Sometimes, science can be amazing. Sometimes, scientists can be amazing. When these two elements come together, anticipate great things.
The North Atlantic Aerosol and Marine Ecosystems (NAAMES) study is an interdisciplinary investigation of planktonic ecosystems, the processes that over the course of each year recreate the largest phytoplankton bloom on Earth, and the link between these biological processes and atmospheric aerosols and clouds. NAAMES is one of five NASA Earth Venture Suborbital-2 (EVS-2) missions. But in my mind, it is the NAMES of NAAMES that set this mission apart from all others.
Friday afternoon, the aircraft team and the NASA C-130 returned home from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Sunday around noon, the research vessel Atlantis was tethered once more to a dock in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The second campaign of the NAAMES mission has come to a close. We are all tired. We are all victorious. From rough seas to irreparable airplane engines, this campaign has seen its challenges. As Principal Investigator of the mission, I continue to be amazed by and grateful for the team’s ability to overcome such obstacles and deliver on our objectives. Everyone involved is dedicated to this work and the knowledge it seeks to gain regarding the functioning of our home planet.
My own official role in the NAAMES field campaigns is to orchestrate the science activities on the Atlantis and coordinate the ship’s work with the aircraft team. In other words, I do my best to help and, most importantly, stay out of the way of the other scientists doing their wondrous work.
I have spent well over two years of my life on research vessels. Yet, I still find it is hard to fully explain what the experience is like. I think my most significant step to this end was during the first NAAMES campaign, where I decided to “leave it to a professional” and invited Nichole Estaphan to join the cruise and “tell our story”. Thank god she accepted the invitation! If you haven’t read her blog from that trip, you really should check it out! It’s posted on the NAAMES website.
Now, while I’m not a communications professional, let me give this a go just for fun. As a start, try to image being placed in a group of 50 people you don’t know, being locked in a building that is only about 300 feet long and a few stories high, working all hours of the day every day of the week for a month on end, and then having the building placed on a random rocking table that is constantly trying to knock you off your feet. Yes, that might be a good visual to start with…. Now image all of those 50 people and under those conditions continuously getting along, helping each other out, and staying positive and engaged in the work from the day you enter the building to the day you leave. Yeah, that’s about it. That is the NAAMES team. The ocean-going and airborne scientists, the ship’s captain and crew, and the aircraft support team in Saint John’s and at home. These are the NAMES of NAAMES. Simply amazing!
Beyond the scope of the NAAMES mission, this campaign has also had a personal side to it for me. I’ve always wanted to go to the North Atlantic and experience the bloom first hand. Yeah I know, clearly something from the ‘bucket list’ of a total nerd, but what can I say. I guess one thing I can say is that it was really, really cool! As a biological oceanographer, you simply cannot finish graduate school without hearing (and reading) loads and loads about the North Atlantic bloom. Consequently, I went to the field this May with some ‘expectations’ of what we would see and find. And the best part about it was that I was repeatedly surprised at how wrong my expectations often were. I was surprised that, despite being in the thick of the bloom from the tip of Greenland to the northern edge of the Atlantic gyre, we almost never saw phytoplankton populations dominated by diatoms (the text books will tell you that diatoms dominate the bloom). I was surprised by the diversity and dynamics of the plankton. I was surprised by relationships we measured between the growth of phytoplankton and the predators (including virus) that consume them. I was surprised by the signals we saw in the aerosols above the ocean. Alright, let me just summarize it all up in three words, “I was surprised”. And, can there be anything more exciting or satisfying for a scientist than finding that your expectations are incorrect and that you still have an awful lot to learn about how natural ecosystems, and the Earth System in general, operates? At least for me, it is the best i can hope for! I’m looking forward the next two NAAMES campaigns….
As a final note to all of you who have followed our blog over the past month, thank you so much! We love what we’re doing out here and the work is interesting and important, but the experience is made so much richer for us by knowing that others are interested too and following our adventures and discoveries.
There are many who wish
to swim with dolphins,
and perhaps it is transformative.
But as for me,
I prefer to drift among the plankton,
to dream of their world
and its intricate web
the strands of which
I have yet to fathom.
written by Michael Behrenfeld