Oceanography is a bunch of tired people filtering the ocean.
It reminds me of a Norse story I read a long time ago:
Thor was mad at someone so he went to their place to confront them. They were scared of him and his advanced musculature, so they decided to belittle him targeting his lack of smarts. They challenged him to a drinking competition. He drank and drank and drank, but could not even finish his first cup. He got sad and, humiliated, went home. It turns out that they had hooked up the Ocean to his glass. Tricky. Unknown to him, Thor had drunk several feet of ocean. Nowadays, Thor is diminished, but every day there are tired people huddled on ships around the world making small homages to this godly act.
I wonder how many inches of seawater Oceanographers have drawn off and filtered over the century-long history of the field. I wonder how much coffee was drunk to sustain the action.
Anyways. For the past couple of weeks, we woke up to quiet alarms in dark cabins. Some of us woke up at midnight, some at 5pm. The time of day became a relative thing. Sometimes you’d share dinner with someone having breakfast. So we dressed quietly to avoid waking cabin mates on other schedules. We’d walk into the brightness of fluorescent bulb-lit halls, weaving down the narrow passageways to the movement of the ocean. We’d organize our bottles in the wintery lab air, set cold to mimic sea surface temperatures. We’d milk niskins – the bottles that collect water from set depths for us to analyse – that had been thousands of vertical metres down to the depths of the ocean, a truly mind blowing thing. I often wonder what tales the niskins could tell of life and events in the deep. Chatter at the niskins changed with the mood of the cruise: mostly lively and light hearted, sometimes grumpy and tired, sometimes entirely absent as people focused on sampling and the day ahead, silent while the wind and salty air blew by.
CTD going down to collect water for filtration. Photo credit: Gayantonia Franze
Then into the lab and the loud music and the vacuum pumps and the coffee and pounding of Oreos. And the filtering. Always the filtering. You get to know a lot about a person while they are filtering for hours a day. You get to see them at their best and worst. You get to see how they solve problems while alert or groggy. You find out about their passions and drives. You find out that they like Miley Cyrus. A lot. Nothing makes a group come together like filtering.
But now the last vacuum pump has fallen silent. The last desperate nap has been had. No more sleeping in chairs next to the filtrationrig. No more fevered conversation about whether muffins will be put out in time to keep us going: the ritual of Muffin O’clock. We made it through a whirlwind two weeks of 16 hour days, sampling like people possessed, when all you had to do was keep going.
Your world shrinks when you are at sea. You make friends quickly. You acclimate quickly. Muffin O’clock becomes one of the major events of the day. But there is no place for Muffin O’clock on land. Muffins are just food there, devoid of their symbolism, their ritualized anticipation. Simple things get lost in the transition back to the richness of our lives. Now we are coming back to reality. We are remembering loved ones, as if for the first time. We are organizing events once the ship docks. We are filling hours we had forgotten we even had. We are eating Oreos for pleasure, not survival.
It doesn’t take a lot of technology to see that the ocean is blue. And when it comes to the blueness of the ocean, it doesn’t get much more blue than where I am. I’m sitting on the research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer—the largest icebreaker that supports the United States Antarctic Program—on an oceanographic expedition across the South Pacific Ocean, my current home, office, and laboratory. On this voyage, however, the Palmer has broken no ice.
Our Global Ocean Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program (GO-SHIP) P06 campaign departed Sydney, Australia, on July 3, successfully ending the first leg of this journey on August 16 in Papeete, French Polynesia (Tahiti). This is where our team from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Scott Freeman, Michael Novak, and I) joined dozens of other scientists, graduate students, marine technicians, officers and crew members, for the second and final leg that will end in the port of Valparaiso, Chile, on September 30. The GO-SHIP program is part of the long history of international programs that have criss-crossed the major ocean basins, gathering fundamental hydrographic data that support our ever-growing understanding of the global ocean and its role in regulating the Earth’s climate, and of the physical and chemical processes that determine the distribution and abundance of marine life. This latter topic regarding the ecology of the ocean is what brings our Goddard team along for the ride.
The P06 ship track, for the most part, follows along 32.5° of latitude south. That route places our course just south of the center of the South Pacific Gyre—the largest of the five major oceanic gyres, which form part the global system of ocean circulation. The Gyre—on average—holds the clearest, bluest ocean waters of any other ocean basin. This blueness is the macroscopic expression of its dearth of ocean life. We have seen nary a fish nor other ships since we departed Tahiti—this is not a major shipping route. Oceanic gyres are often called the deserts of the sea. On land, desert landscapes are limited in their capacity to support life by the availability of water. Here, lack of water is not the issue. Water, however, is at least the co-conspirator in keeping life from flourishing. Physics, as it turns out, is what holds the key to this barren waterscape.
This map (above) shows the MODIS chlorophyll climatology with the ship track superimposed.
