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Isobaric Counterdiffusion in the Real World

Isobaric counterdiffusion is one of those geeky, esoteric subjects that some tech programs deem of minor relevance, while others regard it as a distinct operational concern. Divers Alert Network’s Reilly Fogarty examines the physiological underpinnings of ICD, some of the key research behind it, and discusses its application to tech diving.

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By Reilly Fogarty

Header image by Derk Remmers

Most divers don’t spend much time thinking about isobaric counter diffusion (ICD), and it’s not just because it has an inconveniently long name. The phenomenon is complicated to understand, depends on mechanisms that are partially or wholly theoretical, and falls squarely in the unknown gray area of decompression science. As a result, students in technical courses receive varying information about the subject, depending on their instructor’s understanding of it. 

Some consider the topic irrelevant to divers while others recognize that a functional understanding is mandatory for modern mixed-gas diving. A combination of infrequent exposure, lack of research and widely spread misinformation have made ICD an unapproachable subject for many divers. Here’s what we know and what we’re still researching. 

The Physiology

Isobaric counterdiffusion is not a concept that’s limited to diving. The phenomenon describes the diffusion of different gases into and out of tissues after a change in gas composition and the physiological effects of those gas switches. This is relevant in hyperbarics, anesthesia and diving and aerospace. As divers we’re most concerned with what happens with a gas switch during a mixed-gas dive, and research in related fields can provide useful data. 

The effects of ICD as they relate to divers primarily involve the movement of two inert gases in opposite directions at equal ambient pressures, hence the term “isobaric,” in tissues and blood. The relative speeds of counterdiffusion are affected by many factors including density, surface tension and viscosity in fluids, as well as a variety of physiological factors, membrane properties and specific gas interactions (Oswaldo, 2017). Gas diffusion itself is a fascinating and broad topic but one for another day, so for the sake of understanding ICD it can be simplified somewhat. Fundamentally the issues related to ICD center around a disparity in the speed at which one inert gas diffuses into the body while another diffuses out. This can occur with a slow saturated gas exiting a tissue and a fast saturating gas entering or vice versa. 

Superficial ICD occurs when the inert gas breathed by a diver diffuses more slowly into the body than the gas surrounding the body. Because this requires being surrounded by a gas with a high diffusivity it is most often seen in saturation divers breathing air or a low-helium content gas in a heliox environment. This can theoretically occur in diving and is the reason that new mixed-gas divers are told to avoid using a suit-inflation gas containing helium (besides that fact that it has low thermal conductivity i.e. its cold!). 

Helium has a diffusivity that’s approximately 2.65 times that of nitrogen (Lambertson, 1989), and because of that disparity it can diffuse into the skin quickly while nitrogen diffuses more slowly. The slow diffusion of nitrogen from the fluids and tissues of the body while the helium saturates the skin can cause supersaturation in some superficial tissues that can result in gas bubble formation. These gas bubbles can cause painful, red lesions on the skin, but the phenomenon does not occur when the gases are reversed and the breathing gas has a greater diffusivity. 

Figure by InDepth.

If ICD is a concept you’ve encountered before it’s likely deep tissue ICD that you’ve been exposed to. This second type of ICD occurs when one breathing gas is exchanged for another of different diffusivity, as in a gas switch from say a nitrox travel gas to a trimix bottom mix or from a trimix bottom mix to a nitrox decompression gas. As with superficial ICD, this occurs when a gas with high diffusivity is transported into a tissue more rapidly than a slower-diffusing gas is transported out. The result is the same: supersaturation of some tissues and bubble formation. These bubbles can cause itching followed by joint pain and have been more recently associated with inner-ear decompression sickness, although the bubble formation could contribute to other types of decompression sickness as well. 

The Research

Quantifying the risk of ICD and identifying cases of decompression sickness (DCS) that resulted from ICD rather than other risk factors can be difficult, but there is significant research correlating several proposed mechanisms to increased bubble counts and DCS in human and animal models. Like DCS, ICD is fairly well accepted academically on a correlational basis, but the specific mechanisms require additional research to confirm. 

Data from as early as 1977 indicates a risk of ICD in divers even within recreational depths, with increased bubble counts observed in goats saturated at 5 atmospheres and switched from a breathing gas containing 4.7 atmospheres of nitrogen to 4.7 atmospheres of helium (D’Aoust, 2017). Similarly, saturation divers on the Hydra V mission experienced DCS following a gas switch from hydreliox to a faster-diffusing heliox mixture, with the gas switch thought to have caused the DCS (Rostain, 1987). 

