NOAA ship Ronald Brown home from Antarctica

March 24, 2017

The ship had cruised the Arctic last year, so the towering Antarctic icebergs caught the eye of Capt. Robert Kamphaus more than anything else in the seas in January.

“Just the size and the numbers were impressive. Because they’re calving off these massive ice sheets, they’re pretty significant” after the more open Arctic Ocean, Kamphaus said. “All the ice and the isolation. You get a real sense of how small you are.”

The NOAA research ship Ronald H. Brown, in other words, has been out there. And for awhile. The ship’s scheduled return Saturday to its Charleston home port comes more than three years after the crew threw off the lines to deploy. Kamphaus, who spoke from satellite phone Friday, expected to sail under the Arthur Ravenel jr. Bridge just after noon.

The crew spent more than 680 days at sea, traveled nearly 130,000 miles. Researchers drew more than 1,600 measurements from Iceland to Alaska to Antarctica to study ocean acidification and “atmospheric rivers,” intense ocean winter storms that can spur flooding or drought. Ports of call also included Uruguay, Barbados and Portugal.

As many as 30 researchers at a time also surveyed 353,975 miles of ocean floor and conducted ecological, fisheries and oceanographic assessments, according to a NOAA release. They occasionally battled high seas and high winds, but overall the weather encountered was luckily mild, Kamphaus said.

Simone Alin, the supervisory oceanographer for the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said the research was diverse, and scientists asked for operations that weren’t normally part of the crew’s routine.

On her leg of the cruise, “we measured more varied aspects of ocean conditions and how different organisms were faring in our coastal ecosystems after the two-year-long marine heatwave that preceded our cruise,” she said. The acidification sampling was the most carried out to date on a NOAA cruise.

Researchers also came away with fascinating organisms for the studies, saw any number of marine mammals and beautiful sunsets, she said.

The 30 crew members recovered and redeployed 76 buoys monitoring ocean conditions. They serviced four others. The deep sea buoys tend to get pulled off mooring by longline fishing boats or vandalized for gear.

On Friday, the Ronald Brown was 200 miles offshore, coming in from the Cape Verde Islands. Kamphaus was looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep, he said.

“Get the lines over, get tied off and take a deep breath knowing everybody got home safely, knock on wood.”

The three-year odyssey was the most extensive carried out by the Ronald Brown. The 275-feet long ship is NOAA’s largest, most traveled and only ocean-going oceanic research vessel, the release said. It’s due to return to sea after a 30-day break, heading through the Panama Canal to do ocean climate studies in the Pacific.

The fate of its long-term mission remains undetermined as the federal Department of Commerce Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration face potential budget cuts. The ship was not mentioned among specific cuts cited in preliminary documents from the Trump administration, said spokesman Kevin Manning of the Department of Commerce.