Due to the physics of fluids on a rotating sphere, such as our planet, the upper ocean currents slowly rotate counterclockwise around the edges of the center of the Gyre–as a proper Southern Hemisphere gyre should—and a fraction of that flow is deflected inward, towards its center. With water flowing towards the center from all directions, literally piling up and bulging the surface of the ocean–albeit, by just a few centimeters across thousands of miles–gravity pushes down on this pile of water. This relentless downward push puts a lock on life. The pioneers of life in the ocean, the tiny microscopic plants, known as phytoplankton, which drift in the currents, and grow on a steady mineral diet of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and phosphorus, and a dash of iron—and expel oxygen gas as a by-product, to the great benefit of life on Earth—must obtain most of their material sustenance from the ocean below. Layers of denser water trap the nitrogen and phosphorus-rich water at depth, keeping it too far down, where not enough light can reach it to spark the engine of photosynthesis that allows plants to grow.
Why are we here and where does NASA come into this story? Since the late 1970s, NASA has pursued—experimentally at first, and now as a sustained program—measuring the color of the oceans from Earth-orbiting satellites as a means to quantify the abundance of microscopic plant life. Microbiology from space, in a way. Formally, though, we call it “ocean color remote sensing.” Whizzing by at altitudes of several hundred miles, atop of the atmosphere, bound to polar orbits that allow satellites to scan the entire surface of the globe every couple of days, carrying instrument payloads of meticulously engineered spectro-radiometers—cameras capable of measuring the quantity and quality, or color, of the light that reaches its sensors. This is where our work aboard the R/V Palmer comes into the story. The data the satellites beam down from orbit do not directly measure how much plant life there is in the ocean. Satellite instruments give us digital signals that relate to the amount of light that reached their sensors. It is up to us to translate—to calibrate—those signals into meaningful, and accurate, measurements of plant life—or temperature, salinity, sediment load, sea level height, wind and sea surface roughness, or any other of the many environmental or geophysical variables satellite sensors can help us detect at the surface of the ocean. To properly calibrate a satellite sensor and validate its data products, we must obtain field measurements of the highest possible quality. That is what our team from NASA Goddard is here to do.
Around midday, typically the time of the ocean color satellite flying over our location, we perform our measurements and collect samples. We measure the optical properties of the water with our instruments to compare what we see from the R/V Palmer to what the satellites measure from their orbit above Earth’s atmosphere. At the same time that we perform our battery of optical measurements, we also collect phytoplankton samples to estimate their abundance, species composition as well as the concentration of chlorophyll-a, the green pigment common to most photosynthesizing organisms like plants, including phytoplankton. By collecting these two types of measurements at once, light and microscopic plant abundance, we are able to build the mathematical relationships that make the validation of the satellite data products possible.
The optical instrument being lowered into the South Pacific Ocean. Credit: Lena Schulze/FSU
Scott Freeman of NASA works with a R/V Nathaniel Palmer crew member to prepare an instrument for deployment over the side of the ship to collect opHcal measurements. Credit: Lena Schulze/FSU
Mike Novack of NASA studies the optical and biological characteristics of seawater samples in the ship’s laboratory. Credit: Joaquin Chavez/NASA
The waters of the South Pacific Gyre are an ideal location for gathering validation quality data, perhaps one the most desirable to do so, because there are few complicating factors and sources of uncertainty that blur the connection we want to establish between the color of the water and phytoplankton life abundance. Our measurements will extend NASA’s ocean chlorophyll-a dataset to some of the lowest values on Earth. The water here is blue; in fact, it’s the bluest ocean water on Earth.
This false-color image is a composite, assembled from data acquired by the the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite between September 10-17, 2017. Yellow represents areas with the highest chlorophyll concentrations and purples are the lowest. Credit: Norman Kuring/NASA
Sleep. I don’t mean to say it is taken for granted, but it is dependable. Dependable in the sense that after the day’s activities, we go to sleep. Each and every night. That’s how it works at home at least. Here on the ship, work is being conducted 24 hours per day to get the most out of our short 26 day cruise. The detailed happenings of each day are different and a “full” night’s sleep generally comes in two or three (or more!) segments and is not necessarily during the nighttime hours. The daily challenge becomes fitting these sleep segments around the required work. And regardless of the sum total hours slept, two 3-hour segments is never equivalent to one 6-hour stretch.
The scientists and crew onboard R/V Atlantis have all manner of daily schedules. For many, including me, the day begins by waking around midnight in order to be ready for the first water sampling by 1am. Work begins in earnest and continues throughout the day until later in the afternoon. Thankfully, some days are a little lighter than others, but there is always more work to do. If not collecting or processing samples, then recording and transcribing sample logs, analyzing data where possible, helping others, troubleshooting problems, and preparing for whatever comes next. The Plan of the Day (POD) is posted each day and provides the necessary structure for the day. When things are going well, the POD is predictable, thus sleep is predictable as well. However, any changes to the POD often require changes to sleep schedules. Imagine not knowing when your sleep will come in the ensuing 24 hours!
The infamous Plan of the Day (POD).
We force ourselves to take a nap when it fits. This is not always successful because of a racing mind, daylight hours, interruptions, or the constant bump and buzz of the ship. Of course, sleeping becomes even more difficult during rough weather. Luckily, we have had great weather on this particular cruise, excepting our entry into the North Atlantic in the wake of Tropical Depression Ten (it didn’t develop into a named storm, but still provided some exciting weather right out of the gates).
