Public Science, Public Service

Three months of field work in Southern California brought its share of unexpected and extracurricular developments for scientists in the Nearshore Canyon Experiment.

“Putting 25 instrument tripods in the middle of a world-famous surfing spot created a PR need,” Elgar said. The NCEX team hired off-duty lifeguards to make surfers and beach
visitors aware of—and keep them away from—the science instruments. The NCEXers also left a gap in their array to give surfers some space to enjoy one of their favorite spots. “We told the surfers we’re interested in healthy beaches, too,” Raubenheimer said. “That seemed to resonate because many surfers are environmentally conscious.”

Early in the project, a harmful algal bloom, or “red tide,” developed along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Santa Barbara. While the bloom was not harmful to humans, it killed fish and left the water murky. Installing the science gear in the midst of a bloom “was like changing a flat tire with your eyes closed,” Elgar said.

In October, the wildfires that raged through San Diego County occasionally rained ash on the NCEX team, though the experiment was never in jeopardy. The crew, however, spent several weeks fretting about family, friends, and their homes.

When 130,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the ocean just a few hundred meters from where the NCEX team was working, scientists detected it before the city did. Researchers informed beachgoers of the pollution more than 24 hours before the city started closing beaches. The NCEXers tracked the plume as it washed along the coast and dissipated. In fact, by the time the city managers posted signs to keep citizens out of the water, the scientists knew the hazard had passed. “Like many coastal managers, they have very little information about how the water flows, and had no solid idea about what would happen after the spill,” Elgar said. “Some of our work could help answer those questions. In the future, a city official might use a model of waves and currents to project how sewage might flow along the coast.”

In the final weeks of the project, Britt Raubenheimer and Steve Elgar got married after a nine-year engagement. On November 22, following a day of diving and recovering equipment, the crew came in, took showers, and then witnessed the vows of their science leaders. “It was sorta crazy, and I guess we could have picked a less busy time,” Raubenheimer said. But it was certainly a happy ending to the experiment.

Originally published: July 1, 2004