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Calculated Confusion: Can O2 Get You High?

Anyone who’s dived to 30 meters on nitrox (we don’t do air here!) is familiar with what Jacques Cousteau eloquently termed “rapture of the deep”—the result of breathing high partial pressures of nitrogen. But what about the oxygen? As you may know, there are some convincing arguments that oxygen should be considered narcotic at depth as well, but there are also many qualifiers, anecdotes (ever feel narc’d on your 20-foot O2 stop?), and a broad swath of research and nuance that casts some doubt. Diver Alert Network’s Reilly Fogarty teases out what we know and what we don’t. Mind your ENDs!

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by Reilly Fogarty

Header image by Sean Romanowski

Hyperbarics is a tricky field to study — gas laws sometimes behave like suggestions, the effects of high-pressure gases in the body are highly subjective, and decades of research often end in what amounts to an educated guess. Our understanding of narcotic gases is a great example of this: we know a little about increasing partial pressures of nitrogen decreasing our motor function and cognitive ability, and a bit about some gases like helium ameliorating those effects, but not much else. The specific mechanisms of action, variability through human anatomy or interactions with other gases, and the range of those effects at various depths are the stuff of theory rather than proven science. There are some convincing arguments for the treatment of oxygen as a narcotic gas, but the qualifications are many, and a broad swath of research and nuance casts everything we think we know into doubt. Here’s what we know so far, as well as some best-practice recommendations. Understanding the narcotic effects of oxygen is by no means a clear-cut situation. 

A Primer on Narcosis

Before discussing narcosis, it’s important to cover what we know already. Narcotic gases (any gases that can cause narcosis, including nitrogen, argon, etc.) have a wide range of effects, all affected by depth. The general consensus is that these gases likely interfere with the release or uptake of neurotransmitters in the body or alter the postsynaptic response from those transmitters. Greater partial pressures of some gases increase this effect, which is why we see increased narcosis as we descend on a gas containing nitrogen. In short, much like the gases used for surgical anesthesia, common diving gases can interfere with the communication pathways in our body. 

The effects of these gases are understood by the Meyer-Overton rule, a holdover from anesthesia research in the early 1900s. *Updated: The rule predicts that the anesthetic potential of a gas is directly related to its lipid solubility (i.e., a gas that can be absorbed effectively by fatty tissue will be more narcotic than one that cannot) and ranks gases by that solubility. Helium exhibits extremely low lipid solubility and correspondingly little narcotic potential according to this rule, and this holds true to experience. WAS: The rule predicts that the anesthetic potential of a gas is inversely related to its lipid solubility (i.e., a gas that can be absorbed effectively by fatty tissue will be less narcotic than one that cannot) and ranks gases by that solubility. Helium exhibits extremely high lipid solubility and correspondingly little narcotic potential according to this rule, and this holds true to experience. The effects of oxygen, however, appear to be significantly more complex. 

Gas Solubility Coeficients of gases in water and oils - used by the Myer-Overton hypothesis to infer the narcotic potential of breathing gases, but can also be used to deduce tissue gas loading in disolved gas Haldanean decompression models
Fig 1: Solubility of gases in water and oil (Dueker)

Note: These units are permeability coefficients. A larger number represents a greater energy required to pass the same quantity of gas through a membrane or lipid tissue, indicating decreased solubility. Gases with smaller permeability coefficients (helium, for example) are more soluble and can permeate barriers more easily while gases with a larger permeability coefficient (like oxygen) are less soluble and require more energy to pass through a barrier. More information on gas solubility and permeability in specific tissues can be found here.

Working solely from the Meyer-Overton rule, it would appear that oxygen should cause significant narcosis — it has twice the lipid solubility of nitrogen and thirty-eight times that of helium. Comparing just the lipid solubility of nitrogen and oxygen, it appears that saturation with oxygen would not only cause narcosis but would also result in stronger symptoms than those caused by nitrogen. The aptly named, Does Oxygen Contribute to the Narcotic Action of Hyperbaric Air?. a paper by hyperbaric researchers from 1990, attempted to confirm just that hypothesis. Researchers compared motor skills and mental performance with participants exposed to air and normoxic nitrogen and oxygen mixtures at 6, 8.5, and 11 bars ambient pressure. They found impairment of up to 40 percent at the highest pressures of all gases, but participants exhibited the same impairment on oxygen as gases with higher partial pressures of nitrogen. Their conclusion indicated that oxygen did not ameliorate mild narcosis and should, therefore, have some narcotic properties. 