Blog author Toby Westberry trying to catch some sleep in between tasks.
One critical decision that those who share my schedule are faced with toward the end of each day is whether or not to stay up for dinner! Going without allows a bit of extra sleep, but also means no real food until the following breakfast. Yet, while it can be satisfying eating a big meal moments before lying down to sleep is the greatest idea either. Well, you can see how even simple decisions like this are more difficult than they should be after long, oddly placed work hours.
Of course, there are some benefits to being awake more and during the wee hours. A sense of comradery exists amongst those who work the “night shift”. We see each other in all states of being: bleary eyed, unshowered, bed-headed, half awake, etc. Sunrise viewings are a daily affair (when not cloudy) and always provide new energy. Early morning baked goods taste better than ever after working up an appetite all night.
Sigh …….Despite all that, you’ll have to excuse me because I’m going to try and get some sleep now …
A variety of things during a day at sea
The motion woke me up this morning around 10 am. We finally have some weather after days of calm seas. First things first, I made a B-line for the coffee machine in the galley. If you’ve never had a cup of coffee on the deck of a ship during a weather system I don’t know what you’re doing with your life. A group of five of us shot the breeze for a while on the fan-tail, discussing the weather, the plan of the day etc… Someone mentioned that hurricane Jose may spin up the coast and meet us on our way back to port.
After coffee, I made my way up to the trailer park on the 02-deck. This is where we measure atmospheric trace gases, complain about poor instrument sensitivity and plot world domination of course. Tom Bell and Mike Lawler are trying to measure amines in our instrument, an exploratory venture on this cruise. Tom and I discuss some recent trends in our data and sends me off to do some processing. This I accomplish with a heavy dose of coffee and Grateful Dead (Europe 72’). Pete Gaube stopped by and mentioned he needed some help deploying his fishing nets (you thought this was a science cruise?). He drops this long skinny net down to some 1000’s of meters and brings up the most ridiculous looking creatures. It’s pretty dam entertaining. On my way to crush some left-over pizza from lunch I ran into Jim who’s an AB on board the Atlantis. Over a game of cribbage, he tells me he’s been sailing for 37 years. Jim’s a cool dude.
Back in the main lab Cyril was staring intently at a circuit board as a variety of bolts rolled around his desk in response to the ship heave. The carcass of what used to be mass flow controller box was on the floor. I remember yesterday I mentioned I wanted to switch a valve remotely using the software on the instrument computer. This was the result of that request. In my mind, it was simple; grab a valve from the spares box and plug that bad boy in…not the case.
Later in the evening some of the grad students broke out guitars, our debut album hits the shelves this November. That’s all for now, I need to work on my dissertation.
Written by Jack Porter
Here we are again, sailing, sampling, studying the ocean, and overall enjoying the adventure of living on a floating island with a diverse group of people and learning from them. Today we are working on the most northern station and ready to bring back home samples and measurements. During my second cruise and third in the NAAMES project saga, I have developed this feeling of getting familiarized to our long transect through the North Atlantic. I will expand this, last year was like driving for the first time on a new highway or being in a different country, at the beginning it’s uncertain but at the same time exciting to be in a new place. That first time I tried to be aware of different references during the trip. Different to a new highway or city, our references are not transit signs, gas stations or a grocery store; ocean scale is just a little bit bigger. Ocean references can be as big as the Gulf Stream, eddies, or even the different population of organisms living in different regions. Paradoxically, because of the ocean’s big scale, it is hard to see them. Standing outside on the ship’s deck while sailing through our transect without any information, you will see the magnificent blue ocean four weeks straight with some subtle temperature, wind and motion changes, but without noticing the whole different ocean ”worlds” we are passing by. Reading ocean characteristics is a huge task that needs a wide collection of tools from thermometers to satellites. With the collected information my colleagues on board can accurate map and unravel ocean complexity.
From a microbiologist perspective, the ocean can be an intricate universe. Microbial diversity and their interactions in the different ocean “worlds” is the main focus of my research. Analysing the correlations and links between the micro and macro scale dynamics is a challenging feature of our work, but also the most fascinating. How can these tiny but numerous creatures influence earth and its geochemical cycles? Well, for example, some ocean microbes can harvest sun light as energy source and create their own “food”, we called them photosynthetic organisms (yes, just like the plants) and most of the ocean life and the food chain rely on these hard-working organisms. As you can imagine, this crucial first step in the micro scale universe affects the organisms that graze them and also the organisms that eat these grazers and so on. We can trace this chain up to macro populations of organisms as fish or whales and analyse how the amplified disturbances of the microbial scale are affecting them. As this example of micro – macro interactions, we can find many more that seem to be science fiction, but they aren’t. For example, ocean microbes can affect cloud formation and also the transformation and sinking of atmospheric carbon into the bottom of the ocean in a global scale. In a changing planet, how microbes behave under global disturbances will dictate in great proportion the future of earth, just as they did creating an oxygen atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago.
Meanwhile, we will keep an eye close to these organisms and looking forward for our next cruise in March 2018.