The OpenCTD: Open-source Oceanography for Everyone

Below is a transcript and slides from the above talk, delivered at the October 19, 2023 GOSH Community Call.

Good afternoon, good evening, and good morning, and thank you for inviting me.

Access to the tools of science is rarely equitable, and nowhere is this inequality of access more pronounced than in the ocean sciences, where all but a few entities have the capital to mount major oceanographic research campaigns. I come from the world of deep-sea ecology, where our budgets can quickly climb into the tens of millions of dollars. But even small-scale coastal research can be stymied by the need for vessels, equipment, and instruments, access to which is often controlled by research institutions. For ocean knowledge seekers who lack academic credentials or significant financial resources, accessing the fundamental tools of marine science can represent an insurmountable barrier.

This is a huge problem. As the need to understand the dramatic changes happening both at the surface and beneath the waves accelerates, barriers to access that precludes the participation of the full breadth of ocean stakeholders erodes our potential to understand, anticipate, and mitigate those changes.

I believe that the ocean belongs to everyone and that the tools to study the ocean should be available to anyone with the curiosity and motivation to pursue that inquiry.

Chief among those tools is the workhorse of oceanography, the CTD.

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“The Shark is Broken” is a Broadway-loving shark scientist’s dream come true

A new Broadway show based on the making of Jaws, co-written by and starring Robert Shaw’s son, is some of the most fun I’ve had at the theater in years.

Wearing my finest elasmo-swag to the theater

“Jaws” changed the world, with scientific, cultural, and political impacts that continue to this day. Jaws made the world terrified of sharks, contributing to the current ongoing shark conservation crisis. (Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, was so troubled by this that he dedicated the last years of his life to saving sharks.) The Hooper character, the first time a scientist was the hero of a major movie, inspired a generation to become marine biologists. The public policy literature refers to “the Jaws effect,” which describes how fictional portrayal of real-world issues influences how citizens feel about those issues (and the mayor of Jaws is still used in political analogies about doing nothing in response to a crisis or prioritizing the economy over safety, with then-PM Boris Johnson calling that character his hero). In short, my professional world is very, very different because of this movie, and I think it’s fair to say that few other movies have had anywhere close to this level of broad and long-lasting impact.

Me in front of the set, the interior of the Orca.
(The barrel you can see poking out is one of the real ones used in the original film)

So when I heard that a show about the making of Jaws was coming to Broadway, I knew I had to get there. And that was before I learned that it was co-written by Jaws star Robert Shaw’s son Ian, who plays his father, and before it started getting stellar reviews.

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The Glomar Explorer: what we can confirm and deny about “vast government conspiracies” from Project Azorian. 

The following is the transcript of a talk I gave at DC Nerd Nite on September 16, 2023. Enjoy!

Slide featuring the Glomar Explorer.

I need to begin with a disclaimer: It is impossible to talk about Project Azorian and the Glomar Explorer without sounding like you’ve gone deep into Dale Gribble territory. Azorian has everything a conspiracy theorist could ever want: Cold War espionage, a government coverup, a shady partnership with a celebrity entrepreneur, military contractors with their own plots for profiteering, and, in the middle of it all, there is a very big boat.

You’re going to get some cameos from Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, as well as the guy who stole J. Edgar Hoover’s underwear.

Azorian was the OG Vast Government Conspiracy.

Slide showing a page from the Azorian report.

Even if you’ve never heard of the Glomar Explorer, these story beats are going to feel very familiar to you. There’s a good reason for that.  Project Azorian was, and likely still is, the largest and most expensive covert operation in US history, but in its declassification, it also became the model for a generation of paranoid storytellers, from the X-files to Alex Jones. 

Because of that, we can learn a little bit about how conspiracy theories work by looking at the foundation upon which many of them were built.

I have a link for you:

It’s the declassified report from the CIA describing the broad strokes of the operation (you can also find it by just searching for project azorian pdf). It is heavily redacted, but this was cleared for release in 2010 and you are allowed to read it and share it and store this document in your bathroom until your valet accidentally drains your pool into it.

It is entirely possible that there are parts of this mission that remain completely classified, and that some of the narrative has been changed to hide other objectives, so the only assurance I can give you tonight is that everything about this story that is true, is true.

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Oh Hell No: Ten Years of SharkNado

Summer 2023 marks an important cultural milestone. That’s right, it has now been ten years since the release of SharkNado, which became a full-blown franchise with six movies, tens of millions in ad revenue and merchandise sales, real-world references in the floor of Congress, and near-universal awareness- all things that are otherwise unheard of for made-for-tv SyFy channel movies.  

