to the backup unit brought two problems:  1) it stopped running on occasion, requiring several hours of repair, and 2) when it was working, the resulting tanks had toxic levels of carbon monoxide. Thankfully they were able to cherry-pick a few tanks that were under internationally-accepted limits of 10ppm, as they had brought a CO monitor. But the poor volume and quality of tanks had left both our field programs in a precarious state.
Compressor roulette. Are
you feeling lucky?
With creepy prescience, Julia and I had shipped a very expensive field-ready compressor down for this expedition, because we didn’t want to rely on the aging compressor at Dive Kiribati (DK). Indeed, it had actually arrived on the island the very day that the DK compressor failed for good! We patted ourselves on the back and the Baum team fired it up and happily filled their tanks for two days before it started spewing black smoke. By Day 3 it was unable to fill a tank, so the Baum team was back to an ever-dwindling supply of tanks with acceptable CO levels. Our plane touched down on Day 4 of this fiasco:  the mechanic was struggling to resurrect the DK compressor and Julia’s stalwart student, Kieran Cox, had been wrestling with the new compressor all day to diagnose and fix the problem.

The very minute I alighted at DK, at 5pm, I was whisked to the shed to discuss the decision of the moment:  whether to use epoxy to glue the engine back together after a screw had sheared off during repair. After much hemming and hawing, and with a huge amount of optimism, we decided we had no choice but to proceed. [Twitter followers will note that this is where I used the single malt scotch I had brought to wipe lubricant off the metal sealing surfaces prior to epoxy application (see photo).] Pam and I spent the evening taking
Kieran using a pipette to administer
scotch to the compressor.
1-hr shifts holding the epoxied components of our compressor together while it set (label said 4-6 hours), listening to the mechanics work on the DK compressor.

I went to bed that night positively delusional (in hindsight):  sure that by morning our compressor would be working, as well as that of Dive Kiribas. In the morning, ours was still spewing black smoke, and the DK compressor sprung a fuel leak. Of course. By noon we decided to do some water sampling and install some temperature and salinity sensors, before we exploded in frustration. We did quite a bit of free-diving, and used one remnant tank that had 2000psi to install all the sensors. When we got back, however, no compressor. In fact, they had decided to swap in another World War II vintage engine – it would be at least another full day of repairs.

The wind had gone out of my sails – Christmas had finally sucked the optimism right out of me. That is a very hard thing to do to this seasoned field guru. I went to bed that night facing the reality that we wouldn’t get any of our primary science goals done. There would be no dive tanks. I might as well get used to it. I hardly slept that night. At 6am, I leapt out of bed on a mission – I was not going to go down without a fight. Let’s just say I conveyed my extreme displeasure to the DK manager while asking her if she knew of any other compressor (dive rated or no) on the island. I told her the entire year-long project was at risk. I reminded her how much money myself, Julia, and the other PIs of the project had on the line. I began brainstorming. What about the two industrial fishing boats anchored off the pier? Maybe. What about the airport? No. Then (and I have no earthly idea why this hadn’t come up sooner), she tells me that her neighbor two doors down has a SCUBA compressor. What?!? I walk over there, and sure enough, in a back room of a compound devoted to the aquarium fish trade, there is an aging compressor – electric, thank God. The irony of the situation did not escape me. The aquarium fish trade plucks unrestricted quantities of pretty fish off the reef for sale in Honolulu and beyond. Yet they had just saved our entire science program - one dedicated to studying reef resilience to climate change and human disturbance. Unreal.

The kind man gave me the 6 tanks he had filled, and suddenly I’m planning a day of diving! And believe me, Christmas Island never looked so beautiful as it did that morning, motoring out to the reef for a day of science. I’m not entirely sure the boat even touched the water. And the reef itself never looked so beautiful. I admit to lingering for at least a half hour at each of our work sites, swimming around, taking it all in, snapping some cheesy photos with Pam. At one particularly beautiful site, our last for the day, the light was just perfect – the low angle added some reds to the reef, and the colors just shone. There was an incredibly diverse set of large colonies that piled up to form walls 6ft high on either side of white sand channels 3-4ft wide. As I made my way through the living maze, I suddenly realized that if a strong El Niño arrives this winter, it would decimate these dazzling corals. They looked healthy and strong now, but they would be no match for sustained 4-5F warming. And in the back of my brain, far removed from science and NSF and publications, I thought “Maybe it’s OK if this El Niño is weak after all.”
Showing off my handiwork, having installed a temperature logger (aka yellow stick) on the reef.
Note the SCUBA tank and bubbles ascending from my regulator. Hallelujah.


  1. Beautiful description of the backstory of your science. As for the irony at the core of this drama, I wish more of our stories in the arena of climate change reflected the complexity inherent in the interdependencies between science, policy, and people. For indeed it is the simplistic accounts that separate scientific reality (facts) from the human beings in that reality (values)---we need both to make sense of what is going on, and what we are going to do about it.

    Meanwhile, given the beauty of the reef, as you describe it, I am hoping for a weak El Nino!
    Be careful,
    Love Mom

  2. Love your BLOG and really excited to be following your work. I'm putting a link on my page, Our Changing World, in hopes of inspiring others to follow. Great job, Kim!