A Case for Oxygen

A similar paper from a little more than a decade before found the same results. A rise in the partial pressure of oxygen to 1.65 ATA gave similar narcotic effects as a rise in the partial pressure of nitrogen to 6.3 ATA, or an end-tidal pressure of CO2 or 10mmHg. Again, these researchers came to the conclusion that while the specific contributions to narcosis from oxygen could not be exactly measured, it did appear to contribute to the narcosis of divers. 

Photo by David Rhea, 2004.

There’s an argument for the sake of safety here too. Oxygen may be narcotic, so by calculating our equivalent narcotic depth (END), by including oxygen in the calculations as we would nitrogen (more on how to do that later), we give ourselves an extra margin of error. If oxygen is, in fact, narcotic, we’ve planned for its effects at depth, and if it isn’t, then the worst thing that happens is we have a little less narcosis than expected.

Narcotic Nuances

When I said hyperbarics was a tricky field to study, I meant it, and not just because of the complexity of the issues involved. Understanding the effect of oxygen in the body is an incredibly nuanced balancing act that involves attempting to apply our limited understandings of oxygen metabolism, neurotransmitter function, metabolic dysfunction, inflammatory responses and more, all in the application of something that in the end will be almost entirely subjective. There are a few notable issues with the presentation of oxygen as a narcotic gas, and they’re easiest to work through in pieces: 

Meyer-Overton

Rules were made to be broken and Meyer-Overton is no exception, despite holding mostly true for more than a century. Not only does it lack a specific mechanism of narcotic action, but there are some explicit exceptions to the rule. It should be noted that even these exceptions are the source of some controversy, but it’s widely believed that several anesthetic gases work in exception to the Meyer-Overton rule, specifically anesthetics with long alkane chains in their structure. Some of these gases exhibit dramatically lower potency than would be expected based on their lipid solubility, and we have no way to know whether oxygen is one of these exceptions to the rule or just another narcotic gas. 

Environmental Concerns

The environment we’re concerned about, primarily deep open- or closed-circuit diving has a long list of restrictions for the application of oxygen. As divers, we carefully plan our exposures to keep oxygen in a narrow range of partial pressures while diving. This careful control of the PO2 of our gas means that we’ll never see a PO2 greater than 1.6. While a ride in a hyperbaric chamber may exceed that threshold, it’s unlikely to see in the water and brings to light another question — if oxygen is narcotic, at what partial pressure do you see the effects? No study available on the subject is able to define either the PO2 at which oxygen begins to have a narcotic effect or to even strongly correlate pressure and narcosis on oxygen alone. 

Photo from the GUE archives.

Compounding this confusion is the fact that oxygen is a gas that we constantly metabolize. Even if we were to breathe similar amounts of nitrogen and oxygen during a dive, the metabolic processes required to keep us alive and well constantly consume some of that oxygen. How much oxygen is consumed and at what rate is a complicated answer based on individual physiology and what a subject is doing at any given time, making it even more difficult to isolate the effects of oxygen from the metabolism of inspired gas. Until now, our understanding of narcosis has relied on our ability to estimate the partial pressure of nitrogen in our gas, but once oxygen enters the mix, a whole host of new variables become important to consider. While it’s true that we can estimate the effects of the gas based on theories and the research we do have, it’s not enough to definitively say that oxygen is a potent narcotic. 

Putting It to Practice

Academic review is one thing, but putting a new concept to practice is what brings it home for most divers. Here’s how you can calculate END with oxygen included as a narcotic gas (the most common decompression planning software also offers an option for this in their calculations):

(Depth + 33) X (1 – fraction of helium) – 33

Because oxygen and nitrogen are considered equally narcotic, END can be calculated using the total of a gas minus the fraction of non-narcotic helium.