Me attending the tenth anniversary theaterical re-release, August 2023

“It’s been incredible gift to be able to share something this fun and silly with so many people over all this time,” Thunder Levin, the writer of the SharkNado franchise, told me in an interview. “It’s been extraordinary how many different people seem to have embraced it. I get to interact with fans who come from all walks of life, I even get to argue with shark scientists!”

SharkNado has always had it’s thumb on the pulse of pop culture

The Bad Shark Movies genre is rich and storied, but none of the others have had anywhere near the cultural impact or legacy of SharkNado. I’d like to try and explain what made the SharkNado movies special, and explore what that means for cinema, for sharks, and for me.

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My comments on New York’s proposed new shark fishing regulations

Following a growing problem of mishandling of species of conservation concern, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation is proposing some new shark fishing regulations. Here is the text of the letter I sent them supporting some of those proposed regulations, and proposing additional regulations.

A dead sand tiger shark washed up on a New York beach with recreational fishing gear in its mouth. Photo Vincent Cavaleri, via the DEC website.

Dear Commissioner Seggos, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,

As a marine biologist with expertise in the conservation impacts of recreational fisheries on threatened shark species, I write in support of several proposed changes to New York State’s land-based shark fishing regulations. Additionally, while I am not a New York resident, I and my family have vacationed in your beautiful state every summer of my life. I learned to fish in New York from my grandfather, and those experiences contributed to my lifelong love of underwater life.  

I studied Florida’s recreational shark fishery and its conservation impacts as part of my Ph.D. at the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. That work contributed to Florida changing their land-based fishing regulations.

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An oral history of Ocean Science Twitter

I created my Twitter account in the spring of 2009. Back then, science blogging was new and we all though that using pseudonyms for anonymity was the pragmatic and cool thing to do. Southern Friend Science had been cooking for over a year at that point, and we were excited about the near-limitless potential of the social web.

Blogs were still king, with Deep Sea News, and Oyster’s Garter, and Malaria, Bedbugs, Sealice, and Sunsets and myriad others speaking up for the oceans, online. But this isn’t a history of ocean science bloggers, this is a history of Ocean Science Twitter.

Those early days were, more than anything, fun. We were still finding our voices and finding our communities. David joined soon after and the rest of the core Ocean’s Online crew arrived soon after. We were live-tweeting experiments, sharing hypotheses, planning research projects, starting collaborations, forming communities.

Twitter is gone now, replaced by the impersonal X, not just a new brand name, but a reminder that you should close that tab. Since its acquisition by Elon Musk, the once-vibrant site has been slowly gutted, transformed into a desperate grab for cash from subscribers and an endless sea of paid content. But if this last year has been a tale of slow decline, this last few weeks have been the final death roll. The rebrand to X was bad, but far, far worse was the protection, promotion, and financial compensation of a user who posted explicit child sexual abuse material. There’s nothing left of the Twitter that was.

Everything changed for Ocean Science Twitter on April 20, 2010, when the Macondo oil well rupture, setting the Deepwater Horizon aflame. Eleven oil rig workers died and 200 million gallon of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico. The community mobilized quickly to provide critical context and public outreach as the disaster stretched from days to months. Ocean scientists on Twitter were positioned to respond to media queries and act as expert sources, but beyond the communications push, scientific collaborations emerged from these very large, very public discussions. As one example, we determined that I had some of the most recent pre-spill sediment samples from the areas near the disasters and identified the right researchers to work up those samples and provide a necessary baseline for understand the scope and scale of the spill.

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The research rundown: an abbreviated list of my current ocean science, policy, education, and conservation technology efforts.

OpenCTD and Oceanography for Everyone

Ten years ago, Kersey, Russell, and I set of on a quixotic quest to make the tools of ocean science more accessible to more knowledge seekers at a price the reflects the reality of research budgets. The OpenCTD, a low-cost, open-source, oceanographic instrument was born. Since that first ambitious announcement, we have made tremendous strides in the quality and capabilities of the OpenCTD. With funding from BOEM, NOAA, the Open Science Hardware Foundation, and others, we’ve been able to transform our kludgey little DIY instrument into a serious piece of oceanographic kit, able to compete with handheld commercial alternatives. And the OpenCTD can be built by the user, with no prior electronics experience, over a long weekend, for a fraction of the cost of commercial alternatives.

