More data, more quickly

This post features the Hales lab, the SuperSucker, and a brief update on the cruise. Scroll to the bottom to listen to audio interviews with the four students and technicians in Hales lab: Carrie Weekes, Selina Lambert, Katie Pocock, and William Fairchild. These interviews were conducted and edited by Deb Greene, our resident educator from the University of Alaska system. A video explaining the labs work will be added to this post from onshore. 

The first time I heard about Burke Hales was while I worked in an oyster lab at Oregon State. He was a small legend amongst my lab mates as an innovative professor. Everyone admired him for his invention of the Burke-o-Lator, a system that revolutionized the field of ocean acidification. My supervisor told me Hales had a special knack for engineering oceanographic instruments; he just found a way to get it done.  

Hales is a chemical oceanographer at Oregon State University. His current research focuses on coastal ocean carbon cycles, ocean acidification monitoring and experimentation, and measurement and experimental manipulation technology. 

On this cruise, his team is using the SuperSucker to collect data for – take a deep breath – temperature, salinity, depth, chlorophyll fluorescence, dissolved organic matter fluorescence, particulate organic carbon, particle backscatter, oxygen and light intensity, partial pressure of carbon dioxide, the total dissolved carbon dioxide, and the nutrients nitrate, phosphate, silicate, and ammonium. When I ask Hales how he would explain all that to a fifth grader, he chuckles and says: 

“We’re measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in the water and the form that it’s in.”

The SuperSucker is a unique instrument that is a game changer for the amount of data, and the quality of that data, that oceanographers can collect at sea. For example, yesterday our cruise collected data from nine stations along the Barrow Canyon line. On a normal oceanographic cruise, we’d get bottles of water at three depths at each station, so 27 samples. At the very most we would get 50-100 samples. But with only 12 hours spent yesterday using the SuperSucker, we collected on the order of 100,000 data points. The other miraculous thing is the Hales team is getting data on things in near real-time that would normally take 15 minutes per water sample. This is where the Burke-o-Lators and a nutrient analyzer come in – they are unique methods that allow the water being pumped in from the SuperSucker to be analyzed quickly. 

When I first met Hales on the Sikuliaq in September 2016, he somewhat fit my expectations of a tough scientist – a stoic, serious-faced man who didn’t waste words. When I asked about his work, descriptions were exact and jam-packed with scientific jargon. It’s clear he’s serious about doing good science. When it comes time to deploy the SuperSucker, there’s no monkey business. If a student messes up, he is told. If you speak incorrectly about the science, you are corrected. On the first day of the chemical oceanography class he teaches at OSU, he tells undergraduates: “This is a real oceanography class. We’re not gonna sing lullabies to dolphins in the moonlight.” He’s not the warm and fuzzy supervisor type.     

“How much do you love oceanography, son?”

But there’s also some sarcastic humor and stick-it-to-the-man fun. On last years cruise, he told this story about his graduate school days, quoted here in an interview he recently did with the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network

“When I was just starting graduate school, I went on a research cruise between Cape Cod and Bermuda. A problem was that it coincided with Hurricane Hugo, and we chose to set sail instead of risking being trapped in port as the storm approached. The instrument I was working on at the time relied on small electrodes that had to be filled with special solutions using hypodermic syringes and needles.” 

“During one particularly rough period, I was braced against the lab bench and struggling to keep this heavy instrument from falling off its stand as the ship rolled away behind me. Of course, I had one of those syringes on the lab bench, and it came sliding along the bench-rail, straight at my ‘nether’ region. I distinctly remember thinking about my horrible options: bail out and probably destroy the instrument the cruise depended on, or fall over backwards with the instrument crashing down on me whilst being involuntarily vaccinated with pH-electrode filling solution. As bad as that was, the senior graduate student in the lab thought it was the most hilarious thing he had ever seen, and started yelling stuff like ‘How much do you love oceanography, son?!?’ At that moment, I didn’t love it one bit, but the weather flattened out in a few days, and we managed to get a really nice dataset and I’ve been able to laugh about that moment for at least the last few years.”

Since then Hales went on to complete a Ph.D. at the University of Washington, where he met Dale Hubbard, when Hubbard was shopping for graduate schools. Seven years later they reconnected at OSU; Hubbard was a faculty research assistant, and Hales needed just that. They’ve made a great team for the almost two decades since. Hubbard is familiar with how the SuperSucker works, how its deployed, and how to coordinate with Hales during its deployment. Hales will check the tubes and computer in the lab while Hubbard stands ready with a walkie talkie at the winch. Dale wears a distinctive jumpsuit he calls the monkey suit, and what I imagine came off the set of Star Wars Episode V, from the first scenes of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo riding through blizzards on tauntauns.