Best Practices

Discussions of narcotic gases rarely provide rewarding moments of discovery. What we have as divers and as an industry is a best guess that indicates that oxygen is likely narcotic, but we don’t know what the mechanism of that narcosis is, nor do we know how potent the effects of oxygen are. The issue is deeply nuanced and requires some careful consideration before arriving at a conclusion, but your mental tribulations shouldn’t ruin your next dive. As a dive safety organization, Divers Alert Network has an interest in promoting safe diving practices, and the results in this case are promising and present little additional risk. Calculating your END with oxygen as a narcotic gas is a safe and conservative practice until researchers tell us definitively that it’s non-narcotic. Aside from a slightly higher gas bill there’s no downside, but you might just be safer for it. 

For more information on narcotic gases and advanced dive planning, visit DAN.org or contact the author at RFogarty@DAN.org.

Works Cited:

1. Scuba Diving in Safety & Health by Chris W Dueker, MD

2. Diffusion Coefficients for Gases in Biological Fluids and Tissues

3. DOES OXYGEN CONTRIBUTE TO THE NARCOTIC ACTION OF HYPERBARIC AIR?

4. Roles of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide in compressed-air narcosis

5. THE CORRELATION BETWEEN CRITICAL ANAESTHETIC DOSE AND MELTING TEMPERATURES IN SYNTHETIC MEMBRANES


Reilly Fogarty is a team leader for risk mitigation initiatives at Divers Alert Network (DAN). When not working on safety programs for DAN, he can be found running technical charters and teaching rebreather diving in Gloucester, MA. Reilly is a USCG licensed captain whose professional background includes surgical and wilderness emergency medicine as well as dive shop management.

Exploration

The Life & Times of a West Coast Photogrammetrist: Could it be the Almirante Barroso?

Seattle-based instructor and photogrammetrist Kees Beemster Leverenz recounts the challenges he and his team faced trying to amass sufficient detailed footage of a mystery steamship lying 75m/250 ft beneath the Red Sea, while Murphy hammered away on the team and their equipment. What’s a photogrammetrist to do?

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by Kees Beemster Leverenz
Header image and photos courtesy of K. Leverenz unless otherwise noted.

[Ed.note: Be sure to make the jump on Leverenz’s 3D model ]

About four minutes into the dive I realized I should have listened to Faisal. Nine divers in three teams, myself included, had made it to around 40 m/130 ft when the warm calm water of the Suez gulf turned into a torrent. The thick rope that connected the surface to the wreck went from vertical to nearly horizontal, and started shaking due to the powerful water flow. With a rebreather, two decompression cylinders, and a camera, I could only make headway if I turned my scooter to its maximum speed and kicked as hard as I could. Even then, progress was slow. The wreck was 37 m/120 ft away, resting in just over 75 m/250 ft of clear blue water. We had a long way to go.

Faisal Khalaf—the proprietor of Red Sea Explorers and our deep diving guide for this trip—had told us what to expect. Perhaps “warned” is a better word. However, besides being a talented diver, Faisal is an excellent storyteller with a flair for the dramatic. This had led me to believe he was being theatrical during the dive briefing in the morning, describing surging currents underwater despite placid surface conditions. He was not exaggerating. 

The flow was strong, and our three dive teams resorted to a combination of negative buoyancy, scootering, kicking, and pulling ourselves hand-over-hand down the rope to get to the wreck. As I struggled against the current, another bit of the dive briefing drifted through my head: We were less than a kilometer from one of the largest shipping lanes in the world, and it would be quite dangerous to get swept off the line. Even if a large container ship could spot a diver (they can’t), and they wanted to turn, they’d be unable to. The turning radius of a modern container ship is measured in kilometers. 

Around 60 m/200 ft, the wreck came into view for the first time: an enormous hulk, with two anchors at the bow and a large twin steam boiler at the stern. Schools of giant trevallies—each over a half meter long—darted around the wreck feeding on other marine life sheltering in the hull. On that first dive, our nine divers landed somewhat ungracefully in the protection provided by the thick steel of the wreck, which acted as a break-water to shield us from the powerful current that had challenged us on the descent. We got our bearings, breathed deep, and began our dive. 