So where are we going next? The first OpenCTD validation paper was submitted earlier this year. We are in the process of revising and updating the construction and operation manual to streamline the workshop process for educators and ocean knowledge seekers. We released a standalone manual that guides users through the calibration process and are preparing to release a new guide for deployment and maintenance.

And we were a finalist for the Hackaday Prize, which is pretty neat.

The Oceanography Lab in a Box

Through my work with the OpenCTD, I partnered with the CoLab team to develop an a la carte Oceanography Lab in a Box: a low-cost tool set of open-source and accessible tools to allow ocean knowledge seekers from around the world to access the tools of ocean science. This includes the OpenCTD, as well as a host of other tools, both analog and digital, along with training and support.

One of my collaborators is currently crowdfunding a project in Ghana to bring some of these tools to a training workshop: Tools and training for coastal oceanography in under-resourced countries

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One Mining Code to Rule Them All: The poison pill at the heart of the Deep-Sea Mining negotiations.

The International Seabed Authority is once again gathered in Kingston, Jamaica to continue negotiations on a set of rules and regulations to govern seafloor mining in the high seas, beyond any nation’s borders.

At stake is access to vast fields of polymetallic nodules spread across the abyssal plains. These nodules are rich in nickel and cobalt, essential elements in the current batteries needed to electrify the world’s automotive fleets. Deep-sea mining for polymetallic nodules is presented as a means of breaking the world free of fossil fuel production that has the potential to be less harmful to the environment than current terrestrial cobalt and nickel mines.

And that might be right. As I said in the last talk I gave on deep-sea mining:

“I remain undecided. I do believe that there is a version of polymetallic nodule mining that has the potential to produce the metals we need for the electrification of the world’s automotive fleet in a way that represents a responsible compromise between the direct impacts of nodule extraction and the existential threat of failing to get emissions under control before the worst predictions of the International Panel on Climate Change become inevitable. I think it’s very hard to argue that polymetallic nodule mining is worse for the world than strip mining Indonesia’s remaining rainforests for nickel or having the children of Congo dig for cobalt.”

Deep-Sea Mining: A whirlwind tour of the state of the industry and current policy regimes

Polymetallic nodule mining is not the only form of deep-sea mining. The ISA is tasked with governing mineral resources on the deep-seabed. This includes nodules, but also cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts (seamounts containing cobalt ore) and seafloor massive sulphides (deep-sea hydrothermal vents). These three deposits are mined in wildly different ways and come with dramatically different environmental risks. I frequently argue that they comprise three entirely different industries.

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New paper: What happened to the world’s first certified sustainable shark fishery?

In 2011, the world’s first fishery for sharks was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council*. The British Columbia spiny dogfish fishery made major news in fisheries management and ocean conservation world, where the possible existence of sustainable shark fisheries has been debated intensely. A few years later, the fishery voluntarily withdrew their certification, and never publicly said why.

I wanted to know what happened with this scientific mystery. So, with the help of Chuck Bangley and Catherine Macdonald and funding support from the Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellowship program, I organized a research expedition to find out. The results of our expedition can be found in our new paper (LINK,) (OPEN ACCESS AUTHOR COPY) but in this blog post, I’d like to explain what we did, what we found, and why we think it’s important.

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A decade after #DrownYourTown, I’m still making sea level rise personal.

Ten years ago, I launched a strange little project called Drown Your Town. The premise behind Drown Your Town was simple: I created a little macro in Google Maps that allowed you to superimpose a floodwater layer on top of 3D renders of communities. It was a quick and dirty way to demonstrate sea level rise in an era where those kinds of bespoke models were hard to generate. With #DrownYourTown, anyone, anywhere could simulate sea level rise in their own back yard.

It wasn’t originally going to be an outreach tool. I was writing a science fiction novel about life in a post-climate change world and needed an easy way to visualize places in the stories might look like. The book is still available, on Amazon, along with two other novellas that I wrote, though I warn you, none of them are very good (in my defense, it was the high water mark for self-publishing ebooks and I was still trying to figuring out what my post-academic career would be).

We pushed out the app, launched a successful tumblr page where folks could request sea level rise models, initiated what remains to this day my most successful Twitter campaign of all time, and spent the next year helping people visualize sea level rise in their communities.

We learned a lot about climate change outreach from DrownYourTown.

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