Particles, Holograms, and the iPhone 5: My Top Three Activities During the Sea to Space Particle Investigation

January 11th, 2017 by Noah Walcutt, University of Rhode Island

Research Vessel Falkor. Credit: Schmidt Ocean Institute

In just two short weeks I’ll be trading the cold, snowy beaches of Rhode Island for the warm, tropical beaches of Hawaii. Such is the life of an oceanography graduate student!

Although I do enjoy traveling and discovering new places, what’s most exciting is that I’ll have an entire month to conduct my research in the Pacific Ocean alongside some of the top scientists in optical oceanography. Together we’ll be looking at particles in the upper layers of the ocean during the Schmidt Ocean Initiative’s Sea to Space Particle Investigation aboard the R/V Falkor.

So what exactly will I be doing while I’m in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? Here are my top three activities at sea:

  1. Assist in the completion of the primary science mission: ground truth satellite estimates of particle size distribution. Although this is highly dependent on the needs of the chief scientist, on previous research cruises this has involved standing watch on instrument readouts to make sure everything’s running smoothly, deploying a water column sampling device called a “CTD”, or simply lending a hand to move equipment around while we’re underway. Science operations run 24 hours a day so it’s important to be a good team player and distribute the continuous workload.

  2. Gather measurements of the carbon cycle that will be used in my graduate work at the University of Rhode Island. Carbon in the atmosphere has historically been a good thing for the habitability of our planet (it makes it warm!), but too much carbon has led to global warming (a bad thing for the habitability of our planet). It’s estimated that one quarter of the carbon emitted from human activities is absorbed by the ocean via microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton. Although many of these plants are eaten by larger organisms, a small fraction gets down deep where its carbon is out of contact with the atmosphere.The sinking (or export) of these carbon particles to the deep ocean is what I study. In our lab, we use an underwater holographic microscope to take 3-D pictures (the size of the tip of a needle) from the surface ocean all the way down to around 600 feet deep. Using these pictures we try to estimate how much carbon is being exported. It’s super fun! I’ll also be working with a computer scientist to analyze these images after we collect them on the ship’s high performance computing cluster.

  3. Deploy homemade underwater time-lapse cameras. In addition to the holographic microscope, we also measure carbon export directly by catching and then counting these sinking carbon particles in gel-filled cups. Beneath each of these cups (called sediment traps) we plan to enlist the high-caliber photographic abilities of a discarded smart phone to record these particles as they collect. We’ve designed and developed a special pressure housing and lighting system to keep the camera working and well lit under all that pressure and darkness. Who knew the iPhone 5 could be used for science 400 feet below the ocean’s surface?

Going to sea is a lot like being at a high-end summer camp—someone cooks your meals and does your laundry while you spend almost all day engaging in an exciting stream of team activities. It’s a very social experience with many late night hours talking science and scheming the next experiment all while working on the most urgent area of science: climate change.  I couldn’t be more excited.





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One Response to “Particles, Holograms, and the iPhone 5: My Top Three Activities During the Sea to Space Particle Investigation”

  1. Neil v. winters says:

    Good too read about people doing wonderful research about this amazeing planet. Keep up the hard work this may end up saveing us all from a hell like climate in the future.Thanks everyone

Notes from the Field