The bow and twin anchors of the mystery steamship. Photo by K. Leverenz

Faisal believes this wreck is the remains of the three-masted steel-hulled Brazilian steam corvette SC Almirante Barroso, sunk in 1893 when it struck the rocks of Al Zait. The SC Almirante Barroso was on a training mission for Brazilian Navy Cadets, and was attempting to circumnavigate the globe when it went down. Thankfully, the crew of the SC Almirante Barroso were rescued by the English ship Dolphin, but the wreck’s exact location remains a mystery. Although the identity of this wreck has yet to be confirmed, the location, size, and type of wreck matches closely. 

Imaging A Mystery 

This was my first encounter with the mystery ship, a single day expedition to an exciting new wreck in the midst of my first visit to the Red Sea. It was one of the more challenging dives I’ve ever done, somewhat surprising given the generally forgiving conditions in the Red Sea. It was a lesson in the fact that cold water and poor visibility aren’t the only thing that can make a dive difficult. Our team was one of several to visit the wreck since its discovery in early February of 2018. Previous dives had focused on taking pictures, shooting video, and searching the debris for something that would confirm its identity. However, the identity of the wreck remained an open question. 

Dorota Czerny examines the port side of the hull of the steamship. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

A little over eight months after my first visit, Faisal invited me to come back for the 2020 Wreck Exploration Project to try to create a 3D photogrammetry model of the wreck. The 3D model would make it easier to take measurements and to share the discovery with experts, and to perhaps allow us to unravel the mystery at the bottom of the Red Sea. 

For those readers unfamiliar, the process of 3D photogrammetry relies on taking high-quality photos of every bit of a wreck, each image overlapping the last. If done correctly, sophisticated software can process the images and generate a photomosaic in three dimensions. Precise measurements can be taken from this model. However, even a small gap in the chain of images can make the whole process fail. 

Leverenz’s photogrammetric rendering of the mystery steamship.

While we had a skilled crew and a roster of talented divers for the 2020 Wreck Exploration Project, the powerful current would make the process of taking the thousands of photos necessary exceedingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. There was only one reasonable way to conquer the currents while simultaneously taking photos, and that was to mount my camera on a scooter and take pictures on the go. This wasn’t something I’d done before.

The team decompressing in strong currents.

In preparation for the challenge, I consulted two friends on their equipment preferences and bought the scooter camera mount they both recommended. I had it shipped from Italy, and it was set to arrive a week prior to my departure for Egypt. I thought a week would be more than enough time to test the scooter mount. Of course, I was wrong. 

When the scooter camera mount arrived, I was shocked to discover that it didn’t work with my camera’s underwater housing. The mount used metric M6 screws to secure a camera, not the imperial ¼-20 screws my housing used. An adapter plate was available, but even if I ordered it, it would never arrive in time. Thankfully I was able to call in a favor from my friend Koos DuPreez, and we spent a day at his workshop machining an adapter from scratch. Another friend, Fritz Star, was able to give me some syntactic foam to make the scooter mount neutrally buoyant. Thanks to their generous help, my gear was ready to go for the project with a whole 24 hours remaining before my flight took off!



Hail Hail The Gang’s All here

The next morning, I started the three hops necessary to get to Egypt. First from Seattle to Washington DC, then from Washington DC to Zurich, and finally from Zurich to Hurghada. I was met at the airport by a smiling man holding a sign with my name on it. He was one of the Red Sea Explorer’s staff, sent to help shuttle me through airport security and ferry me to the MV Nouran, which would be our base of operations for the week. Considering the wide array of electronics, photo gear, and dive equipment I was traveling with, as well as the challenges of navigating airport security in a foreign country, his help was most welcome. We made it through the airport, and after a short ride through town, I arrived at the dock—exhausted but eager to see if we could make it happen. 

The team for this trip was originally eight strong, a small complement for the MV Nouran which could fit 24 if all her berths were filled. On arrival, I discovered that three of our divers had to drop out due to last minute complications. That shrunk our already small dive team even further. At the time of departure, the team consisted of only five divers able to safely dive the wreck: Faisal Khalaf, Kirill Egorov, Dorota Czerny, Marcus Newbold, and myself. Bernard Djermakian and Olga rounded out the team as the ship’s dive guides. While they weren’t trained to dive deep enough to reach the mystery wreck, they are both experienced divers who could act as in-water support if needed. A most welcome addition. 