Dale Hubbard at the winch


Burke Hales monitoring data from the SuperSucker

On this cruise they are joined by recently graduated Carrie Weekes (who will be working at the Hakai Institute in future), undergraduate Selina Lambert, marine technician Katie Pocock, and graduate student Will Fairchild. Carrie and Katie take the day shift, while Selina and Will work nights. Someone is always checking the data coming in. Carrie and Selina have worked together for more than a year, Katie is here through a program with the Hakai Institute and was previously trained on Hales’ methods, and Will is new to the lab.  

“With the traditional methods of CTDs, you kind of just get points along a transect and you have to sort of interpolate between them. Now with the SuperSucker we can get actual real-time data as we go up and down through the water column and get that really nice slice of ocean data,” said Lambert, “There’s so much information that we’re collecting all at once. And it’s really neat to see how collaborative the scientists are, how much we’re combining all the data, and how everything goes together.”

Selina at lab station.jpg

Selina Lambert at the Hales lab station


The nutrient analyzer


One of the two Burke-o-Lators


The other half of the first Burke-o-Lators


The second Burke-o-Lator


Carrie Weekes at the Hales lab station

The SuperSucker

The SuperSucker is a towed oceanographic vehicle that carries a large payload of in situ sensors, and a pump that pumps seawater up through the tow cable to the ship’s lab, where the Hales team does high speed chemical analysis of that water.

It is controlled by a winch that tows the SuperSucker up and down through the water column behind the ship. It has a 1,200lb stainless steel frame. The winch cable that connects it to the ship is 500 meters long. It takes about five minutes for water from the pump to reach the onboard lab.   


Bosun Paul St. Onge deploying the SuperSucker


in the water.jpg

SuperSucker in the water

carrie thumbs up.jpg

Carrie Weekes indicates a successful SuperSucker deployment

“It’s unique because almost no one pumps water from deep in the ocean while moving up and down and towing like we do,” said Hales, “And no one else does the chemistry as fast as we do, or capture the signals that come in a flowing stream.” 

It’s the only one of its kind, but it’s not new. The SuperSucker was built in 2001. Hales did a post-doc at Columbia University with Taro Takahashi, where in the late 90s together they built what they called the Pumping SeaSoar, which was a different vehicle but also towed with a pump. That’s where they developed the first high speed analytical chemical methods, which Burke has continued to improve upon since then. The SuperSucker is designed to be controlled by its winch, whereas the SeaSoar is controlled by its wings, so it sort of flies up and down through the water as you tow it. And the SuperSucker is much more precisely controlled.

Why SuperSucker? “It sucks water out of the ocean and pumps it up to super high pressures and delivers it to the laboratory,” explained Hales, “It’s also the name of one of the lab groups favorite bands, so we thought we’d pay tribute.”

Nick Beaird, a physical oceanographer doing a post-doc at OSU in Emily Shroyer’s lab, has attached some of the sensors from his lab to the SuperSucker to get even more data from a unique method. More on his work later, but in brief – the instruments he’s attached measure turbulence/mixing and velocity/current speed. Part of his post-doc work will be dedicated to interpreting the vast amount of data he gets on this cruise back at OSU. 

So far, the SuperSucker has been towed for 12 hours along the Barrow Canyon line, and starting this evening, it is being towed along the Wainwright line for a full 24 hours. The plan is to do a total of about six SuperSucker runs on this cruise.


Sensor measurements from the SuperSucker. This shows a lot of detail that would be missed from doing CTD sampling alone. 

Cruise Update

CTDs and multi-cores continued through the night and into the late morning yesterday (Wednesday). Then there was a period of quiet while we transited to the next sampling line: Wainwright. When we arrived in the late afternoon, we did a CTD. This was followed by a successful deployment of the SuperSucker. While the SuperSucker is running, CTDs and multi-coring are paused, since these are things for which the ship would need to stop moving. Water filtrations continue in the VIMS and UCSC labs, Goñi’s lab, and Juranek’s lab station, but it is relatively quiet. We will keep towing the SuperSucker until tomorrow evening. Then the next round of CTD/multi-cores will begin.
The multi-core photos below were taken last night by Issie Corvi, a recent graduate working in the Goñi lab. She has two ongoing projects photographing science in the field and women in science. You can see more of her photos here.

Bern McKiernan, Ethan Roth, and Miguel Goñi deploy the multi-core


Miguel Goñi monitors the descent of the multi-core from the computer lab


Miguel Goñi walks back to the aft deck to help retrieve the multi-core


Ethan Roth helping to retrieve the multi-core


Successful retrieval of cores from the ocean floor


The plan for the next day and a half


Student Interviews

Deb Greene, an educator from the Anchorage School District, conducted and edited the interviews with the Hales lab below. 

Carrie Weekes



Selina Lambert



Katie Pocockkatie.jpg



William Fairchild




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s