More recent work on decompression models of the inner ear have indicated that even a transient increase in gas tension (the relationship between breathing gas and gas saturated in the body) related to a switch from a high-helium-content gas to a nitrogen mix may increase the risk of inner-ear decompression sickness (IEDCS). This model is particularly interesting because the diffusion of gases across the round window is extremely low (bordering on negligible), which complicates the transport of inert gases in the ear. Data from Doolette and Mitchell suggests that these gas switches could result in a temporary increase in gas tension as the nitrogen input exceeds the removal of helium via perfusion in the vascular compartment and diffusion in the peri- and endolymph causing bubble formation and growth (Doolette, 2003). 

Photo courtesy of the GUE archives.

There are several variables to consider with this model, but the data appears sound and the mechanism provides a likely explanation for the well-documented cases of IEDCS related to gas switching in technical diving. Other models have been proposed to explain these incidents, and these vary by physiological models and diffusion constants used, but most focus on tissue supersaturation as a result of varying gas tension following a gas switch (Burton, 2004).

Academic Versus Application

The challenge with the varied research into the mechanisms of ICD is that it can be difficult to determine what’s prudent to include in your dive planning and what data might not reflect reality. The good news is that the general aspects of ICD are fairly well understood, even if the specific mechanisms are theoretical. Reducing variances in gas diffusivity and transient tissue tension via conservative dive planning is relatively easy to do and poses no significant additional risk. Decompression obligations may be increased in some instances, but some mixed-gas courses are already including some ICD considerations, primarily related to IEDCS. 

Extending this to minimize the risks associated with ICD is not complicated, but specific recommendations are unfortunately not readily apparent. Lambertson proposed that switching from a helium mixture to a nitrogen mixture would be acceptable but the reverse should include recompression — something unlikely to be an option during a dive charter. Doolette and Mitchell propose a more practical approach: minimizing the switch from trimix to nitrox on ascent or planning to perform these switches at depth or in shallow water to minimize supersaturation. 

Doolette and Mitchell propose a more practical approach: minimizing the switch from trimix to nitrox on ascent or planning to perform these switches at depth or in shallow water to minimize supersaturation. 

There are some specific recommendations for preventing ICD (using the rule of fifths, calculating theoretical helium and nitrogen compartments, etc.), but these lack evidence and may or may not prevent incidents. What we can say is that planning your gas switching to minimize supersaturation due to transient tissue tensions, minimizing your switches from high-helium-content gases to low (as appropriate for your acceptable risk levels), and increasing conservatism as depth and dive time increase (due to increased tissue saturation levels) are good ways to keep yourself safe. 

The mechanisms may not yet be definite, but the data can back up these recommendations. And when there is no increase in risk with the conservative approach, it makes sense to go that route. Keep an eye on upcoming research in this area; while ICD can cause problems, some researchers are proposing that isobaric underdiffusion could decrease risk on technical dives, so it’s possible that your gas planning might be in for a shakeup in the near future. 

References

  1. Oswaldo, C. Gas diffusion among bubbles and the DCS risk. (November 24, 2017) 
  2. Lambertson, Christian J (1989). Relations of isobaric gas counterdiffusion and decompression gas lesion diseases. In Vann, RD. “The Physiological Basis of Decompression”. 38th Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop UHMS Publication Number 75(Phys)6-1-89. http://archive.rubicon-foundation.org/6853. 
  3. D’Aoust, B. G., Smith, K. H., Swanson, H. T., White, R., Harvey, C. A., Hunter, W. L., … Goad, R. F. (1977, August 26). Venous gas bubbles: production by transient, deep isobaric counterdiffusion of helium against nitrogen
  4. Rostain, JC; Lemaire, C; Gardette-Chauffour, MC; Naquet, R (1987). Bove; Bachrach; Greenbaum (eds.). “Effect of the shift from hydrogen-helium-oxygen mixture to helium oxygen mixture during a 450 msw dive”. Underwater and Hyperbaric Physiology IX. Bethesda, MD, USA: Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society.
  5. Doolette, David J; Mitchell, Simon J (June 2003). “Biophysical basis for inner ear decompression sickness”. Journal of Applied Physiology. 94 (6): 2145–50. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01090.2002. PMID 12562679.
  6. Burton, Steve (December 2004). “Isobaric Counter Diffusion”. ScubaEngineer. 

Additional Resources:

Tale of Two Agencies: How two tech agencies address isobaric counterdiffusion

Note: The British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) recommends that divers allow for a maximum of 0.5 bar difference in PN2 at the point of the gas switch. According to former BSAC Tech lead Mike Rowley, “The recommendation isn’t an absolute but a flexible advisory value so a 0.7 bar differential isn’t going to bring the Sword of Damocles down on you.” 


When he’s not working with DAN on safety programs, Reilly Fogarty can be found running technical charters and teaching rebreather diving in Gloucester, Mass. 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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