Recovering divers on a calm day post-dive.

With such a small team and such a large boat to dive from, I immediately spread out my camera equipment on one of the MV Nouran’s four dining tables, to take stock of which pieces of dive gear survived three country’s worth of baggage handlers. I’d brought three video lights to use during the photogrammetry project. Even though I can only use two lights at a time, experience has taught me that having a spare is a good idea. Many of my diving instructors have taught me the same lesson. It was a good tip, as my quick check revealed quickly one of my three lights had broken in transit. A small but essential O-ring was protruding in a way that wouldn’t be repairable until I returned to the United States. I sent the manufacturer a message, and they confirmed what I already believed to be true: the light shouldn’t be taken in the water. I was down to the bare minimum: two lights.  

The next morning, the Nouran departed with the team in high spirits and with high hopes. We wanted to waste as little time as possible, so we planned our first and second diving days to be on the mystery steamship. If all went to plan, we’d have the opportunity to dive the wreck four, maybe five times. 

In addition to the mystery steamship, Faisal had secured two more leads for the Wreck Exploration Project. First, he wanted to explore a newly discovered wreck laying in 30 m/100 ft of water near an oil field. It had been scanned by a well-equipped survey ship in the area, and the wreck was definitely interesting but had never been explored. Second, he wanted to explore a pit at 95 m/310 ft near the wreck of the SS Rosalie Moller. The pit was said to contain the bow of an unknown wreck, but the only divers that had been there weren’t able to confirm anything. Of course, the team was excited by the prospects, so these two targets were added to the itinerary. 

Abandoned equipment sheltered by the hull of the steamship.

Managing Mister Murphy

On the morning of February 27, 2020, Marcus and I jumped in the water with our rebreathers, deco bottles, scooters, and my camera for our first dive of the project. Conditions were good, and currents were calm at the surface. However, we both knew the docile surface conditions betrayed nothing about the powerful flow below us. Several enormous cargo ships coasted by, carrying goods to and from Europe and Asia via the Suez Canal. 

We made the short surface swim to the downline, and I decided to do a quick check of my gear before we descended, knowing that we’d incur a decompression obligation in the fight to get to the wreck itself. I examined my camera first: it was fine. My right-hand side video light also worked, and after flipping it on, it was bright even in the bright light of the midday sun. I moved to examine my left-hand side video light, and was immediately disappointed. I turned it on and I was met with several quick flashes—the death throes of the LED contained in the light—then nothing. I looked at the front of the device and discovered that its dome port was half full of salt water. It had flooded in the time it took to swim to the downline.

Kees Beemster Leverenz on the steamship wreck. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

I shouted to Marcus about the problem and we immediately turned tail to get back to the Nouran to try to salvage our first dive of the trip. We were able to jury-rig a working light out of the corpse of the light that broke in the water and the remains of the one that broke in transit. We were back in business, in the water shortly, and on the wreck in record time. 

Once we reached the bottom, I breathed a sigh of relief. After the logistical challenges and the three back-to-back flights, after all the planning and the broken lights, after the custom machining and the calling in of favors, we were here and ready to go. Blue light filtered through the deep water. Visibility was excellent. Hundreds of yellow fish were schooling around the wreck. It was time to get to work. 

Marcus and I made several circuits of the wreck, doing our best to get the images we’d need for the photogrammetry model. I started the process with a circuit around the base of the wreck, making sure to capture the two anchors that lay beautifully under the bow. I then moved on to capturing the ground around the wreck, and finally I made several passes over the top of the mystery steamship, to capture the steam boilers, stove, and other debris that lay inside. The scooter-mounted camera worked beautifully, and we managed to achieve good coverage in under an hour. With our primary job complete (at least for now), we made our way back to the upline to start paying our tedious penalty for deep wreck exploration: decompression. We surfaced 202 minutes after we descended, excited to see the results of the day’s work. 

Marcus Newbold scooters past the remains of the steamship’s engine room.

