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Scientists study high seas in high style

Researchers get volumes of data from Explorer of the Seas

By Marsha Walton

Explorer of the Seas is 1,020 feet long and serves as a mobile climate research lab.
Explorer of the Seas is 1,020 feet long and serves as a mobile climate research lab.
Marine Science
University of Miami
Cool Science
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

Gulf Stream, Atlantic Ocean (CNN) -- An ice-skating rink, rock-climbing wall, nightclub and swimming pool are hardly standard equipment on a research ship. But there's really nothing traditional about how the Explorer of the Seas gathers scientific data.

A unique partnership between the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines is providing a year-round, constantly cruising lab for climate and oceanography research.

The scientists just have to share the ship with a few thousand passengers.

The whopping 142,000-ton ship was already under construction in Finland when the two groups agreed that onboard laboratories would benefit them both. It took just five months from concept to development. The ship made its maiden voyage in October 2000; the first science work was underway a month later.

"This is as close to a land-based lab as you can get, in terms of stability," says Otis Brown, dean of the Rosenstiel School, as he conducts a tour of the ocean lab during a recent cruise. "If you see motion of more than a few tenths of a degree, it's unusual."

Explorer of the Seas follows the same path through the Caribbean each week, and it's on the water 365 days a year. By contrast, oceanographers who have to rent a research vessel may spend a few days at sea two or three times a year at a cost of up to $40,000 per day.

This symbiotic concept made so much sense that agencies like the National Science Foundation and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were soon on board with financial support.

"It may seem like a lavish cruise ship," says Peter Ortner, acting director of NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. "But from my perspective, as a government lab, this is an incredible, financially efficient way to do this. It is saving the taxpayers a lot of money, and getting data we couldn't get any other way."

The path of the mammoth ship is a big part of the interest from scientists.

"This is such a critical piece of oceanographic real estate with the Gulf Stream and highly dynamic currents," says Ortner. "We're really taking a pulse of the effect of climate change on the north Atlantic."

The cruise line benefits by having something no other ship can offer.

"A lot of guests come on board just ready to experience cruising," says cruise director Clodagh O'Connor. "The fact that we have that added bonus on board, that's the surprise, to come on board a ship where we're also a working laboratory."

As part of their agreement to do research on the ship, scientists give tours and answer questions about their research. Some passengers just happen upon these tours, while others make it a priority during their vacations.

"It was very interesting. I had no idea they did this kind of research," says Wendy Young, a passenger who toured the Atmospheric Lab with her husband, Jay.

Marine technician Chip Maxwell releases a weather balloon
Marine technician Chip Maxwell releases a weather balloon.

"I'm an amateur oceanographer, and I'm always fascinated by climate and by how things work," says Dale Ridder. "This is our second trip on the Explorer. It's why we booked it the first time, and why we came back." Ridder toured the labs with his son, Grant.

Peter Minnett, professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami, just completed his first working cruise. Over the years as a researcher, he's spent many months at sea in frigid and dangerous conditions.

"The worst was in the Southern Ocean, near New Zealand, with winds up to 50 knots and waves up to eight meters," says Minnett. "Some days it just wasn't safe to go out on deck: Some things had to be postponed, or cancelled."

While he admits he takes some ribbing from other researchers about the luxury accommodations onboard the Explorer, Minnett says suffering for one's art or science isn't all it's cracked up to be.

On a small ship, he says, "even if you're not seasick, you never feel particularly well. When you're just running on three cylinders, it's harder to achieve things."

Minnett's current research involves the study of sea surface temperatures, an important aspect in the study of the earth's climate system.

Also on a recent cruise, NOAA oceanographer Rik Wanninkhof described an instrument installed to measure the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in surface water. Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is one of the major greenhouse gases, and about 30 percent of the gas emitted by fossil fuels ends up in the world's oceans.

"In the springtime the ocean is cool, [so] it has a greater ability to absorb CO2. In the summer and fall it starts to release C02. What we try to do is monitor this, the seasonal patterns and the patterns year to year," says Wanninkhof.

During every voyage, data is also transmitted to the National Weather Service. During last year's hurricane season, some wind data gathered by the ship's instruments became an important component in tracking the forecast for Hurricane Claudette last July.

Scientists from around the world are eligible to work with the University of Miami to get their projects on board. And whether they're inspired solely by science or perhaps also by the bountiful buffets and conga line, perhaps not surprisingly the waiting list for new researchers is about five months.

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