Notes from the Field

Life in the Sargasso Sea

September 24th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

John snags a flying fish in mid flight.

There are not many places in the open ocean that get their own special name as a “sea.” Most seas are what we call marginal seas – offshoots of the major ocean basins.

The Sargasso Sea, as a vast track of the western subtropical North Atlantic Ocean is known, has a special characteristic – something noted by Portuguese sailors for centuries and even visible from space. It is the home waters of Sargassum, a genus of brown macroalgae (seaweed) that inhabit the open ocean. The sea is named after the seaweed and it seems that small clumps are nearly always within sight of the ship (we have yet to see giant mats of the stuff in the SPURS region). Anyway, the Sargasso Sea is special because of a plant. Well, it is more complicated than that!

A patch of Sargassum at the surface (Photo: Julian Shanze.)

Sargassum, up close.

Closeup of Sargassum.

In my opinion, the really cool thing about Sargassum is that each clump can be a teeming ecosystem by itself. Several varieties of fish (e.g. Sargassum fish and flying fish), crabs , and nudibranchs live in close association with the weed. Each clump is a complex island of life floating free at the surface of the deep ocean. When you are out here in the vast emptiness of the open ocean, it is just hard to imagine how this intricate web of life came to be, survived, and actually thrives. Every time I am in the Sargasso Sea, it seems such a wonder.

A flying fish.

Barnacles on French glider recovered by Knorr.

We had spectacular sunset last night and I was reminded of the old adage: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning.” Here we are still in proximity to Hurricane Nadine and is this saying true, or is it just an old wives’ tale? Like the answer to most questions, there is a web site for that. In fact I think it may be true for us; we are well south of the hurricane weather and forecasts have good weather for in days ahead.

Sunset sen from the Knorr.

An interesting sidebar to today’s blog topic is another kind of life we have found in great abundance at our SPUR study location. It was a mystery for a few days – we were seeing lots of floating microscopic reddish dusty particles. Some said it looked a little like sawdust (but where are the trees?), and some wondered whether it was floating dust from the Sahara. Well, thank goodness for the Web again. I discovered that it’s a bloom of an important nitrogen-fixing bacterium (Trichodesmium) also known as “sea sawdust.” It certainly reinforces the idea that a key to identification is a good description!

Trichodesmium in a bucket of sea water.

A Trichodesmium bloom in the Pacific Ocean seen from space.

Trichodesmium, it turns out, just loves these sea conditions – just as much as SPURS oceanographers love the North Atlantic salinity maximum!

All About Your Blogger

September 24th, 2012 by Maria-Jose Viñas

By Eric Lindstrom

Your SPURS blogger, Eric Lindstrom, discussing the Aquarius mission.

After several weeks of your following my postings from the field, I thought it would be good to tell you a little about myself. Maybe that will help explain the weird wanderings of the blog or the subject matters I choose to write about.

Let’s start at the beginning: I grew up in Seal Beach, California, very near the ocean. It seems to me like I actually grew up on the sand and in the water. So, I am pretty well infused and enthused by the seas. This has driven me toward a broad knowledge of ocean subjects. I felt that drive vindicated when National Geographic Society tapped me as senior scientific consultant (pro bono) on their first ocean atlas project.

When did I decide to become an oceanographer? I was pretty interested in the field in middle and high school. Science seemed like where I was headed. Being a good student, I was able to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, before I finished my freshman year, I fell in love with the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. It was a short course in astronomy that got me hooked. They really reeled me in when I realized that Earth science was just then being revolutionized by the ideas of plate tectonics and that oceanographers at MIT were bringing back the first pictures of hydrothermal vents on the mid-ocean ridges. There was not much in the way of undergraduate education in oceanography at MIT, but lots of good basic math, physics, geology, geophysics, and research opportunities. I can date myself by recalling the glorious summer of 1976, when I stayed in Boston for the bicentennial and to do my undergraduate research project on data from Lake Ontario. The lake wasn’t salty, but it was a great little laboratory for oceanography ideas! That summer truly set me on course to pursue physical oceanography as a career (and provided my first publication with Prof. John Bennett: “A simple model of Lake Ontario’s coastal boundary layer,” in Journal of Physical Oceanography, July 1977).  Most scientists remember their first publication quite fondly and I am no exception!

Graduate school at University of Washington was filled with studies and expeditions. It took me six years to get my Masters and a Doctor of Philosophy in Physical Oceanography degrees. My dissertation was on eddies in the North Atlantic Ocean. It turned out that eddies deep below the surface of the ocean can carry water across the ocean from quite distant places and arrive in the Sargasso Sea with evidence of their origins from as far afield as the Labrador Sea, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, or the Mediterranean Sea. The idea that these origins and travels could be traced using salinity measurements was intoxicating (in a nerdy sort of a way) for a young oceanographer. I loved the data collection part of the project; being part of the right team with the right equipment in the right place at the right time to make some discovery that would move science forward. The ocean is still virtually unexplored, so every well-planned expedition has potential for great discovery. Once oceanographic expedition science is in your blood, it’s hard to give it up! I found a great opportunity for doing more expedition research by moving to Australia in 1983. The country had expanded ocean research greatly at that time due to advent of the Law of the Sea and extended Exclusive Economic Zones. Sometimes, timing is everything!

In Australia, I became engrossed in studies of the western tropical Pacific Ocean circulation and in the planning for the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE). By the end of the 1980s, the former had seen me on many expeditions near exotic tropical islands and the latter looked to be the oceanography opportunity of the 1990s. I moved back to the U.S., still working on the same projects, but with a new home base. By the mid-1990s I was the US WOCE Program Scientist in Washington, D.C. That involved organizing scientific plans, budgets, and logistics for the largest mapping of ocean waters ever undertaken, involving voyages across the globe for nearly a decade. I was bitten by the vision of global ocean observing provided by WOCE and still suffer from that fever.

Eric, giving a talk at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

When the opportunity arose in 1997 to lead NASA’s Physical Oceanography Program, I had the right stuff: solid experience with the ocean, ocean programs in DC, ocean researchers in general, and virtually no heritage at all with satellite oceanography (but NASA said I could learn that on the job!)

It was in my first days at NASA HQ that I began energizing NASA’s drive toward measuring ocean salinity from space. All I had to do was enable those with the knowledge and skill to realize the dream (it certainly was not a new idea) – and prove to NASA that it was both possible and useful. And here we are today. I am back out on a research vessel, doing what I love, with Aquarius, our ocean surface salinity instrument, on orbit overhead and a whole community of scientists curious about ocean salinity and the global water cycle. It’s one small victory for this man, and one giant leap for physical oceanography.

Eric, taking a break on an Argo float box after a long day of blogging at sea.