As the Seasons Change, Will the Plankton?

By Michael Carlowicz Design by Robert Simmon February 17, 2011

Antonio Mannino had been at sea for more than a week, collecting samples of seawater and plankton and measuring the conditions in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was not exactly a luxury cruise, but to understand the planet’s biggest food source—phytoplankton—and perhaps its most important sink for carbon dioxide, you’ve got to get out on the water.

Scientists and crew sampling phytoplankton from the deck of the Delaware II in poor weather.

Crew members on the Climate Variability on the East Coast (CliVEC) research cruise examine the haul of plankton collected from the North Atlantic in a bongo net. (NASA photograph courtesy Michael Novak.)

As is common in late autumn—when cold north winds of winter battle for supremacy of the North Atlantic against the lingering warm fronts of summer—the weather grew messy. Seas churned with waves rising seven to fourteen feet, and Mannino and colleagues struggled to cast water samplers and nets over the sides of the Delaware II research vessel. After several days, the foul weather made it impossible to work, and the captain began steaming back from Georges Bank toward Provincetown, Massachusetts. He planned to lay anchor in the (hopefully) calmer waters of Cape Cod Bay and ride out the storm.

Large waves off the stern of the Delaware II.

Working in the North Atlantic in autumn requires a good sense of balance and a sturdy stomach, as changeable weather churns up strong winds and waves. (Photograph courtesy NOAA photo library.)

Mannino, an oceanographer from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was sitting in the ship’s galley, while graduate student Dave Munro dozed on a nearby couch. It was Friday the 13th.

Thud. Splash. Slosh.

A wave crashed through the porthole window, knocking out the glass and dousing Munro in a bath of seawater. A few tens of gallons sloshed around on the galley floor as the crew sealed the porthole hatch. No one was injured, and the ship was never in serious danger, but it was enough to send them back to port in Woods Hole.

The 155-foot Fisheries Survey Vessel Delaware II, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a 40-year-old workhorse. Spare parts are not exactly lying around on a shelf. So the crew did what seamen do: they bolted steel plates over the porthole, soldered things shut, and got back out to sea. There was research to be done, and time spent in port is time and money lost.

Photograph of the Fisheries Survey Vessel Delaware II.

The 155-foot survey vessel Delaware II is operated by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service for studies of fish stocks and for support of basic research like CliVEC. (Photo courtesy Charles Byrne, NOAA.)

Mannino and colleagues from NASA, NOAA, and Old Dominion University headed back out into the North Atlantic for another week, sharing cramped quarters, cozy labs, and choppy autumn seas to see how those turbulent waters influence the tiniest and most important ocean life forms.

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