In the afternoon, over lunch, I started a test run of Agisoft Metashape (the software used to create photogrammetry models). The test run was complete by dinnertime. The 3D model was more complete than I’d hoped, but less complete than I would have liked. With powerful currents running perpendicular to the wreck, staying in position was much easier on the sides of the wreck where the current was tempered by the structure of the ship itself. At the bow and stern, the weaker currents along the side of the wreck became an unobstructed flow. The sudden change in water speed makes it difficult to get the chain of images necessary for a 3D model. Despite my best efforts, the challenging conditions meant I wasn’t able to get the images I needed. The model had broken at the bow. We’d need to add more images in a subsequent dive.

Marcus Newbold on the bow of the newly discovered wreck, believed to be the tanker Texaco Cristobal.

Dogged Determination

The next day, the weather cooperated, and we had an opportunity to return to the wreck. Kirill and Dorota descended first, with Marcus and me following a few minutes behind. We added the pictures I believed were necessary to complete the model (and a few hundred extras, just to be sure), and then took to exploring the interior of the wreck, taking some fun pictures along the way. Sadly, we weren’t able to find anything that positively identified the wreck. We made our way back to the upline, pulled the anchor from where it’d lodged in the hull of the wreck and made the long ascent to the surface for the second time in two days. 

The test processing of the model after day two showed that we’d almost certainly achieved our goal ahead of schedule. I didn’t have the computer hardware aboard necessary to complete the model, so final processing would have to wait until I returned to Seattle. 

We shifted gears to explore our secondary target: the shipwreck in the oilfield. After documenting this new target, we believe it to be the wreck of an oil tender called the “Texaco Cristobal.” We also explored the pit near the SS Rosalie Moller, which was just as deep as we’d been told but far less interesting. We dubbed it the “pit of despair,” and I won’t be going back. I doubt anyone will. Although not without challenges, we’d had an extremely productive first four days of the project. 

Faisal Khalaf illuminates the wheel of the tanker. Photo by Kirill Egorov.

We were fortunate that the early days of the project were fruitful, as the remaining days of the project were fraught with issues. Dorota caught a bad cold, and was unable to dive for the remainder of the trip. This whittled our small dive team down to just four divers. Then (thanks to a scheduling mishap) Kirill had to depart early. He packed up and loaded his gear on a small sailboat, which took him back to port and to the Hurghada airport for his trip back home. 

Our dive team was down to just three: Faisal, Marcus, and me. Fortunately, Irene Homberger was leading a trip on the Nouran’s sister-ship the Tala and was able to supplement our tiny team for a dive or two, before hopping back onto the Tala. Still, the final dives of the trip were funny: three divers diving from a ship built to comfortably accommodate 24 divers, 10 crew, and two dive guides. 

We had two final dives on the mystery steamship to try to make a positive identification. Powerful winds kicked up on the second to last day, big enough to wash across the deck of the Nouran. Faisal, Marcus, and I geared up and got ready. The Nouran made several passes over the wreck, but we collectively made the decision to skip the dive. The conditions simply weren’t safe, despite the fact that the team was eager and enthusiastic to try to identify it. We dove another nearby wreck, the Ulysses, instead and were lucky enough to have a delightful encounter with an eagle ray during our dive. 

Leverenz’s photogrammetric rendering of what may be the Almirante Barosso Ortho.

Our final day of diving on the mystery steamship was safe, but uneventful. No artifacts were discovered, no markings were found, and the ship remains unidentified. The data we collected was enough to complete the 3D model. We’ve distributed the 3D model to the usual suspects: experts, researchers, and other interested individuals, but to no avail. While we still hope and believe the mystery steamship is the SC Almirante Barroso, its identity remains unknown.

We’ll just have to go back. 

Additional Resources

Here is Leverenz’s 3D model of the mystery steamship.

GUE offers a course in photogrammetry: GUE Photogrammetry.


Kees Beemster Leverenz is an enthusiastic diver and GUE instructor from Seattle, Washington, who enjoys getting in the water as often as possible. He has been deeply involved with GUE Seattle since it was founded in 2011. Currently, Kees is contributing to both local and global photogrammetry projects, as well as assisting with cave and wreck exploration projects whenever possible.

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