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RV Atlantis: Safe from the tsunami


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Editor’s Note: Journalist and crew member Kathryn Eident and scientist Jeremy Jacquot are traveling on board the RV Atlantis on a monthlong voyage to sample and study nitrogen fixation in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, among other research projects. This is the fifth blog post detailing this ongoing voyage of discovery for ScientificAmerican.com.

RV ATLANTIS, OFF THE COAST OF CHILE—Like many people around the world Saturday, the crew and science party aboard the RV Atlantis woke to the news of the earthquake in Chile and the tsunami threat in the Pacific. Throughout the morning news slowly trickled in—first from a deckhand who’d been perusing the news online, then from loved ones as the e-mails of concern began pouring in. Mates standing watch on the bridge even answered a few phone calls from worried parents–a rather unusual occurrence considering calls to the ship must be made via satellite and cost upwards of a $1 a minute.

But all 58 of us on board were able to assure our loved ones back home that we were safe, even from a tsunami. That’s because when the quake struck Chile at 3:34 A.M. local time (according to The New York Times), we were several hundred miles offshore in the eastern tropical South Pacific. Our position, in waters thousands of feet deep and away from any land mass or other ship, practically ensured our safety from a tsunami.

A tsunami is a series of long waves, often generated by a disturbance like an earthquake, an undersea volcano, or even an undersea landslide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The shaking caused by an earthquake essentially sends a wave of energy through the water column, pushing it out and away from the epicenter. The energy continues to flow through the water, not at the top like in a traditional wave, allowing a tsunami to travel at high speeds and over large distances in deep water, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Web site.

A tsunami becomes dangerous when it hits shallower water or a land mass. The energy once traveling unimpeded through the water slows down and becomes concentrated, resulting in a powerful and destructive wall of water.

When the tsunami passed westward under our ship towards Hawaii, the water level probably rose about 23 centimeters for 10 minutes or so, according to an e-mail from Kevin Huffenberger, a physicist and the husband of fellow shipmate, geoscientist Angela Knapp. Huffenberger deduced the approximate wave height and length using information from the NOAA Web site, Knapp said.

So for the crew and science aboard the RV Atlantis, Saturday was spent in relative calm as we responded to e-mails from concerned loved ones, and read the news as it developed on the Internet. Without cable TV and reliable phone access (cell phone service is nonexistent), we made due with our slow Internet connection, piecing together the story from the information coming in.

As of this writing, we don’t know how the quake will affect our scheduled port stop in Arica, Chile, in a few days’ time. After more than a month at sea, many of the crew will be departing and new crew arriving, shipments of food are ordered, and science gear is scheduled for shipping. We are thankful for our safety though, and our thoughts are with those affected by this devastating earthquake.

To see where the RV Atlantis is now, visit: http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=8231





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