Ecuador’s Navy Research Ship Orion Helps Unlock Scientific Secrets
By Dialogo August 26, 2011
When it comes to oceanic research in Ecuador, the Navy leads the way — thanks to the Orión, a research ship of the Navy Oceanographic Institute (INOCAR).
“The main mission of the Orión is to collect physical, biological, chemical and meteorological data from the Ecuadorean Pacific Ocean,” said biologist Eduardo Zambrano who participated in all of Orión’s expeditions since 1981 to 2006.
With more than 30 years of experience in oceanographic and hydrographic research at the service of Ecuador’s Navy, the Orión has worked to remediate what American oceanographer Walter Heinrich Munk has called the under-sampling that has characterized the first century of modern oceanography.
Built in Japan, the BAE Orión (BI-91) began operations in 1981. Its research portfolio includes submarine seismic activity, manganese and sulfur nodes, climate and oceanic conditions, physical oceanography and marine biology and geology, among other fields.
The Orión is 70.2 meters long and 10.7 meters wide, with a maximum draft of 3.6 meters. It accommodates seven officers, 35 crew members and 18 scientists.
During the past 20 years, Orión has conducted 94 hydrographic and oceanographic cruises, which have covered 240,000 miles and more than 40,000 hours of operation. Since February of this year, the ship’s commander is Capt. Johnny Correa Aguayo.
“From the beginning, we were conducting cruises every three months because we were trying to collect as much data as possible to set up a solid database, which didn’t exist before,” Zambrano said.
The Orión, named after the Orion constellation, comes from an illustrious lineage. At an open house in 2008, it showcased a replica of the ship Hipopótamo — the first Latin American submarine — built in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1838.
Given the severe impact of the weather phenomenon known as El Niño, the ship’s crew has made a priority of predicting the strength and date of the next Southern Oscillation event, which usually occurs in five-year cycles.
“The Orión cruises help to understand the oceanographic conditions along the Ecuadorean coasts and develop a climatic prognostic for the upcoming months in order to minimize the negative impact of El Niño,” Zambrano said.
The worst El Niño
The second Orión expedition to Antarctica, between December 1997 and March 1998, occurred at the height of the El Niño episode that was considered the strongest of the 20th century, said oceanographer José Garcés Vargas of Chile’s Universidad Austral.
“We managed to collect an immense amount of very valuable information along the southeast of the Pacific when El Niño was ravaging the countries of the region,” said Garcés, a researchers onboard the Orión. “In fact, most of the published research was related to this event.”
The Orión provided all the tools to work on biological indicators and equatorial circulation.
“This resulted in the establishment of the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific (CPPS) by Colombia, Ecuador, Chile and Peru, with the goal of monitoring and diagnosing oceanographic conditions in the South American Pacific coast,” Zambrano said.
Understanding the ocean
Oceanography is fundamental in understanding climatic phenomena.
“Think of El Niño. It’s an oceanic-atmospheric process that is still not fully understood,” Garcés said. “One strong theory is that Western Pacific winds produce warmer waters moving to the eastern Pacific. This raises the water temperature in South America and produces intense rain in Ecuador, Peru and Chile.”
In the ocean, the ripples can be felt north all the way up to California and south down to Chile. “But in the atmosphere, the repercussions are global, since it affects mainly the Walker cell, which then affects other atmospheric systems,” explained Garcés. “Only by studying the ocean can we understand El Niño.”
The ocean is a climate regulator due to its capacity to storage heat. “The thermal anomalies of the equatorial ocean not only alter the surface winds but also the distribution of marine flora and fauna,” said Zambrano, adding that the Orion crew currently uses a tool known as numerical modeling.
Computer models of ocean circulation, ocean-atmosphere interaction and other systems help understand the workings of ocean and climatic changes. The potential of these models is greater when they are integrated to large databases of collective knowledge accumulated by Orión and its peer researchers all over the world.
Missions to Antarctica
The Orión’s most valuable research has taken it to Antarctica. The ship has conducted three expeditions, in the austral summers of 1987-88, 1989-90 and 1997-98, which resulted in Ecuador joining the Antarctic Treaty.
These expeditions sought to determine the circulation and distribution of water mass and marine fauna along Ecuador’s coastline. It also established Ecuador’s Pedro Vicente Maldonado Antarctic Scientific Station, dedicated to environmental research and the protection of the Antarctic environment.
Zambrano said the Orión visited both the Bransfield Strait and the Drake Passage, with its research conducted under the supervision of the Ecuadorean Antarctic Institute (INAE). Earlier this year, INAE launched a request for research proposals for the XVI Ecuadorean expedition to the Antarctic, set for the austral summer of 2011-12.
Given the two-month travel time there and back, Orion’s expeditions to Antarctica are the longest the ship has ever conducted.
Orión’s top-notch technology
The Orión is equipped with the most advanced technology to fulfill its mandate, according to INOCAR. In a two-year renovation in 2008 that cost $5 million, the Orión was outfitted with sophisticated communications systems and a Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) to keep in contact with ships and stations around the globe.
It also features three new radars that link it with the ship’s helicopter. The Orion has three Caterpillar generators of 590 kilowatts each, which move two Siemens power trains.
All this equipment was installed during the renovation to replace the original Japanese technology.
The Orión has participated in many other missions, some in collaboration with other nations. In January 1983, it worked with Germany’s R/V Sonne on the GEOMETEP III project to research manganese nodes and polymetallic sulfur in the Galapagos Islands.
A joint expedition with France in 2000 brought the Orion and the R/V Nadir together to do seismic submarine research in the border area between Ecuador and Colombia, using Ocean Bottom Seismometer technology.
Since 1998, the Orión has conducted regional cruises with oceanographic research vessels from Colombia, Chile and Peru. These efforts have been coordinated by the CPPS with researchers from these countries.
The Orión worked in the first mooring buoys in the Ecuadorean sea, in September 2002, to monitor the oceanic and atmospheric conditions of the Eastern Equatorial Pacific. This project has been essential in the Early Alert System for natural disasters such as El Niño.
It is great that some secrets are decoded by water, perhaps, secure. May it be this way and Two set designers, female officers from the Ecuadoran Navy and a press phtographer went on the First Trip. They are the first women from this country to visit Antarctica. Their work has been published. They are: Silvia Allauca and Vanessa Cardin.